Editor's Note: Kate DiCamillo is a children's book author who just won the 2014 Newbery Medal for Flora and Ulysses. She also won the 2004 Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereux, which was made into an animated film in 2008. Other books include Because of Winn-Dixie (a 2000 Newbery runner-up that was made into a live-action film in 2005) and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.
In early January, DiCamillo was named by the Library of Congress as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, an honor awarded to a new children's book author every two years. Parents.com reached out to DiCamillo, who wrote the exclusive essay below about her earliest memories on books and reading.
When I was 8 years old, I fell in love with Abraham Lincoln.
What happened was this: I checked out a short biography of Lincoln at the Clermont Elementary School library in Clermont, Florida. The book was one in a Notable Americans series. All the books had red covers, with the name of the notable American in black letters on the spine.
I read the biography of Lincoln once. I read it again, and then I spent several days following my mother around the house telling her about Abraham Lincoln: how he read by firelight, how he was so poor that he actually had fleas, how he would walk miles and miles just to borrow a book or to return one.
I wanted to know more about Lincoln. I wanted to spend more time in his company.
And so my mother took me to the Cooper Memorial Public Library in downtown Clermont. There were biographies of Lincoln there, but they were all too dense and complicated for my second-grade self. The books had photographs, however, so I contented myself with looking at the pictures of the man. I loved his sad and hopeful face.
Then, miracle of miracles, my mother managed to find a book titled Meet Abraham Lincoln. She gave it to me for my ninth birthday. The book was at my reading level, and it had wonderful illustrations. For a long time, I carried Lincoln with me everywhere I went.
The book was a talisman, a promise.
Lincoln's life spoke to me about the power of books, and the power of kindness and persistence. In an interview recently, someone asked me: Who has influenced you most as a reader? People ask me all the time about who has influenced me as a writer. But I don't think that anybody has ever asked who has influenced me as a reader.
The question surprised me. It moved me.
"My mother," I said.
And then I remembered the Lincoln book and started to cry.
My mother passed away in January 2009. She was a single parent and a full-time teacher. I look back now and think: She must have been overwhelmed with all she had to do. She must have been afraid. She must have been worried. But still she listened to me when I talked about Abraham Lincoln. She heard me when I told her I wanted to know more. She found the book I needed to read. And she got it for me.
The right book reminds of us of who we are. It also tells us who we can become. And that is what my mother gave to me.
The Lasting Impact of the Early Childhood Years
More Features on Books and Reading