India Opal Buloni was picking up a few groceries from a Winn-Dixie grocery store when she saw the store manager chasing an apparently stray dog around the produce department. Opal (as she is known) overhears him asking someone to call the pound, and, unable to stand the idea of such a smiley, friendly dog being taken there, Opal claims the dog as hers. Opal calls the stray Winn-Dixie—the name of the supermarket she is standing in—and takes him home to Friendly Corners Trailer Park. She asks her father, the local preacher, if she can keep the dog. He tells her that she doesn't need a dog, and Opal responds that the dog needs her. When she whistles for him to come in, he does so. His ribs are visible, his fur is matted and he even has some bald patches. The preacher realizes this is a dog in need, and tells Winn-Dixie that he has found a home. So begins a relationship between a dog and a girl that changes both of their lives. Opal and her father begin to bring Winn-Dixie wherever they go. As if he knows that his young friend is lonely, Winn-Dixie keeps acting up and running off, but each time he forces Opal to meet somebody new. She runs around town chasing him, making friends with unexpected people—including a few adults—who have been overlooked by the rest of society, all thanks to the dog's mischievous antics.
Written for a young audience, Because of Winn-Dixie addresses the innate and simple feeling of loneliness in a way that kids can easily interpret. Opal is the touchstone for the readers, the character with whom the audience should identify. By saving Winn-Dixie's life, Opal makes her first "friend." From there, Winn-Dixie leads Opal to people who are also lonely and misunderstood, with whom Opal could be friends. Her irresistible personality does the rest. These former misfits form their own family, at which point Winn-Dixie is no longer needed; his young charge is now in the emotional care of other people.
The beauty of the story lies both in the girl who refuses to be angry at people for not loving her, and in the diverse group of people she befriends. As Opal talks with these misfits, she listens to their stories. Each one is suffering from a particular brand of loneliness, whether due to age or rumors or social anxiety, etc. Opal's eagerness to get to know them allows each of these people to be vulnerable about why they don't talk to other people. Mistakes, anger, and tragedy all surface in the lives of these various people. Winn-Dixie is the thread that connects each of them to Opal because they can all recognize the innocence and devotion of the pup. They meet him first, but they fall in love with both girl and dog. In this way, DiCamillo tells kids that loneliness is just an opportunity to listen to others. Through Opal's story, she encourages kids who are lonely to look for others instead of focusing inward.