"Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china..."
So begins author Kate DiCamillo's enchanting new children's novel, "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane," released by Candlewick Press as a sort of Valentine to the world on Valentine's Day ($18.99, 228 pages).
It's a delightfully old-fashioned story, about a self-centered china rabbit who learns what it means to love someone through a "miraculous journey" from the house on Egypt Street, to a voyage on the Queen Mary, a fall overboard to the muck of the ocean floor, a fisherman's cottage, a garbage dump and a succession of owners including a kindly tramp and a dying girl. The gorgeous full-color plates and duotones are by Bagram Ibatouilline.
A new children's novel from Kate DiCamillo is a publishing event. Her first book, the lovely and lyrical "Because of Winn Dixie," about a preacher's lonely daughter and the mutt she finds in a grocery store in a sleepy Florida town, was a Newbery Honor book and was made into a popular movie last year starring Jeff Daniels.
"The Tale of Despereaux," featuring a mouse with very large ears, won the 2004 Newbery Medal and is being made into an animated film directed by Sylvain Chomet, who was nominated for an Oscar for "The Triplets of Belleville." DiCamillo's new book seems destined to be a classic as well.
With her graceful, elegant prose, DiCamillo offers a vivid picture of snobbish Edward Tulane, made of china, ears and tail of real rabbit fur and elegant wardrobe of custommade silk suits and leather shoes: "In all, Edward Tulane felt himself to be an exceptional specimen. Only his whiskers gave him pause. They were long and elegant (as they should be), but they were of uncertain origin. Edward felt quite strongly that they were not the whiskers of a rabbit. Whom the whiskers had belonged to initially -- what unsavory animal -- was a question that Edward could not bear to consider for too long."
In a recent telephone interview from her home in Minneapolis, DiCamillo said her elegant bunny protagonist was inspired by a large stuffed rabbit she was given by a writer friend, Jane Resh Thomas. "He's not quite as tall as Edward in the book, but he's pretty big. He was dressed in this fancy outfit. I asked what his name was and she said 'Edward.' I brought him home and put him on the couch in my living room and forgot about him, and then I had this vision of him face down on the ocean floor with all his clothing gone. That image was so strong, I knew there was a story in it, a picture book. I started to write, and it became his story that unfurled in front of me."
Edward belongs to a 10-year-old girl named Abilene and was ordered custom-made from France by Abilene's grandmother, Pellegrina. Such expressive names are "the only part of writing that's easy for me," DiCamillo said. "Names pop into my head, I don't know where they come from."
The novel offers a vivid sense of some past time, a time when tramps rode on railroad cars and a boy might earn pennies entertaining passers-by on the street without anyone calling Child Protection Services. Readers are left to imagine the time and place, although DiCamillo has her own ideas. "I think of it as being a little bit after World War II, I think of it as starting in New York, [the part with] Edward with Lawrence is in Novia Scotia, then he travels with Bull and ends up in the South."
The witchlike grandmother was modeled after Isak Dinesen, DiCamillo said. "The storyteller incarnate, that's what she is."
Now 41, DiCamillo laughingly describes herself as a "late bloomer." She was 36 when "Winn Dixie" was published in 2000 after years of working "dead-end jobs" at Disney World, Circus World, a greenhouse, a campground, a book warehouse, a bookstore -- "the kind of thing that makes your parents ask why they paid for a college education for you," she said.
The lyrical, beautiful sentences of a master craftsman don't come easily. She said the writing process involves "a lot of weeping" and multiple drafts.
Asked if her books reflect her personal philosophy about life and love, she said: "No, I think the books are smarter than I am. It's not that I'm completely dumb, I do think some things, but the books tap into something that knows more than I do."