Minneapolis Kate DiCamillo recalls the first time she pumped gas in 10-degree weather, without gloves.
"I remember sitting in the car, looking at my hands thinking, 'I've permanently damaged myself,"' she says.
Spurred by a "pre-midlife crisis," DiCamillo moved to Minnesota from Florida 14 years ago. But it's a move she does not regret. Since relocating, DiCamillo has written a string of popular children's books, including "The Tale of Despereaux," which won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2004 and is about to hit movie screens in an animated version featuring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman and Tracey Ullman. Her latest, a picture book about an adventurous chicken named Louise, was published in September.
Meanwhile, the paperback edition of "Despereaux," published by Candlewick, has remained No. 1 on The New York Times list of children's paperback best-sellers.
For DiCamillo, her move northwest came near the end of the "terrible dark decade" of her 20s.
"It was a panic move. I was in a rut, in every possible way," DiCamillo recalls during an interview at a Minneapolis coffee shop. But one of her best friends was moving back here and needed a roommate, DiCamillo says, "And I said, 'I'll go."' It turned out to be a "huge adjustment," she says, but "absolutely freeing."
A voracious reader, DiCamillo landed a job at a book distributor in the downtown Minneapolis warehouse district. She was a "picker" - selecting books from shelves in the children's section - and eventually read her way through the warehouse.
"And I fell in love with the form," DiCamillo said of children's books. A year before moving to Minnesota, she tried writing short stories for adults "thinking mistakenly that they're short, therefore they're easier. That's absolutely erroneous."
DiCamillo says she wrote for six years before anything happened. After repeated rejections, she wrote her first novel for children - "Because of Winn-Dixie" - in about seven months and sold it.
"I didn't think I was ever going to get it published; I didn't think anybody would read it," she says. "So I did just play, you know." Published in 2000, "Because of Winn-Dixie" - about a girl and the smiling dog she finds at a Florida grocery store - was a 2001 Newbery Honor Book and was made into a movie in 2005.
Children's book expert Anita Silvey of Boston calls DiCamillo "the most exciting and lyrical children's book writer to come to us in the 21st century, as a novelist" and says several of her books are potential classics.
Silvey cites DiCamillo's knack for storytelling, characters and simple but profound language.
"That simplicity is one of the hardest qualities to get in children's books," Silvey said.
A tiny woman with hazel eyes, thick eyebrows and a woolly head of pale, blond hair, DiCamillo has a raucous laugh that belies her 5-foot-1-inch frame. She dresses simply with only a few pieces of jewelry and scant makeup. She smiles frequently, and her loud voice ricochets around the coffee shop.
"My mother always said, 'You're lucky that you're small. Because otherwise somebody would be beating you up for your mouth,"' DiCamillo says.
Dreaming about writing
Born in Philadelphia, DiCamillo recalls being a sickly child. Her family (she has an older brother) moved to the warmth of Florida in 1969 because she often was sick with pneumonia.
"I didn't get pneumonia any more," DiCamillo says, "but I got everything else." Her illnesses led to her living an active life in her head - using her imagination.
DiCamillo, 44, grew up in Clermont, Fla., a citrus-growing area about 30 miles west of Orlando. She was a frequent visitor to the town library, where a biography of scientist George Washington Carver was one of her favorites.
"I remember my mother offering to just buy it from them, because she was tired of hauling me down there to check it out all the time," DiCamillo recalls.
She received an English degree from the University of Florida but did not go to graduate school. "All of my 20s were wasted with me wanting to write and talking about writing and dreaming about doing it. And it wasn't until I was almost 30 years old that I thought, 'Man, I'm going to have to write something,"' she says.
But her writing drought is over. DiCamillo has written 11 books - four novels, five easy-readers and two picture books. Her 2001 novel, "The Tiger Rising," about a boy who discovers a caged tiger in the Florida woods, was a National Book Award finalist. The paperback of "Despereaux" has spent 40 weeks on the Times list.
DiCamillo's new book, "Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken," illustrated by Harry Bliss, follows a plucky fowl as she leaves the farm for the sea, a circus and a bazaar.
"It's a romp, and it was awfully, awfully fun," the author says.
Donna Bray of HarperCollins, which published "Louise," said DiCamillo's books feature bravery as a universal theme, usually by a character who is not expected to be courageous. In "Despereaux," a tiny mouse with big ears falls in love with a human princess in a castle and dreams of a fairy tale ending. Louise helps her fellow chickens escape from a cage after she's captured by a tall, dark stranger at the bazaar.
"I think that's something every child can relate to, as children often feel powerless," Bray said.
DiCamillo says she's overwhelmed by the big-name vocal talent assembled for the movie version of "Despereaux," scheduled for release Dec. 19. Other actors lending their voices include Emma Watson, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Lloyd, William H. Macy, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci and Robbie Coltrane.
"I don't think about it because my head would pop off my shoulders if I thought about it."