Newbery Medal-winning author Kate DiCamillo vividly recalls her second-grade teacher, Mrs. Boyette, reading Scott O'Dell's "Island of the Blue Dolphins" to her class at Florida's Clermont Elementary School in the early 1970s.
"For me, it was like experiencing a physical kind of light," DiCamillo, now 50, says over the phone from her home in Minnesota. "I could feel that story in my body."
So she didn't hesitate when she was tapped by the Library of Congress to be the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. The job takes her around the country — including to Baltimore, which she'll visit Sunday — to advocate for the importance of reading.
"I was very intimidated to do this at first," DiCamillo says. "I thought, 'Me? An ambassador? I'm more like a chipmunk.' But I've settled into the role because I believe in the message so much."
DiCamillo might have been surprised that she was selected, but no one else was. After all, she's won two Newbery Awards — in 2004 for "The Tale of Despereaux" and in 2014 for "Flora & Ulysses." Her first novel, "Because of Winn-Dixie," was named a 2001 Newbery Honor Book.
In "Flora & Ulysses," 10-year-old Flora Buckman is struggling to come to terms with her parents' divorce. She gets help from an unexpected source after she revives a squirrel who was sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. Flora then discovers that the squirrel's near-death experience has given her new friend unusual powers.
The author hopes her visit to Park School will allow her to renew her acquaintance with the school's part-time librarian, Laura Amy Schlitz, who won the Newbery in 2008 and who was a runner-up in 2013.
"Laura is an amazing writer," DiCamillo says. "From the very beginning, I knew she was the real deal. I'm excited to be at her school."
What's the difference between a children's book and a book with young characters that also appeals to adults?
I would posit that some books for children, like "Charlotte's Web," deal with the central issues of what it means to be human that we keep turning over all of our lives.
But when I'm writing for children, I have it in my mind that I'm "duty-bound to end the story with hope." That's a quote from [author] Katherine Paterson.
In addition, when I'm writing for kids I'm always aware of possibility and of magic. Impossible things can happen in stories for kids.
It makes me more hopeful myself, and more aware of possibilities. That's why I love writing for kids.
You're a big advocate for the good things that can happen when a grown-up reads aloud to kids.
Yes, and not just by reading to kids. Sometimes when I'm speaking to a roomful of adults, I'll say, "Go home and read to your adult."
It's something that matters to all of us, and as an adult, you don't get read to very much. We should start read-aloud clubs — for kids, for adults, for whomever. They could be small, intimate groups of 10 or 20.
I think the benefit comes from being connected to the people you're with. It creates a community, and afterward, you carry the stories with you.
The story feels like a map inside of me. I might not necessarily be aware of the map at the time that I'm hearing it, but later I can feel the outlines of that story showing me a path to something in myself or to something in the world.
What was the inspiration behind "Flora & Ulysses"?
It's never straightforward.
My mom passed away in 2009, and she had an Electrolux vacuum cleaner that she thought the world of. She got the vacuum cleaner in the '50s and she kept getting it fixed. In the last years of her life, she would say to me, "What's going to happen to the vacuum cleaner after I'm gone?"
After she died, I took the vacuum cleaner, but I put it in my garage because it's filled with cat hair and I'm allergic to cats. Every time I pulled into the garage, I'd see that vacuum cleaner and it would make me think about my mother, and then I'd feel sad.
That was Strand One.
Strand Two is that one day I found a squirrel dying on the front steps of my house. I didn't know what to do, so I called a friend. She offered to come over and whack the squirrel over the head with a shovel.
I didn't want her to whack it over the head, and apparently neither did the squirrel, who was gone by the time I got back. I'm afraid he overheard the conversation over the phone and decided to opt for a more peaceful death.
That made me start thinking about different ways to save a squirrel's life, and I put that strand together with the strand about vacuum cleaner. So there you go.
Your book has been praised for creating a new form that's a hybrid between a conventional novel and a comic book. Was that your idea, and are you a comics fan yourself?
I was a huge "Peanuts" fan as a kid, and so was my brother, because of the wrestling that goes on about the meaning of life. That strip shaped my whole outlook on the world. My brother and I still talk to each other in the code of "Peanuts."
But writing a hybrid novel never even crossed my mind. It was the design person at Candlewick [DiCamillo's publisher] who said, "Hey, what if every time the squirrel does something super-heroic, we make comic strips?"
I thought that was a brilliant idea.
Did writing this book help you feel a little less sad about your mother's death?
It did. One thing that my mother and I shared was a sense of humor. We laugh in exactly the same way. One of my friends said that we looked like two baby birds waiting to be fed. We'd throw our heads back and open our mouths wide. I enjoyed writing a book that I thought would make my mother laugh.
If you go
Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo will read from "Flora & Ulysses" at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Meyerhoff Theatre at Park School, 2425 Old Court Road, Baltimore. The event is free, but tickets are required and can be obtained from The Children's Bookstore, 737 Deepdene Road, Roland Park. Call 410-532-2000 or go to thecbstore.com.
About the book
The paperback version of "Flora & Ulysses" was issued March 10 by Candlewick Press. Recommended for ages 8 to 12. 240 pages, $8.99.