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Spotlight on: Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

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Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie

At this writing, the new film adaptation of the Newbery Honor-winning children's novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, has spent three weeks in the top ten and has taken in almost $30 million. It has obviously found an audience that appreciates its blend of whimsy and drama, which makes me wonder: how many of those people know about the book on which it is based? One of the maxims that guide my thinking is, "The book is always better than the movie." Not only can the imagination have free rein with a book, but film never captures the nuances that make reading such an enriching experience.

India Opal Buloni and her minister father (whom she calls "the preacher") recently moved to Naomi, Florida, a stereotypical small southern town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and is friendly to a fault (DiCamillo hopes Because of Winn-Dixie is an ode to the south). The preacher spends a lot of time in the community so his daughter is on her own much of the time. He does take time to answer questions about her absent mother (she left them years ago but he still hopes for her return) but is generally hesitant to talk about her, due his own intense feelings, so she simply asks for ten facts (since she is ten years old). These give her something to focus on.

Her summer is not looking good, when she comes across a big, ugly, smelly dog in the produce department of the local Winn-Dixie (a chain of supermarkets in the southeast that recently filed for bankruptcy). Before the manager sends it away, she claims the dog as her own, naming it after the store. Little does she know how much her life will change.

Lots of things happen because of Winn-Dixie. His uncommon ability to smile draws attention from the town. Eventually, India Opal befriends several townspeople, including the town librarian, the man who runs the pet shop, the "witch" down the street, and those "bald-headed babies," the Dewberry brothers. Through them, she learns lessons about life (metaphorically represented by the "Littmus Lozenge," which tastes both sweet and sad) and matures to a level of happiness that allows her relationship with the preacher to strengthen. Despite her struggles, DiCamillo assures us that our heroine is going to be just fine.

Winner of a Newbery Honor in 2001 (her book The Tale of Despereaux won the Newbery Medal in 2004), DiCamillo’s ability to express emotions in her prose makes Because of Winn-Dixie deeper than the average "children’s" book, but underneath is an innocence and sense of hope that is often missing in books for younger readers. Some may call it pre-adolescent Oprah fiction -- it touches on subjects like love, longing, sadness, and the importance of friends and forgiveness, and even throws in some suspense -- but I could easily see this being passed among parents as well as children. There are enough differences that those who enjoyed the film could seek out its source material and get involved in a deeper, different experience.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Gardner News. Copyright 2005.

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