Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
published by Candlewick Press, 2013.
won the Newbery Medal in 2014. It’s a pretty crazy plot involving a girl named Flora Belle Buckham and a squirrel superhero who writes poetry. Ulysses acquires his powers in an unfortunate tangle with a vacuum cleaner. Flora rescues him, but her mother wants Ulysses out of the house.
Reading this book requires one to believe the impossible. All of the characters are funny and quirky, including Flora’s father and mother, the neighbors William Spiver and his great aunt Tillie. However, the children’s problems are serious and real.
I expect Flora and Ulysses would be vastly entertaining for middle grade readers. It’s scenes are so absurd, the characters’ voices so humorous. Particularly interesting to me as a writer was the blending of graphic novel and narrative. The graphics moved the plot forward.
I’ve liked other Newbery winners better, but this was a fun, fast read.
I had to do a little research about dryads when I was writing Book V of the Karakesh Chronicles. As yet it is without a real title, but for my own purposes, I called it Bimi Lightfoot and the Bad Faerie. As the story progressed, the bad faerie became only a part of Bimi’s harrowing adventures.
But back to dryads.
In Greek mythology, the dryads are minor goddesses. There are dryads who live in trees, and others who live close to their trees. Their lives are usually long, and they remain within their tree, or the forest where it grows.
There are many stories about dryads in Greek mythology. A famous example is the story of Eurydice. Eurydice was an oak dryad who fell in love with Orpheus and his beautiful music. After they wed, she died of a poisonous snake bite and ended up in the Underworld. Hades allowed Orpheus to lead her out of the Underworld if Orpheus did not look back. At the threshold of the living, Orpheus turned around to make sure she was following, and Eurydice was swept back to Hades’ realm.
I was surprised to learn that different kinds of trees have specific dryads. Oreiades inhabit mountain pines. Meliai live in ash trees. The Maliades and Epimiliads live in fruit and apple trees and also guard sheep. Caryatids live in walnut trees. Hamadryads are born in oak and poplar trees. Laurel trees are home to the rare Daphnaie.
In Book V, Bimi Lightfoot encounters several dryads. From them, he learns something surprising about himself.
Reading about dryads made me wonder: does a dryad die when her tree is cut down? Does she move into another tree with a sister? Is there room for two dryads in one tree?
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My first introduction to the Arthurian legend was at the age of eleven, when I read Roger Lancelyn Green’s Knights of the Round Table. I memorized the score of Camelot, and saw the film with Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero several times (not so great). I loved reading The Mists of Avalon, and Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. And of course, T.H. White’s Once and Future King.
It’s such a magical, powerful saga, that encompasses all the virtues and vices of humankind. We get adultery, illegitimacy, quests, battles, jealousies, deception, and lots of enchantment.
After hearing Peter and Sarah Walker’s performance (see earlier post), I did a little research on Lancelot. Here’s one version of his life.
Lancelot is born the son of King Ban and Elaine of Benoic (also Benwick). When King Ban is wounded, Elaine goes to tend to him, and Vivien carries the baby away. After the death of King Ban, Lancelot is brought up by Vivien, the Lady of the Lake, in her mystical kingdom. Hence he acquires his name, Lancelot du Lac.
Vivien herself is a fascinating character who goes by many names: Vivianne, Nimue, and Nyneve. She is the lover and the undoing of Merlin, and it is she who imprisons Merlin in a crystal cave or hawthorn tree, depending on the version of the story.
The enchantress Vivien raises Lancelot to be a model of chivalry. When he turns fifteen, she introduces him to King Arthur’s court at Camelot. There she requests that Arthur make Lancelot one of the Knights of the Round Table whenever Lancelot asks. Lancelot asks to be knighted the next day.
The moment Lancelot meets Queen Guinevere, he falls in love. At first, he continues to adore her from afar, as a chivalrous knight should. He proves himself to be the best knight of the kingdom, in battle and in tournament.
Guinevere and Lancelot become lovers. Lancelot’s devotion to Guinevere never wavers. He is tricked into sleeping with Elaine, the daughter of King Pelles, the keeper of the Holy Grail (Sangral). Galahad is born from this union.
When the Grail appears to the Knights of the Round Table, many leave in search of it. As an adulterer, Lancelot is too impure too achieve a vision of Grail, but Galahad, his son, is allowed to see it.
While Arthur is away defending the kingdom, Agravain and Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son by Morgan Le Fey, discover Lancelot and Guinevere in bed together. Mordred demands that Arthur obey the law and execute the queen by burning at the stake.
Meanwhile, Mordred declares himself king in Arthur’s absence. Arthur is forced to challenge his son for the throne. He kills Mordred, and Mordred deals a death blow to Arthur.
Lancelot saves Guinevere from burning, but Guinevere is finally appalled by the deadly repercussions of their affair. She retires to a convent and refuses to see Lancelot again. He, in turn, also chooses a religious life, and remains a monk until his death.
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Will Mattie Gokey escape the drudgery of farm life in the Northern Woods and go to college? Her plans encounter many obstacles, from her mother’s dying request for Mattie to take her place, her dour father’s demands, to a romantic detour with a handsome neighbor. When the body of young Grace Brown is pulled from the lake near the hotel where Mattie works, Mattie encounters a murder mystery and more complications.
Based on a true story, A Northern Light drew me in and didn’t let go. The setting and the historic details provided interesting information about the “camps” in the Northern Woods in 1906. These so-called camps could be hotels sporting the latest comforts, or mansions owned by wealthy individuals.
I was fortunate to hear Jennifer Donnelly speak about her writing and the research for this book. She did a masterful job of pulling all the history into well-written historical fiction. My only problem was following the chronology of events from chapter to chapter.
A good read, though definitely for young adults due to the content.
Performance by Peter and Sarah Walker
Last Saturday at Christ the King Episcopal Church in Stone Ridge, singer and musician extraordinaire Peter Walker and his wife Sarah performed a musical biography of Lancelot.
It was amazing.
Peter plays several medieval instruments, including Celtic harp, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, and a stringed instrument called a citole. He also has a magnificent voice and sings in old French, old English, and Latin. Sarah, his wife, narrates in a clear, expressive, beautifully audible voice.
Together, Sarah and Peter presented the story of Launcelot du Lac, from Launcelot’s arrival at King Arthur’s court, to his spiritual demise and the destruction of Camelot.
And what a story it is!
I had forgotten the details of the Knights of the Round Table. I read Roger Lancelyn Green’s book over and over when I was 11 years old. Hearing the song and story of Launcelot brought it all back, with a little research to confirm my memory.
The story of Camelot, the Round Table, Arthur and his best knight, has every element of deceit, intrigue, and romance that one could want.
I’ll save the recounting for another post. Here is Peter playing the harp last Saturday.
To learn more about Peter and his performances, go to his website at
There you can listen to him play and sing, and see the schedule of his events.
It’s worth the effort! What a fascinating and educational performance!
The Young Writers’ Camps given by the Hudson Valley Writing Project www.newpaltz.edu/hvwp/ offer a variety of writing experiences to children from second grade through high school.
And this week, I got to be a part of it!
Two amazing teachers, Nicole Smith and Rebecca Quackenbush, created an exciting week of writing activities for the youngest group of writers. We had twelve children, including students going into second, third, and fourth grade.
The theme was Seven Wonders of the World. We took virtual tours of some very exciting places: the Great Barrier Reef, Mount Everest, and Victoria Falls, among others. The children engaged in related art activities and wrote about them and themselves in different genres.
For me, participating in this workshop would have been enjoyable enough, but I also got to speak to the group about my publishing process. I told them how I’d first written the book that became Tangled in Magic for my godchildren. I handmade a copy for each of them.
I showed the students a copy of the book I made.
The original title was The Three Seductions. I had in mind Agatha’s quest to find her brother when I chose that title, because she was lured away from her quest by comfort, romance, and danger.
If you’ve read Tangled in Magic, you’ll recognize the two heroic birds, Archer and Carl the Third. I drew the members of the two main families, mostly to keep them straight in my own mind.
It’s been such a fabulous experience seeing this book published.
Thank you, Tevin and Nicole of Handersen Publishing!