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Kate DiCamillo: Turning Squirrels Into Superheroes

FloraI was really excited about meeting Kate DiCamillo in person recently, but also kind of nervous in that way that happens when you are finally going to be face-to-face with someone whose work you have long admired. Then I hit the lobby of our building, and there was this tiny woman with a big smile, and all my anxiety just fell away.  DiCamillo is as warm and kind in person as her books would suggest and I had the best time chatting with her about donuts, squirrels, superpowers, and of course, her new book, Flora and Ulysses, in which a squirrel is sucked up by vacuum cleaner and comes out of it with powers befitting a superhero, and a cynical girl finds a reason for hope.

About the book...

Q: Tell me about Flora & Ulysses, it's very different from your previous books

KD: It is different! I think it’s different because I think it’s funny and sometimes I’m accused of being a downer in my books, so I thought “man, here’s a funny book” but it’s also different because of the graphic elements... It’s also very much a book you could pick up and know that it’s me even if it didn’t have my name on it--it’s got all of my same old concerns: love, friendship, forgiveness. All those things I seem to keep on writing about, and never get tired of writing about, even though I think I’m just writing a funny story, those things are in there.

Q: In Flora & Ulysses, Flora is an avid reader of comic books and then Ulysses brings poetry to the table, were you a comic book or poetry reader as a kid?

KD: I was a Peanuts reader. My brother and I were both obsessed with Peanuts, and at our local library there were Peanuts anthologies, giant collections of every strip and all the Sunday strips, and we were the only ones who checked them out and then we’d check them back out again.  Poetry?  I came very late to poetry.  Probably about 2006-2007 I started reading it myself and fell in love with it. So a lot of that passion for poetry got transferred to the squirrel.

Q: Do you have a favorite poet or poem?

KD: I have favorite anthologies, and Garrison Keillor has done a blue book called Good Poems and a yellow book called Good Poems for Hard Times, and then a red book and I love those anthologies and I finish one and start the next one and then re-read them.  I also love what he does on Writers Almanac with a poem a day.

About the donut...

Q: I love that in your book, Ulysses [the squirrel] is obsessed with a big donut...

KD:  Yes, the giant donut--sprinkles, stuffed with chocolate, cream, jelly...

Q: Do you have a favorite [donut]?

KD: Well, I grew up in a house where when we were at the movies, my mother would ask “are you hungry?”  And we would go “oh, boy” and then she would pull out some dried apricots.  And these weren’t the ones that are all plump, that come in Christmas-time gift baskets, but the wizened ones that you had to hold them in your mouth for a long time until you could start chewing them.  So I never got a giant donut, is what I’m saying.  I had a mother who loved me very much and fed me accordingly. 

I have to say I laughed really hard when she told me the above anecdote, especially her description of the wizened apricots.  And we then digressed into a discussion of the deliciousness of Krispy Kreme donuts and the local Top Pot donuts that is near the Amazon offices, and how donut makers must be happy people, spreading the joy…  We also decided that maybe Top Pot should do a Ulysses donut--perhaps their chocolate with maple frosting and peanuts on top? Perfect Ulysses donut… "Donuts are vital." says Kate DiCamillo. 

About the squirrel...

Q: Have you always loved squirrels?

KD: I love all creatures, but there was this--it must be said--a squirrel, who was expiring on my front steps and he didn’t look like he was suffering but he also looked very much like he was dying and I was like “what am I going to do?” so I called one of my best friends who lives about a block and a half away, and this is the sweetest and kindest of all of my friends.  And she said “do you have a shovel?” and I said, “well, yeah, I do have a shovel”--and I’m still out there with the squirrel--and she said “well, get the shovel and an old t-shirt and I’ll come over” and I said “what are you going to do?” and she said “well, I’ll whack him in the head” and it’s like, “are you kidding me?! You’re going to brain the squirrel on my front steps?” and so at this point I left the front steps because I didn’t want the squirrel to hear what was going on, and I’m so undone that this gentle person is offering to come over and whack the squirrel, so I said “well, let me just think about what to do here.” And the squirrel must have caught wind of what was going on because he was gone when I went back out there. Which was great, but I think I started thinking on a subconscious level, how could I save a squirrel?

About superpowers...

Q: You also have ordinary people who possess superpowers in this book, if you were to choose a superpower outside of invisibility or flight, what would you pick?

KD: I would like to not be able to worry.  I’m so sick of hearing myself worry, and it’s so pointless, so I would like to be a superhero who is like the squirrel--I’d like to be happy.  There’s that point in there [Flora and Ulysses] where Dr. Meescham is examining him [Ulysses] and he thinks he’s dead, but so many things have happened to him at this point that he wasn’t even going to get upset about it, it’s just interesting.  I’d like to have that superpower to just be happy and not worry and think, “well this is interesting, too.”

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