Minneapolis writer Kate DiCamillo won the John Newbery Medal on Monday for her book “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures,” the second time in 10 years that she has captured the most prestigious award in children’s literature.
This time it made her cry.
The book, though often hilarious – it’s about a squirrel with superpowers – was written soon after the death of her mother and is laced with themes of loss.
“I can’t believe it,” DiCamillo said. The usually ebullient writer was fighting back tears. “I’ve been crying since 5:30 this morning” when the Newbery committee called to deliver the news.
“I didn’t say anything coherent to them,” DiCamillo said. “I really have no recollection of anything except crying. And then I came downstairs and it was 5:30, and I wrote. Because I couldn’t think what else to do.”
Winning the Newbery Medal is much more emotional this time than it was in 2004, when she won for “The Tale of Despereaux.” “It is,” she said. “I’m undone. I’m undone. In a wonderful way.”
“Flora & Ulysses” is about a squirrel that gets sucked up into a vacuum cleaner and is freed by a cynical, sometimes cranky 10-year-old named Flora (her mantra: “Do not hope; instead, observe.” Flora also says, frequently, “Holy bagumba!”). The squirrel emerges from the vacuum cleaner able to fly. It also begins writing poetry.
DiCamillo’s mother, Betty, “has been very much on my mind anyway, how she nurtured me as a reader,” DiCamillo said. “But also this book is very much her book. It’s a turning toward joy, and where we intersected so much was in laughter.”
The award comes after a busy 2013 in which DiCamillo published two books, made the longlist for the National Book Award for “Flora,” and was named the Library of Congress’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. She said the Newbery moved her the most.
Winning this award “makes me feel like a 10-year-old. This is the book that is most like me.”
In her debut novel “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a Newbery Honor book, “I was always aware that Opal was smarter and kinder than me,” she said. “But I see myself a lot in Flora.
“And I see myself a lot in the squirrel.”
The genesis of “Flora & Ulysses” came from two things: a squirrel that was dying on DiCamillo’s front sidewalk, and a vacuum cleaner that her mother left to her. “My mom had the world’s meanest cat, and I’m allergic to cats,” she said, so she kept the dander-filled Electrolux in her garage, where she saw it every time she came home.
“No, no, I’m going to cry again,” DiCamillo said. “I can’t believe it. You know, it’s this thing that I’ve talked about before where I feel like I found what I’m supposed to do in the world, and I’ve been allowed to do it. And that alone is miraculous, but to have people respond to it is just –” She sniffed, composed herself. “I don’t know what to do. I’m glad that I wrote this morning. I’m glad that I came down the stairs and wrote. Because that’s what I want to keep doing.”
Among the letters from readers that DiCamillo has received – and there have been thousands – “I had a letter from a kid that started off like a typical letter, and then she put in all these words that she loved, scattered all over it – ‘Holy bagumba!’ and ‘malfeasance,’ and she put sparkles around them. She said, ‘I love the words in this book.’ And she said, ‘The poetry made me cry.’ ”