Kate DiCamillo: dee-camellow (last part rhymes with yellow)
Kate DiCamillo and Yoko Tanaka, the illustrator of The Magician's Elephant, discuss the writing and illustrating of the book. In a separate Q&A, Kate discusses The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane...
A Q&A with Kate DiCamillo
author of The Magician's Elephant
What is your definition of magic? What has happened in your life that is
magical or unexpected?
I guess my definition of magic is something very close to the definition the magician gives toward the end of the story: "Magic is always impossible. It begins with the impossible and ends with the impossible and is impossible in between. That is why it is magic." I would add, though, that while magic is impossible from beginning to end, it is also possible. Somehow (who knows how?) the impossible gets turned into the possible. That's magic.
Which leads very nicely into the next part of this question: What has happened in my life that is magical or unexpected?
Telling stories seems like magic to me; it seems both impossible and possible in that same way. And what has happened to me and my stories people reading them, liking them, and me getting to make my living telling them well, talk about unexpected. Talk about magical.
The Magician's Elephant features an animal character. This is a common theme in your novels. Why an elephant this time?
I didn't think, Oh boy, I'm going to put an elephant in a story. I guess it happened this way: The story began for me with the magician and the fact that he wanted to perform real magic, true magic. That magician appeared before me in the lobby of a hotel in New York City. I had, in my satchel, a notebook that I was going to give as a gift to someone. The notebook had an elephant on the cover. And when I went into my bag to get my notebook to write a description of the magician I had just caught sight of, I happened to see that other notebook, the one with a picture of an elephant on the front of it.
Was there a specific place that inspired the setting for the city of Baltese?
No, but after I finished writing The Magician's Elephant, I saw a movie that took place in Bruges, and I couldn't concentrate at all on what was happening in the movie because I was so struck by how much Bruges looked like the city of Baltese, the city I had imagined.
The fortuneteller tells Peter that "truth is forever changing." Why is this an important line in the story, and why did you want to share it with children in general?
I think this comes back to the whole idea of the impossible suddenly becoming the possible. We have to remain open to those moments when everything can change. I actually think that children are much better at doing this than adults are because they are much less likely to see things in a black-and-white way. All of us, children and adults, need to remind ourselves that the impossible can become possible. That's one of the great gifts of stories.
What was your predominant feeling while writing this book? Was it faith, or fear? Do you know how your endings will turn out when you start?
Oh, I'm always afraid when I'm writing. And I never know how things will turn out. This time around it was particularly terrifying because there were so many different balls up in the air, and I had no idea how I would catch them all. But even though I was terrified, I was also, in a strange and wonderful way, healed by the telling of this story. I got out of my own way and let the story tell me how it would all come together. At the same time, I felt something come together, kind of knit itself, inside of me.
How do you feel about the illustrations? Have you ever met Yoko Tanaka?
I think the illustrations are an astonishment, a wonder, a marvel. They literally take my breath away. They are haunting and otherworldly and just exactly right. I have never met Yoko, no. And yet she painted the world I imagined.
Isn't that strange and wonderful?
Impossible, but true.
A Q&A Yoko Tanaka, illustrator of
The Magician's Elephant
What was your first reaction when you were asked to illustrate a novel by Kate DiCamillo? Were you familiar with her work?
When I was first contacted about The Magician's Elephant, my schedule
was very tight, with two upcoming gallery shows, and I almost didn't take the
job. I wasn't familiar with Kate's work at that time. But my agent, Steven Malk,
suggested very strongly that I read the story. When I read the manuscript for
the first time, I was simply amazed, and I immediately asked one of the
galleries to postpone my show. I'm so fortunate to have been able to work on
How did you decide on the palette and style for the illustrations?
It was a very lucky thing that I saw the scenes of the story so vividly in my mind when I read it. I also felt that the story had an atmosphere and tone that were similar to what I create in my regular work. So the palette and style just naturally emerged. And Candlewick's creative director, Chris Paul, gave me wonderful direction.
Were there many ideas or drafts that you went through before deciding on the right one for each illustration? What was your creative process for making each piece of art?
As I mentioned earlier, I had a strong impression of each scene as I read it, so it wasn't difficult to capture these scenes in sketches. The dificult part for me was deciding how much detail I should show in the images. It's a story that takes place some hundred years ago somewhere in Europe, but that's not the point of the story at all. I did lots of research about the architecture and clothing of the period, but I used it minimally.
Which is your favorite of your illustrations for The Magician's Elephant?
My favorite illustration is in chapter 13, when Peter eats stew at Leo's house. I especially like this chapter because it describes so well how Peter's frozen mind is melted by his conversation with Leo and Gloria and by Gloria's stew. I hope my illustration captures their emotions.
Did you do anything differently for this book, stylistically or artistically, that you had never done before?
Doing precise character sketches was something new for me. But it helped so much when I worked on each scene later on. It was also suggested that I create a "height scale" for all the characters, and this helped even more to make them come alive clearly in my mind.
Kate DiCamillo discusses
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Kate DiCamillo published her first book with Candlewick Press,
while she was working at a used bookstore in Minnesota. It was awarded a Newbery
Her third book, The Tale of Despereaux, was the Newbery Medal winner.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is the fifth book she has written for
Where did you get the idea for writing a book about a large china rabbit?
A friend gave me a very elegant rabbit "doll" (sorry, Edward) for Christmas a couple of years ago. Not long after receiving the rabbit, I had this very clear image of him underwater, on the bottom of the sea, minus all of his finery, lost and alone.
Abilene's grandmother, Pellegrina, is not happy with Edward. "You disappoint me," she tells him. What does she expect of Edward?
Edward is, in many ways, Pellegrina's creation, and because of that her expectations for him are huge. She perceives, quite clearly, that he has failed at the simple and impossible task he was created for: loving Abilene as she loves him.
Are there any other books that inspired you in the writing of this one?
I wasn't thinking particularly of other books when I was writing Edward, but looking back, I can see that I was influenced by some pretty powerful stories: The Mouse and His Child, Pinocchio, Winnie-the-Pooh, Alice in Wonderland. I can see the influence of all of those masterpieces in my small story.
Did any of this book come from your own childhood?
Everything that I write comes from my childhood in one way or another. I am forever drawing on the sense of mystery and wonder and possibility that pervaded that time of my life.
What was a defining moment, good or bad, that shaped you as a child?
My father leaving the family certainly shaped who I was and how I looked at the world. By the same token, my father telling me fairy tales that he had made up shaped me profoundly, too. As did my mother reading to me.
Do you have any suggestions for engaging and motivating young readers? Do you have any advice for classroom teachers or parents?
The best thing I know to tell parents and teachers about motivating young readers is that reading should not be presented to them as a chore, a duty. It should, instead, be offered as a gift: Look, I will help you unwrap this miraculous present. I will show you how to use it for your own satisfaction and education and deep, intense pleasure. It distresses me that parents insist that their children read or make them read. I think the best way for children to treasure reading is for them to see the adults in their lives reading for their own pleasure.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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