Pub info: Candlewick, 2000; 182 pp (paperback edition)
Genre: MG contemporary
I always talk about Kate DiCamillo being one of my favorite authors, even though I haven't read everything she's written. I've set out to correct this terrible oversight, beginning with the marvelous Because of Winn-Dixie.
The summer Opal and her father, the preacher, move to Naomi, Florida, Opal goes into the Winn-Dixie supermarket--and comes out with a dog. A big, ugly, suffering dog with a sterling sense of humor. A dog she dubs Winn-Dixie. Because of Winn-Dixie, the preacher tells Opal ten things about her absent mother, one for each year Opal has been alive. Winn-Dixie is better at making friends than anyone Opal has ever known, and together they meet the local librarian, Miss Franny Block, who once fought off a bear with a copy of War and Peace. They meet Gloria Dump, who is nearly blind but sees with her heart, and Otis, an ex-con who sets the animals in his pet shop loose after hours, then lulls them with his guitar.Opal spends all that sweet summer collecting stories about her new friends and thinking about her mother. But because of Winn-Dixie or perhaps because she has grown, Opal learns to let go, just a little, and that friendship—and forgiveness—can sneak up on you like a sudden summer storm.
The Goodreads summary above doesn't do this book justice. It's not just a sweet tale of how a scruffy dog helps a lonely little girl make friends and come to terms with loss--although it is that. The wonderful thing about DiCamillo's books is that they're so much more than they appear on the surface. Characters come so vividly to life that they feel like your best friends, from the half-blind Gloria to the bratty boys and stuck-up girl that Opal has to cope with. Not only is the story more than it appears, all of these characters are more than they appear. The story is about not judging people (and dogs) by their appearances or your first impressions, but learning to open yourself to taking a chance on them. All this is conveyed in Kate DiCamillo's spare and lovely prose--Opal's unique voice--and in under 200 pages to boot. Had I read Because of Winn-Dixie when it first came out, I would've been watching and reading whatever came next from DiCamillo's pen. As it is, I have plenty left to read.
About Kate DiCamillo:
Kate DiCamillo spent most of her childhood in the South, and moved to Minnesota when she was in her twenties. Because of Winn-Dixie, her first novel, was a Newbery Honor Book and has won more than twenty-five state awards. Kate has since written several other middle-grade novels and chapter books for younger readers. Her latest novel, Flora & Ulysses (Candlewick Press), won the 2013 Newbery Medal. Currently Kate is serving as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, 2014-15 term. She lives in Minneapolis.
Online: Visit Kate's website here, and follow her Facebook page here.