On the Shelf: Flora & Ulysses

I Believe in Story | On the Shelf: Flora & Ulysses
Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Katie DiCamillo. Published by Candlewick Press in 2013.

It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences. The squirrel never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, but self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, is the just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight, and misspelled poetry—and that Flora will be changed too, as she discovers the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart.

Bedtime is a time for endless negotiations and limited patience. I’m tired. The kids should have been in bed an hour ago and are now fighting over which book to read. Daphne wants five picture books. Lila wants Percy Jackson.

Enter Flora & Ulysses.

This week both kids wanted to hear “the squirrel book.” Hallelujah! Praise the deity of your choice and Kate DiCamillo! The kids loved this book. I asked why, hoping to hear one of those “from the mouths of babes” statements that exposes the true meaning of the universe, or this book, as the case may be. Lila, seven, said: “I like the squirrel.” Daphne, four, failed to respond as she was too busy cutting her sock in half to answer. I was too busy thinking about this review to stop her.

Lack of profundity aside, enthusiasm for the book ran high, so high that Daphne now plans to name one of her future children Flora, along with Dime, Dimess, and Daness. (I can’t wait to hear her shouting after those ones.) DiCamillo packed the book with enough comedic high jinks to keep the kids rapt or collapsed in a fit of giggles for long stretches of time. Plus, there are adorable pictures and comic-style illustrations. I had trouble reading the book at times because they were flipping ahead to see the next picture.

In some ways I was surprised at the kids’ enthusiasm, especially the four-year-old’s. Don’t get me wrong. I love the book, but it is sprinkled with SAT-grade vocabulary and concepts worthy of discussion in a college literary criticism class. For example: What does it mean to be a superhero or a villain? Can a poet be a superhero? Can your mother be an archvillain? The overarching theme, I think, is the nature of loneliness. “Loneliness,” DiCamillo writes, “can make us do terrible things.”

From a feminist perspective, I feel slightly conflicted about this one. The mother is the villain. She is the loneliest creature in the universe: divorced, working on a romance novel when she has no romance in her life, ignoring her daughter, and fixated on a lamp she bought with her first paycheck. To be fair, she is a well-rounded, redeemable villain, and sadly, realistic. Flora’s point-of-view exposes the villainous pitfalls parents (moms and dads) slide into when negotiating career, family, divorce, and personal ambition. Plus, “mom as villain” is a provocative choice for kids, not to mention satisfying for a reader who’s just been told: “For the last time, stop reading and turn out the light!”

This book has it all: a flying squirrel for the kids and thought-provoking ideas for adults. If the Newbery Award wasn’t enough to convince you to read it, I doubt this will change your mind, but I hope it does.


Music Notes: Lindsey Stirling

I Believe in Story | Music Notes: Lindsey Stirling

You may not be a person who writes to music. If you’re not, I get it. Although I prefer a playlist for almost every situation, I often choose to write in quiet.

For me, writing is like practicing yoga. I get the best results when I can reach a space of clarity and flow. Music, particularly when it’s tied to memory, can take me away from that connectivity and spaciousness.

Worst case, I am suddenly transported to the time I drove to rescue my boyfriend from car trouble in the blinding snow only to realize on the ride home that he wouldn’t be my boyfriend much longer. Best case, I am simply thinking: I love this song. Regardless, thinking takes me out of the moment.

Then there’s Lindsey Stirling. Listening to her beat-driven violin instrumentals gives me the feeling of being propelled by music instead of distracted by it. Her music has the ability to recede and let your subconscious do its thing. But it’s not just for the background. If you are looking for songs that can power and inform a scene, hers have the energy and emotion to do that, too. Check out her debut CD, Lindsey Stirling. Download a song and go for a run, clean your kitchen, serve hors d’ouvers, do a couple vinyasas, or tackle that chapter that’s waiting for you.

Then, tell me what music you like to write to best in the comments below.


Character Study: Pinkie Pie

I Believe in Story >> Character Study: Pinkie Pie

Let’s talk for a minute about the awesomeness that is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. What’s that you say? Why am I talking about a little kid’s show about ponies and friendship and magic? Because this show is AMAZING. I was skeptical at first too, but then I watched Bronies, a heart-warming documentary about adult male My Little Pony fans from around the world, and I was too curious not to at least try the show. And I’m so glad I did. It’s adorable, the characters are complex, the writing is amazing, and the lessons about friendship transcend age and gender. It’s awesome.

But I’m not here to sing the praises of the show, am I? I’m here to talk about Pinkie Pie, who I believe is the most brilliant, and the most misunderstood, pony on the show.

Every pony has their passion, and Pinkie Pie’s is throwing parties and making people happy. She’s a curly haired pink pony who often defies the laws of physics, laughs a lot, screams a lot, carries a confetti cannon with her (seemingly at all times), and is able to predict things with a supernatural series of twitches and spasms. Basically, she’s a genius who covers her brilliance in a thick layer of party streamers and cake frosting.

But why is she so misunderstood? I was at a comic book store the other day, conversing with the owner who said she was a fan of Applejack (a farming pony who is strong and tough). I said Applejack was cool, but Pinkie Pie was my favourite—and the shop owner’s eyes went wide. She leaned forward and said Pinkie Pie was okay, but she was a bit of a ditz. My jaw dropped. Scatterbrained though she may appear, I believe Pinkie Pie has it all together; and when I tried to explain this, the shop owner looked skeptical and laughed it off.

I wanted to kick and scream: "Pinkie Pie is the smartest and the most gifted pony and the one with the very best attitude of them all!"—but it would have done no good. Because of the way she approaches life, I believe Pinkie Pie will always be seen by some folks as nothing more than a scatterbrained party pony. But I know better. Fun doesn’t necessarily equal dumb. Pinkie Pie knows where life is at. She never works too hard, her greatest passion is making people smile, and she does things so unexpected and clever that they often surprise her pony friends who live in a magical land of Unicorns and Pegasi. How much more amazing can any pony get?