Kate DiCamillo's latest children's book, The Magician's Elephant, begins with a crash: In the city of Baltese, "at the end of the century before last," a hapless magician tries to conjure up a bouquet of lilies, but instead he accidentally summons an elephant — which bursts through the ceiling of an opera house and cripples a noblewoman.
DiCamillo, whose previous books include Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, tells Melissa Block that the inspiration for the story started with a very clear vision of that "hapless but hopeful" magician.
"You could almost smell his hair product," the author says. "You could just tell that he was desperate and he was tired of doing cheap tricks and he wanted to do real magic."
As a writer, DiCamillo says, she's always waiting for a key image or character to present itself to her: "You never know when it's going to happen, and it seems to be something out of your control," she explains.
Aside from the magician and the elephant, the main character of DiCamillo's book is a 10-year-old boy named Peter Augustus Duchene. Peter is an orphan who has become separated from his sister, whom he believes to be dead. But when he finds out that she is alive, he holds out hope for a reunion.
"Peter dares to hope — and to continue to hope — even though he does think occasionally that it might be easier to despair," DiCamillo says.
Faith and memory both play important thematic roles in The Magician's Elephant, and while those themes may seem rather serious for children, DiCamillo says she tries not to underestimate her young audience.
"I think that children, being human beings, are as preoccupied with those big things as we are as adults, and I do think it does them a huge disservice to assume that they are living in a world different from the one that we live in," she says.
At one reading, for instance, a 10-year-old fan asked the author if the book — which begins with a cataclysmic event — was born from a cataclysmic event from her own life.
"I said, 'Yeah. You don't need to know what the cataclysmic event was, but it was born of my own cataclysmic event,' " DiCamillo says.
It was an instance that proved what the author already believed: that we don't give kids enough credit for what they know.
"You don't want to mess around with kids, because they will put their finger right on it," she says.