A Letter of Gratitude to Kate DiCamillo

Apr 17, 2014 by

Dear Kate DiCamillo,

The week before last, I was home sick for three days. Most of it was spent in a haze of fever-induced sleep, interspersed with bowls of my husband’s homemade chicken soup. While painfully swallowing soup past my swollen throat, I thought about my students and felt sad that I was missing so much time with them. But our read aloud time was what I was missing most. I lamented that another day would pass without us delving deeper into the world of Flora & Ulysses. In my head, I scrolled through some of the wonderful moments we’d already shared together, and I chuckled to think of them repeating me when I’d say the now familiar, “Holy Bagumba!” Even funnier was to recall the children repeating, the words of Flora’s father, “George Buckman. How do you do?” First a giggle after I read it, and then their “serious” voices mimicking what I’d just read. I pictured the delighted faces of my third graders when Ulysses lovingly described Flora’s round head, or his desire to write poetry, or his state of hunger- constant! Rita’s distress when Ulysses landed in her hair left my class in stitches. I replayed these scenes in my head and my heart began to ache, longing for our end-of-day routine: a delicious book, an enthralled audience, and our shared love of a great story.

When I returned to school, what I most looked forward to was reading Flora & Ulysses with my students. I wasn’t able to wait until the end of the day. In the middle of the morning, I invited my class to sit at the rug, and pulled the book from the shelf. The students cheered. They’d missed it, too. Together, we slipped back into the pages, anxious to find out what would happen next. My heart filled with joy. Later in the day, I reflected, and it occurred to me that you, Kate DiCamillo, have been bringing joy to my students and me for as long as I’ve been teaching (ten years now).

This past fall, when Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures came out, I was the first to read our school library’s copy, even before it was processed with its plastic cover and call numbers. As soon as I finished reading it, I asked our librarian to process it so that I could recommend it to a prior student. I sent it to her fifth grade class with a note that said I knew she would adore it (She has a special fondness for squirrels.) and I looked forward to talking about it with her. Several days later, she arrived with the book and a heartfelt thank you. Wasn’t it wonderful? Yes, she nodded vigorously. Next, I delivered it to a fourth grade student, whom I knew would also adore it. She did. Then came the announcement that Flora & Ulysses had won the Newbery Award. I passed both students in the hall that day, and told them the news. Each time, we did a cheer and agreed, it was deserving of the honor.

Your books are an integral part of my book-recommending repertoire. Because of Winn Dixie, sits in a cabinet with the books I use for lessons across the year. It serves a special purpose. It is my own, personal copy, and each year I have occasion to hook a reader (or more) with it. A student asks for help finding a book. I ask what the child has last read and loved. If Winn Dixie looks to be the right match, I pause thoughtfully, and then tell the student I know just the book! I go to the cabinet and retrieve it, handing it off with a promise that this is a great story and that this book is my personal copy. “Please take very good care of it,” I say. And then I hand it over with a caress of the cover and tell the student to enjoy it. “I just loved it,” I add, as the student heads off to read the book. Of course, the book sells itself. It never comes back unread, or unloved. But, that is why it’s the perfect book to keep tucked in the cabinet for just that right moment. It often becomes the catalyst for these young readers to step up their book selections.

Years ago, when The Tale of Despereaux was coming out as a movie, all of the third grade teachers at my school read the book aloud to our classes. We decided it would be a great opportunity to have students compare a book with a movie and capitalize on the excitement of this new release. We were thrilled to get approval and began reading the book to our classes. My students were hanging on every word as the story unfolded, and when we later finished the book and saw the movie, the children decided that the movie good, but nowhere near as good as the book. The richness of every carefully selected word was still circling in our heads, and the movie couldn’t match the visions we’d created for ourselves.

Since then, I have read and loved The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Tiger Rising, and the delightful Mercy Watson series. When I bought the boxed set of the captivating porcine books for my class this year, I was thrilled to see the box empty for weeks, and the books circulating from desk to desk, student to student. In the mornings, as we started our routine of classical music and reading, students could be found on the rug,  two or three heads bent over one of the Mercy Watson books and giggling, as students shared the stories…

As students shared the stories.

That’s what I was missing when I was home sick. I missed sharing the stories with my students. We missed connecting over a great book, and I must tell you, your books have been a gift that has kept on giving. I’ve read them aloud. I’ve read them alone. I’ve put them in the hands of young readers in search of a good story. And I’ve marveled at the adeptness you demonstrate, in book after book, at breathing life into characters that stay with us. My students and I will never forget Flora & Ulysses. Though the story is often fantastical and magical, the characters are always real. We see the truth in each of them, and because of this they touch us.

Sharing stories is one of the great joys of my life. My students know that I will make time to read every day. I do this because it is sound teaching practice. I do this to excite my young readers about books and reading. But mostly, I read to my students because it connects us, and your stories have done this in the most exquisite ways. With tremendous gratitude, I thank you for writing extraordinary stories. Your stories connect me with my students and other readers and that fills my heart with joy and my mind with ideas and great memories. Thank you, Kate DiCamillo!

Sincerely,

A grateful reader and teacher

ADDDENDUM: April 18, 2014 – Flora & Ulysses has won another award. No surprise there! I learned about it from @MrSchuReads. Check out his blog for more details. Congratulations, Kate DiCamillo!

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