Children's Corner: Kate DiCamillo's tale is powered by bright ideas galore

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Most people wouldn't see any connection between an Electrolux tank vacuum cleaner and a squirrel. Certainly, few people would be able to create a story from two such disparate elements.

But children's author Kate DiCamillo figured out a way to connect the vacuum cleaner and the squirrel to come up with the beginnings of a new novel. She invested the squirrel -- which she named Ulysses -- with superhero powers, which he acquires after being partially sucked up in the vacuum cleaner.

Then she added several other ingredients: a quirky young girl named Flora who loves superhero comics, her bitterly divorced parents and an intriguing boy who has just come to live next door.

Combining all these elements, Ms. DiCamillo ended up with a novel about friendship, family and superheroes that packs an emotional wallop -- while also making readers laugh.

"Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures" (Candlewick Press, $17.99; ages 8-12), which Monday won the Newbery Medal for the year's best written children's book, is the kind of literary tour de force that someone only as talented as Ms. DiCamillo could possibly pull off.

But even Ms. DiCamillo, who won the 2004 Newbery Medal for her novel "The Tale of Desperaux," says she's not sure exactly how such wildly dissimilar ingredients coalesced into the novel that is "Flora & Ulysses."

"I know how I got the squirrel and how I got the vacuum cleaner, but the rest I can't explain," she said in a telephone interview.

Ms. DiCamillo said she found a squirrel one day on her doorstep in the Twin Cities area, and the animal was clearly close to death. She quickly backed away from the squirrel and went inside to call a friend for advice; the friend immediately asked her if she had a shovel that Ms. DiCamillo could use to put the squirrel out of its misery.

She was appalled by the idea, but the squirrel must have somehow overhead the conversation because by the time she went back outside, it had vanished.

Meanwhile, Ms. DiCamillo, 49, had been storing an Electrolux vacuum cleaner in her garage since the 2009 death of her mother, Betty DiCamillo.

"My mother loved that vacuum cleaner out of all proportion," she said.

But her mother had a cat, and Ms. DiCamillo is hugely allergic to cat hair. So when her mother died, she stored the vacuum cleaner in her garage.

Those two elements -- the vacuum cleaner and the squirrel -- somehow gave her the idea for a story in which a squirrel is swept into a vacuum cleaner and emerges with the powers to understand human speech, to fly, to write poetry and to love people, especially Flora. The squirrel also is constantly hungry.

"I love him -- he's as fixated on food as I am!" Ms. DiCamillo laughed.

Ulysses' extraordinary powers are discovered by Flora, a superhero-comic-book fan who considers herself a cynic, thanks in part to the nasty divorce between her parents.

Flora, who says things like "Holy bagumba" and "Holy unintended consequences," lives with her romance-writer mother, and the two are constantly clashing. Flora regularly sees her father, a "sad, quiet man who had become even sadder and quieter since the divorce."

Flora's mother refuses to believe in Ulysses' powers, especially his ability to write poetry, and wants Flora's father to kill him. Fortunately, there are others who have faith in Ulysses, including a rather strange boy named William Spiver, who comes to live next door to Flora, and a kindly woman named Dr. Meescham, who lives in the same apartment building as Flora's dad.

The story of "Flora & Ulysses" may sound more than a bit zany, yet in Ms. DiCamillo's sure hands it is emotionally satisfying, filled with moments of laugh-out-loud comedy and somehow totally believable.

Young readers also will love an additional -- and unusual -- element included in "Flora & Ulysses": a series of comics by artist K.G. Campbell starring Ulysses that are scattered through the pages.

"The comics weren't my idea, but the brilliant idea of [Candlewick Press art director] Chris Paul, who said, 'What if every time Ulysses did something heroic, we had comics?' " the author said.

"I said, 'That's a great idea.' Of course, to do that, I had to take some of the text I had written and turn it into notes [for the artist to create comics]. I did have to kill a few of my darlings," some of her favorite lines.

Ms. DiCamillo enjoyed comics as a child, especially "Peanuts."

"I wasn't a big fan of superhero comics, though," she said. "My superhero was Charlie Brown," the lovable, if hapless, "Peanuts" character.

Ms. DiCamillo, who lived in Florida during most of her childhood, struggled to figure out a career path after graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in English. She held a variety of jobs before eventually moving to Minnesota and taking a job at a book warehouse.

Her task was to find and gather books ordered by customers, and she was assigned to the children's book area. There, she discovered books such as "The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963" by Christopher Paul Curtis.

"Reading that was pivotal for me," she said. "I thought to myself, 'I want to try this.' "

Her first children's novel, "Because of Winn-Dixie," won a Newbery Honor, runner-up for the 2001 Newbery Medal (which went to "A Year Down Yonder" by Richard Peck).

Three years later, she captured the Newbery Medal for "A Tale of Desperaux." Since then, she's published several novels, including "The Magician's Elephant."

Ms. DiCamillo also has branched out into beginning-reader books, finding success with her hilarious "Mercy Watson" series and the "Bink & Gollie" books, which she co-writes with Alison McGhee. "Bink & Gollie," the first book in the series, won the 2011 Theodor Geisel Award. This prize, named for the late author better known as Dr. Seuss, is given annually by the American Library Association to the best beginning reader.

Ms. DiCamillo said she plans to keep writing both children's novels and beginning readers and plans a new spinoff series from the "Mercy Watson" books.

"Writing the 'Mercy Watson' books has felt like eating sorbet in between dinner courses. It's a way for me to relax on the page," she said. "I love doing the novels, but it takes so much of my soul."

Yet, Ms. DiCamillo recognizes and appreciates how fortunate she is to be doing something she loves.

"I have a whole list of ideas in my notebook that I want to do. And I hope that I can just keep doing this," she said.

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at


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