Most — okay, probably all — of Because of Winn-Dixie author Kate DiCamillo’s readers know her for her words. But in DiCamillo’s new picture book, La La La, out Sept. 26, she and illustrator Jaime Kim tell a moving, resonant tale with hardly any words at all. EW is honored to reveal La La La’s cover, above.
DiCamillo says the idea came to her five years ago. “I can’t draw, but I doodle all the time,” she explains, “and I just [drew] this small circle kind of bouncing through the world. It was really small, it was afraid, but it was kind of hopeful. It’s not a big leap to say that the circle was me.” As the circle moves through the world, it tries to get the attention of a larger circle in the sky by singing, and after many attempts, the big circle finally answers back with a satisfying song of its own.
She turned the wordless project (save for a few “La’s” emanating from the circles) in to her editor at Candlewick Press as, essentially, a two-page storyboard, with the little circle going on its journey within the frame of a few squares. Then, it was Candlewick’s job to search for an illustrator, which DiCamillo says took the better part of those years between the book’s genesis and publication.
Eventually, Candlewick chose Jamie Kim, who says that while she was excited to get the job, she was also “very apprehensive about whether I could pull it off.” Kim continues: “Usually before I go on to sketch, I read the writer’s manuscript thoroughly to match the atmosphere and progression of the narrative with what the writer intended. As I had no directive text to work with this time, at first I had trouble figuring out where to start.”
Kim sought inspiration from other picture books, as well as some animated movies. While those helped with the technical aspects of the book, she says ultimately the most important source of inspiration turned out to be Kim herself. “I tried to bring myself back to my childhood, and the feelings I felt back then,” she explains. “I jotted these feelings down in a notepad, then I projected my childhood personality onto the main character.”
She considered creating a character who wasn’t even human, but in the end, the perfect vehicle for this journey was a young, short-haired child who Kim says looks like her younger sister as a kid. Despite barely speaking, the character is full of personality: She narrows her eyes in annoyance when her song isn’t answered, and closes them with joy as she skips through a starry forest. “I reflected my childhood into the main character, but actually the outward appearance was largely inspired by my little sister during her childhood,” she explains. “Whereas I was an introverted and quiet girl, my sister had a wide range of expressions. I suppose you could say that ‘the girl’ is an amalgam of me and my sister.”
For both author and illustrator — who still have yet to meet each other — the project was an emotional experience. “It’s amazing to me that Jaime tapped into the same feeling that I had when I was drawing the circles,” DiCamillo says with delight. “It felt like when Jaime gave this back, it was like she was the moon answering me back. Like I had done this tiny little ‘La la la’ with my silly drawing, and she answered me back with this gorgeous, full-throated song from the moon.”
“I should be the one thanking her,” Kim says. “As I worked on La La La, I felt healed by the story itself, in addition to the joy of drawing. It was she who gave me a most wonderful gift.”
Update: An earlier version of this story quoted DiCamillo as saying La La La took ten years to complete. According to Candlewick, it only took five.