The Girl and the Squirrel: Kid Lit Author Kate DiCamillo on 'Flora & Ulysses'

Ahead of our exclusive webcast with kid lit authors Kate DiCamillo and Jon Scieszka on October 21—during which they will discuss her latest book, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, and the importance of humor in children's literature—we asked DiCamillo to field a few humorous warm-up questions.
Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures  (Candlewick, 2013) is the latest novel for young readers by Kate DiCamillo, Newbery Medalist for The Tale of Despereaux and the author of several other acclaimed works, including Because of Winn-Dixie. An engaging mix of narrative text, comic sequences, and full-page illustrations, DiCamillo's new work introduces Flora, a self-described cynic and fan of superheroes, and Ulysses, a squirrel with special powers. School Library Journal caught up with DiCamillo recently for a few lighthearted questions about the unique book, which has been receiving wonderful reviews and was chosen by the National Book Foundation for its longlist for the National Book Award in Young People's Literature. DiCamillo will also be featured in an upcoming exclusive SLJ webcast along with award-winning kid lit author Jon Scieszka, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature emeritus; the two will chat about the importance of humor in children’s literature. The event will be streamed live on October 21 from the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, the site of SLJ's recent  webcast with kid lit author Kevin Henkes. Ahead of the event, here's what DiCamillo had to tell us:

Can you tell us about your new book, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures? Well, let’s see.  It’s the story of a girl. And a squirrel. And a vacuum cleaner. It is also a story about love and hope.  And seal blubber.

Is there any of Flora or Ulysses in you? Yes. I am, I have discovered (a little late in the game; i.e. way after I finished the novel), that I am both the girl and the squirrel. I am like Flora in that I am a hopeful cynic, and I am like Ulysses in that I love the world. And also, like him, I am always hungry. No spoilers, but when you begin writing a book do you already have the ending? I did not—but then, I never know the ending when I begin a book. There’s that wonderful quote from Elmore Leonard. It goes something like: I write to found out what happens. If I knew, then I wouldn’t bother writing the story. Happily, most of what happens in Flora and Ulysses is a surprise to me. Bagumba is a word from the book. Tell us how you came to use it. This one is a mystery. The word popped into my head. I used it. And then, when the book was in galleys, one of my best friends was reading it and said, ‘My mother said “Holy Bagumba” all the time.’ And I’m like: ‘really? I am so happy that I figured out where that saying came from.’ And then my friend checked with her brother and he said, ‘I’ve never heard Mom or anyone else say that.’  So, there you go. It’s a mystery. Do you read reviews? If so how do you handle a negative review? I read the reviews that my editor sends on to me. If it’s a bad one, she prepares me first. Good or bad, they are hard to read. I kind of squint at them. And when I am done squinting, I remind myself what my job is: to tell stories.  And then I get back to work. Both you and fellow Twin City author, Anne Ursu, have been named to the National Book Award Longlist for Young People’s Literature. Is Minnesota becoming a mecca for children’s writers? Perhaps there is something in the water? No kidding! I keep saying that there is something in the water. We have the Hamline MFA in writing for children and young adults (St. Paul). We have Jane Resh Thomas (who teaches at Hamline and also out of her home). We have the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota.  And we have a fabulously supportive community of writers. It’s grand. What have you read from the longlist? Not a single one. I intend to get busy. You are currently on the road, on a book tour for Flora & Ulysses. What is the good, bad and ugly about book tours? I truthfully have to say that it is mostly good. It is thrilling to meet teachers and librarians and kids and booksellers and passionate readers. My arm hurts sometimes from signing. And I can’t really write when I am on the road. But other than that, it is grand. You are going to be discussing your book with Jon Scieszka on our webcast October 21. Any fear that Jon will hijack the conversation, or do you feel you can handle him? Oh, Jon hijacks every conversation. I’m used to it. And hey, talk about ambassadors— did you see him wearing the ambassadorial sash? That was something to see! For more from Kate DiCamillio, check out our previous interview in 2009, and sign up for the webcast! Consider setting up an assembly for this livestream event so all of your students, parents, and teachers can share the belly laughs with these two hilarious authors.  

Attendees of  the Kate DiCamillo & Jon Scieszka live webcast event will have the chance to win one of 25 signed copies of Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, courtesy of Candlewick Press. Only live registrants will be eligible to win, but it’s not too late to register! Click the link below to sign up:


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