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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Kate DiCamillo’s Tale Of A Girl And A Squirrel

An illustration from "Flora & Ulysses" by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K.G. Campbell. (Candlewick Press)

An illustration from “Flora & Ulysses” by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K.G. Campbell. (Candlewick Press)

Kate DiCamillo is the Newbery Medal winner for “The Tale of Despereaux,” the story of an adventurous mouse. Now, in her new new book “Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures,” DiCamillo gives us Flora, a 10-year-old girl who loves to read comic books.

Flora discovers what she believes is a real-life superhero when a squirrel is vacuumed up in her neighbor’s front yard and emerges with greater strength, the ability to fly and the urge to write poetry.

Kate adopts the squirrel, who she names Ulysses after the vacuum cleaner that almost killed him, but keeping him out of trouble proves to be a challenge.

Kate DiCamillo tells Here & Now that she sees aspects of herself in both of her protagonists.

“Flora Belle Buchman is very much me. But also the squirrel is very much me, because I’m hopeful, and in the words of E.B. White I also love the world. And I’m always hungry.”

DiCamillo also answers a couple of questions from reader Liliana Lines from Brookline, Mass.

Book Excerpt: ‘Flora & Ulysses’


  • Kate DiCamillo, author of “Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures.”




Kate DiCamillo is author of many award-winning books for young readers, including "The Tale of Despereaux" and "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane." Her new book is about a girl and a squirrel. The girl is 10-year-old Flora Belle Buchmann, a self-described cynical daughter of a divorced romance novelist. The squirrel is Ulysses, a furry friend suddenly endowed with special powers after being sucked up and spit out by a vacuum cleaner.

KATE DICAMILLO: (Reading) The squirrel was a little unsteady on his feet. His brain felt larger, roomier. It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self - doors he hadn't even know existed - had suddenly been flung wide. Everything was shot through with meaning, purpose, light. However, the squirrel was still a squirrel. And he was hungry. Very.

CHAKRABARTI: That's Kate DiCamillo reading from "Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures" with illustrations by K.G. Campbell. It's been long listed for this year's National Book Award for Young People's Literature. And Kate joins us from Minnesota Public Radio. Welcome.

DICAMILLO: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, it's wonderful to have you. So first of all, let's talk about the squirrel Ulysses because one of my colleagues here at our home radio station in Boston has a very precocious 11-year-old, who we gave a copy of the book to...

DICAMILLO: Uh-oh. So...


DICAMILLO: Now I'm sitting up straight and listening. OK.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Don't worry, though. I think you'll like what you're about to hear. So Liliana(ph), who's the daughter of this colleague of ours, she's - again, she's 11. She read the book and she liked it, but she had a couple of questions. So I want to play one of Liliana's questions for you and here it is.

LILIANA LINES: Why a squirrel instead of some other animal?

CHAKRABARTI: We thought it was a great place to start? Why a squirrel?

DICAMILLO: It is a great place to start. There was a squirrel who was expiring on my - the front steps of my house, and I was distressed. I didn't want him to die, and I also didn't want him to die on my front steps. I wanted to do something. I called one of my best friends who lives a block and a half away. And she's the sweetest of all of my friends, and she said this alarming phrase to me: Do you have a shovel? And I'm like, well, yeah, I've got a shovel. And she said, get the shovel. Get a t-shirt. I'll come over there and whack him over the head.

I'm like, oh, you can't do that. So he must have heard the conversation. He left. And so I'm thrilled that I don't have to deal with a dead squirrel on my steps. But it made me start thinking about a quote that I found in the annotated "Charlotte's Web" where E.B. White said that he started to think about ways to save a pig's life and that's part of where "Charlotte's Web" came from. So I started to think about ways to save the squirrel's life.

CHAKRABARTI: And not only save a squirrel's life, but he's a superhero with superpowers.

DICAMILLO: Right. The longer we talked, the stranger I sound, I know. Yes. He's stronger than your average squirrel. He can, like any good superhero, fly. And also, he types. He writes poetry. Those are his superpowers.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, see, so what I found so interesting about the premise of the book is that Ulysses the squirrel, as you just described, is endowed with this wonderful power of thought and exploration and poetry, even. Everything was shot through with meaning, purpose and light - as you write. And it's such an interesting counterpoint to Flora. You know, one of her mantras is do not hope, instead observe. So why give the little girl in your book more of the skeptical bent rather than the squirrel?

DICAMILLO: I guess maybe because I'm a skeptic or, as a friend once termed me, a perky curmudgeon. So that child, Flora Belle Buckman, is very much me. But also the squirrel is very much me because I'm hopeful and, in the words of E. B. White, I love the world, and also I'm always hungry.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. It's so interesting to me because maybe I'm just speaking as a mother here. But it seems as if - you're exactly - you're right. There is a sense, you know, amongst eight, nine and 10-year-olds. They're at this fulcrum in life where they sort of begin to understand the contours of skepticism and ruefulness and sadness. But as parents, we want them to actually be more like Ulysses the squirrel.


CHAKRABARTI: We want them to actually be the hopeful ones who are just, you know, amazed by the world and yet they are that too. You know what I mean?

DICAMILLO: They are. They're both those things.


DICAMILLO: Yes. And we want kids to have books that talk about those darker things, I think, and the questions, because those are there in every child, along with the light and the hope and the extreme hunger.

CHAKRABARTI: We notice that children in your new book do seem to have quite a bit of trouble in their lives, or they've at least endured challenges. I mean, Flora is the child of divorced parents. And her neighbor, the one who originally vacuumed up Ulysses the squirrel, has a great nephew whose name is William Spiver, who's blind because of emotional trauma. Now, we heard a little earlier from our colleague's daughter, Liliana, and she had another question about William in particular. So let's listen.

LINES: How could someone go blind from a traumatic incident? Because that part was kind of weird.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Kate, what's your answer to that?

DICAMILLO: I think that his temporary blindness is perhaps just something that he thinks has happened because his heart is so broken - and I won't say why, because I'll let that be revealed in the story. So it's almost - and if William Spiver were here, he might say this - that temporary blindness is almost a metaphor. It's not literal. It's a metaphor for the darkness that he has experienced. But everything turns out OK in the end.

CHAKRABARTI: Hearing that makes me wonder what do you think are the particular challenges of writing for this age group because - I mean, there's this emotional complexity. There's this ruefulness and sadness that we've been talking about in "Flora and Ulysses," but it's not out and out apocalyptic and dark like we see in some other, like, YA novels for possibly older readers.

DICAMILLO: Right. It's a very hopeful book, I think. And I never sit and think, I need to write to 10 and 11-year-olds. I think I need to tell this story, and I need to tell it as well and true as I can. And I think that I am a 10- or 11-year-old at heart, so it's never anything that I have to do to connect to that. It's just a part of me and part of - I'm always writing towards the child that I was and that I am, that brokenhearted, wondering, hopeful kid, you know?

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, my thinking is that in "Charlotte's Web," Charlotte famously writes in her web about Wilbur, that's some pig, right?


CHAKRABARTI: Seems like Ulysses is some squirrel.

DICAMILLO: Oh. What a compliment. That's lovely. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Kate DiCamillo's book about a girl and a squirrel is called "Flora and Ulysses." Kate DiCamillo, it has been such a joy to speak with you. Thank you so very much.

DICAMILLO: I thank you. I thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: And, Robin, we've got an excerpt of "Flora and Ulysses" at our website, complete with the illustrations, one of which has this lovely caption: who can say what astonishments are hidden inside the most mundane being?


And I'm thinking we hit "Charlotte's Web" and "The Velveteen Rabbit" in one program.

CHAKRABARTI: What a show.


CHAKRABARTI: We also want to thank Liliana Lines and her mother, Carey Goldberg, one of our colleagues here at WBUR, for helping us out in our interview today. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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