Many people might not see an obvious connection between a squirrel with super powers and an Electrolux-style, Super-Suction Multi-Terrain 200x vacuum cleaner. Turns out that Kate DiCamillo, the author of the story about those happily disparate elements, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, was originally one of those people herself.

“I wasn’t even aware of putting them together. Way after this was finished, Jennifer Roberts, the publicity person at Candlewick Press said, OK, where did this come from? I was like, I don’t know. So I started going back through all my notebooks and I pieced it together: Oh here is the squirrel on the steps–that was bothering me, here is the vacuum cleaner in the garage–that was bothering me. And somehow my strange brain puts it all together.”

The squirrel that DiCamillo couldn’t forget came from her front porch of her Minneapolis-area home, where the author came across it “doing the work of dying.” Her feelings of wanting to save the squirrel inspired her fictional squirrel which, after being sucked into a Ulysses Super Suction vacuum cleaner and resuscitated by Flora, acquires squirrel super powers.

Flora is 10-year-old Flora Belle Buckman, a character DiCamillo says her friends immediately recognized as the author herself as a young girl. DiCamillo says it was never her intention to add an autobiographical element to her main character. “It was a surprise. You write behind your own back. I wasn’t aware that that’s what I was doing. So now, when I look at (illustrator) Keith’s picture, I get a vertigo kind of thing, because I think, that’s me as a kid, even though I never wore glasses. So yeah, that’s me. A perky curmudgeon, a cynic who isn’t a cynic.”

The vacuum, meanwhile, came from an obsession of DiCamillo’s mother, who worried before she passed away in 2009 what would become of her beloved Electrolux. The vacuum has sat in DiCamillo’s garage since, rendered inactive because of the author’s cat allergies and the vacuum’s previous life in a cat household. “Every day when I pull in there, I see the vacuum cleaner and think, you know, I’m letting my mom down. I knew I couldn’t give it away, but she really wanted someone to appreciate it and I’m not appreciating it. So there’s some vacuum cleaner guilt.”

“So that’s it,” DiCamillo says, “there’s an interior shot of my brain. You take a squirrel dying on the front step, you take my mother worrying about her vacuum cleaner and this is what you get.”

In Flora & Ulysses, DiCamillo adds a new twist: Comics. Artist K.G. “Keith” Campbell teamed with DiCamillo to create a series of comics that highlight the superpower squirrel throughout the pages. While the comics were not her idea originally, DiCamillo calls the creative brainstorm to build comics into the story, from Candlewick Creative Director Chris Paul, “brilliant.”

While DiCamillo may not have come up with the comics idea herself, she comes by her interest in comics honestly. As she explains in our interview, and the accompanying interview featured below, as a child, DiCamillo and her brother were obsessed with Peanuts. “I have to say, (the Peanuts comic strip) influenced my world view. They’re sad, but they are also joyous. And I didn’t know that I was going to get comics in this book, but I was so aware of wanting to capture that feeling of, ‘this is the way things are, and it breaks your heart, but it’s also kind of funny’ that I got so much from Peanuts when I was a kid. I always felt like (Peanuts creator) Charles Schultz was telling me the truth, you know?”

Excitement for DiCamillo’s new novel is already growing amongst readers, teachers, and critics. Though just released this week, Flora & Ulysses was recently announced as finalist on the National Book Award “longlist”, with winners to be announced October 16–another huge honor for the revered author. DiCamillo was awarded a Newbery Medal for her 2004 novel, A Tale of Despereaux, and her first novel, Because of Winn Dixie won a Newbery Honor. She’s also written a series of very popular beginning reader books based on the hilarious, hot buttered toast-loving pig, Mercy Watson, and other books.

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures is published by Candlewick Press and is available now.

Author Kate DiCamillo, Timmy Failure author Stephan Pastis and others on the Influence of Peanuts and Charles M. Schultz

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures Trailer


Recorded at Book Expo America, New York, 2013.
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