On April 5 – 7, The University of Southern Mississippi hosted its 50th annual Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival in the Thad Cochran Center on the Hattiesburg campus.
The Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival drew an attendance of several-hundred participants and included “teachers, librarians and media specialists from the tri-state (MS, LA, AL) area,” according to director Karen Rowell in a recent Southern Miss Now interview.
“The highlight [of the festival] is the presentation of The University of Southern Mississippi Medallion, which is awarded to an author or illustrator for his or her body of work,” said Rowell in the interview. “This year’s Medallion winner is Kate DiCamillo, best known for her award-winning books ‘Because of Winn-Dixie,’ ‘The Tale of Despereaux’ and ‘Flora and Ulysses.’”
Rowell said DiCamillo is “an absolute force of nature.”
“Her works send a message of hope amid impossible circumstances, something I believe has a positive influence on both children and adults,” Rowell said.
USM president Rodney Bennett introduced DiCamillo before her keynote address.
“It is my distinct privilege to present The University of Southern Mississippi Medallion to an author known for her powerful and inspiring literary work,” Bennett said before launching into a listing of DiCamillo’s literary accomplishments, including Newbery Medals, the Newbery Honor, the Boston Globe Horn Book Award and the Theodor Geisel Medal.
“Her books have been called captivating, triumphant, charming, hilarious and moving,” Bennett. “Her characters’ hope-filled journeys have worked their way into the hearts of children and into the hearts of parents and teachers and into the hearts of librarians, earning her critical acclaim for her ability to create universal messages that extend to each of us, no matter our age.”
DiCamillo began her address with personal stories that explained her love for reading and writing.
“I am old enough now that I’m beginning to see the shape of my life, the story of it,” DiCamillo said.
The 53-year-old discussed plagiarizing a story in the third grade and learning, from the resulting praise, a lesson that continued to impact her for the rest of her life.
“I learned that if I told a story, I could become for a short while the center of attention,” DiCamillo said. “Worse, I learned that a story well- told could cast a potent enough spell to make my wildest wishes come true. Telling a story could make an absent, much-missed father suddenly appear. I learned that stories were power, and without even realizing it, I internalized that knowledge.”
After graduating from college, DiCamillo began working at a greenhouse. There, she said learned another important and humbling lesson when she was forced to work with colleagues from much different backgrounds, though she did not realize it until several years later.
“I talked about writing, and dreamed about becoming a writer, and told people I was a writer for almost eight years after that incident,” DiCamillo said. “I didn’t commit to writing until I was almost 30 years old, and by then, life had broken me enough that I was able to look at the tender place in myself, and the tender broken places in others.”
She said this incident inspired her first book, “Because of Winn- Dixie.”
“Writing ‘Because of Winn- Dixie’ changed me,” DiCamillo said. “It changed my heart, and it changed my life and it changed how I thought about writing. I learned that writing is not about power. It is not about being seen. I learned that writing is a way to see. More, it is a way to connect.”
DiCamillo then related a few of those connections, particularly with young children who identify with her tales of growing up with a mostly-absent father. She ended her speech to applause and a question-and-answer session.
Writers Kwame Alexander, Louise Borden, Bryan Collier, Pete Hauptmann, Wendell Minor, Pat Mora, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Andrea Davis Pinkney served as this year’s keynote speakers in addition to DiCamillo.