Re-Reading Winn-Dixie

Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie has been a very successful book for thousands of families via our One School, One Book program.  I remember the first time I read the book with my family – three daughters then – the first time we experienced the graceful, efficient, poetic prose of Kate DiCamillo – and the simple, rich encounters the protagonist – Opal – has with the various adults she befriends and who befriend her.

For many families, reading Winn-Dixie the first time is a portal to reading other stories by Kate DiCamilo – especially The Tale of Despereaux (which won the Newbery in 2004) and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (a book which has proved provocative and popular at Read to Them).

This summer, we finally had occasion to re-visit Opal and Winn-Dixie – and all their friends – reading it to our 4-year-old son.  We hadn’t read it in well over 5 years.  (My daughters are all grown up teen-agers.)  We have been reading chapter books with my son since January.  A lot of Roald Dahl – James and the Giant PeachCharlie and the Chocolate FactoryThe BFGFantastic Mr. FoxDanny, the Champion of the World.  Of course we’re also still reading picture books and – as shared recently here – the comic books featuring Usagi Yojimbo.

But Winn-Dixie is a little different.  A step up in emotional sophistication.  I even occasionally hear from a school or two that it’s not exactly a book for boys.  I don’t know if that’s true – but I understand why schools are more concerned with reaching boys and sometimes assume books need male protagonists or even traditional male quests or conflict to hold boys’ attention.  My son is our first and only boy – and he is a real light-sabre duelling, rough-housing, rough and tumble boy – so I didn’t know how it would go…

Well it went great.  Truly great.  In fact, it was special.  A rich, memorable experience.  Re-kindled our love and affection for Winn-Dixie.

He first fell in love with Winn-Dixie the smiling dog. Thought that was hilarious.  Remembered and called attention to it.  Began to anticipate it.

He also continued to re-visit the opening scene in the grocery store when Winn-Dixie knocks over the tomatoes and onions and peppers. Thought that was hilarious.  Little boys go for slapstick.  I’ve seen him laugh regularly at the dumbest, silliest hijinks in movies and cartoons.  So it was nice to see him laugh at the imagined, conjured image of Winn-Dixie knocking over those vegetables.

He was very taken by Opal’s missing mother.  Not a theme or scenario he had encountered before.  (Well – that’s not exactly true.  Roald Dahl’s protagonists are often orphans – but it’s not exactly emphasized or featured as a missing sore spot.  Kate DiCamillo plays it much differently – w/out being maudlin.)  At Read to Them we have encouraged schools and families to play up this aspect of the story.  Opal’s father’s list of Ten Things about Opal’s Mother is one of the essential moments in the book.  (We’ve encouraged students to make their own lists about important relatives.)

My son was taken, too.  My lasting image of reading Winn-Dixie to him is the look on his face – mouth pursed, eyes staring ahead – the look behind his eyes, the changing look of quizzical consternation – as he imagined what it would be like to not have your mother.  Not a ‘nice’ thing to do your mother-adoring son perhaps.  But that’s what literature is for.  To watch your children perceive and imagine, feel and contemplate.  To put new notions and emotions in their heads.  To watch them grow.

Ready McFie listened attentively and asked questions throughout about Opal’s missing mother.  At odd times away from the book – on a hike, say – we would try to remember the Ten Things together.  A tried and true technique.  (Try it yourself.)

He responded to the different kids in the book – especially the rude Dewberry Brothers.  Little children are very good at seeing the world in black and white terms – constantly re-affirming their growing sense and command of the world – and seeking clarity to confirm or re-iterate their understanding.  The Dewberries are foils for understanding how NOT to behave.  And Ready duly observed and confirmed – scolded – their meanness.  (Although even here, Kate DiCamillo has more in mind – including forgiveness and an enhanced understanding of other people – despite their foibles.)

He loved hearing Miss Franny Block’s stories at the Library – and Otis’s songs at the Pet Store.  Especially – you can predict this – the parrot, Gertrude, perching on Winn-Dixie’s head.

But he really loved Gloria Dump.  Loved her way with peanut butter.  Another one of those details that stayed with him after the fact.  Smiling teeth.  Tomatoes.  Bald-headed babies.  Gertrude.  And peanut butter being fed to Winn-Dixie.

His favorite motif was the Litmus Lozenges.  He was fascinated that a candy could taste like an emotion.  We had to explain the word ‘sorrow’ of course.  But he understood that it meant sad – and he likes using new vocabulary – and so every time we picked up the book he was curious again about ‘the candy that tastes like sorrow.’  Asked endless questions about it.  Opined about it.  That’s my lasting aural memory – Ready McFie going on about “the candy that tastes like sorrow.”

I was a little concerned he would fret for Winn-Dixie during the evening when he is lost during the party.  (“You can’t hold onto anything.  You can only love what you’ve got while you’ve got it.”)  But he was more interested in Opal’s list of Ten Winn-Dixie traits and eccentric characteristics.  We sailed through the denouement easily. (And tried to remember the list the next day.)

Thank you again, Kate DiCamillo – for charming and enriching our family again.  I am so glad and heartened that my rough and tumble son responded so well to the emotional tricks and pleasures in Because of Winn-Dixie.

This experience is what reading chapter books with your kids is all about.  Watching their faces. ‘Seeing’ their minds click and whir and conjure and imagine. Watching them grapple and wrestle with new and challenging characters, scenarios, emotions.  Seeing them settle down and experience the interactive pleasure of imagination – completely different than the call and response passive interaction of the various electronic screens we put in front of them.

And may all families eventually come to share a similar experience with Opal and Winn-Dixie.  And to appreciate the loved ones in their lives – pets, grandparents, neighbors – for all their eccentric foibles.  (Even loved ones who aren’t present.)

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