craft review by Kristi Wright
There are a myriad of things that Kate DiCamillo does brilliantly as a writer—let’s face it, she didn’t win two Newbery Medals for nothing—but with FLORA & ULYSSES, I’m going to focus on her marvelous command of character and situations to write laugh-out-loud comedy.
FLORA & ULYSSES is a buddy story about a young girl who insists she is a natural-born cynic and the unassuming squirrel who becomes a superhero through a near-death experience. Together they discover friendship, hope, and love. Publisher Candlewick dubbed Flora & Ulysses “genre-bending” because it features a split narrative format incorporating graphic and comics-style layouts and illustrations. The graphics by K. G. Campbell are delightful and add much to the humor as well.
I recently came across an excellent blog post on comedic writing from Mark Kennedy. In it, he makes the point that “the biggest laughs always come from watching characters react, think and take action.” As a writer you have to know your characters so well that you “see the world through their eyes – no matter how outlandish or crazy the situation.”
DiCamillo is a master when it comes to creating interesting characters and situations for them to react to that allow for these wonderfully comedic moments.
Humor Driven by a Character’s Unique Way of Thinking
Take the main character, Flora, for instance. Flora says she is a natural-born cynic and yet she is obsessed with a superhero comic series from which she has gleaned that impossible things happen all the time. While Flora says and thinks cynical things and typically assumes the worst from others and from the world, her actions show that she wants to believe in impossible things (like superheroes), that she is a hopeful, heroic, and helpful person.
At the opening of the story, Flora sees her neighbor vacuum up a squirrel by accident. If Flora had been a true cynic, she likely would have felt a momentary sadness and closed her curtains. That would not have been funny. Instead, Flora goes into comic book mode. She says, “This malfeasance must be stopped,” because that’s what the superhero in her favorite series says. Then she surprises herself by running to the squirrel’s aid. In fact, Flora gives the squirrel mouth-to-mouth resuscitation!
The situation of a runaway vacuum that sucks up a squirrel is only funny because DiCamillo has created a character who has no other choice but to engage in a humorous (and humanitarian) way.
Another similar example, comes in the beginning of Chapter 21 when Flora uses her comic book knowledge to provide first aid, this time to a human:
“Tootie was on the couch with a package of frozen peas on her head. She had fainted.
Unfortunately, she had hit her head on the edge of the desk on the way down.
Fortunately, Flora had remembered an issue of TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU advising that a bag of frozen peas made an excellent cold compress to ‘provide comfort and reduce swelling.'”
Again, there is nothing particularly funny about someone fainting, but Flora’s unique way of dealing with it is funny.
Action: Look for opportunities in your own writing to amp up the humor by committing to your character’s unique thought process and reactions no matter how outlandish they might seem.
Humor Driven by a Character’s Physical Trait
A particularly funny moment in Flora & Ulysses takes place in a diner. DiCamillo sets up the situation when she introduces a new character, a waitress named Rita who has hair piled up “very, very high on her head,” which makes her look like Marie Antoinette.
She then has the waitress insist on seeing what Flora has in her shoebox. When she pokes her pencil into the box, she finds Ulysses.
She screamed; he screamed.
And then every one of his animal instincts kicked in. He acted without thinking. He tried to escape. He leaped from the box and ended up, somehow, exactly where he did not want to be: in the middle of the monstrous hair.
Rita jumped up and down. She put her hands to her head. She swatted and clawed, trying to dislodge him. The harder she hit him, the higher she jumped, the more fiercely the squirrel clung.
In this way, Rita and Ulysses danced together around the Giant Do-Nut.
This situation would have been funny even without the hair setup, but knowing that the waitress had Marie Antoinette hair increases the comedic impact. In fact, from the moment that the reader hears about the waitress and her mound of hair, it’s likely that they are anticipating the wonderful moment when Ulysses ends up tangled in it.
Action: Brainstorm situations that have comedic potential then use your character’s physical or personality traits to set up for maximum hilarity.
What moments in FLORA & ULYSSES made you laugh out loud, and why?
Kristi Wright (assistant editor) is the Assistant Regional Advisor for the San Francisco/South region of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators and a writing mentor for the non-profit Society of Young Inklings. She offers writing workshops at the elementary school level with a focus on point of view and sensory detail. Her indie-published futuristic middle grade adventure series, The Basker Twins in the 31st Century, raises funds and awareness for a rare, childhood-onset disease, Friedreich’s ataxia.