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The Surprising Inspiration Behind Flora & Ulysses On Disney+

They say that inspiration comes in many forms and strikes you when you least expect it. That old adage couldn't be truer for Kate DiCamillo, the author of the novel Flora & Ulysses upon which the forthcoming Disney+ movie of the same name, directed by Lena Khan and written by Brad Copeland, is based. 

During a recent press event for Flora & Ulysses, at which Looper was present, DiCamillo opened up about what influenced her novel. The book, published in 2013 and illustrated by K.G. Campbell, tells the story of a young girl named Flora Belle Buckman, a comic book fiend and general cynic whose outlook on life is only made bleaker by her parents' divorce. Things begin to look whole lot stranger for Flora when she witnesses one of her neighbors nearly kill a squirrel by accidentally running it over with a vacuum cleaner. Having a brush with death grants the squirrel super powers, which prompts Flora to take him under her wing, name him Ulysses, and instruct him — using her breadth of comic book knowledge — that he must use his newfound abilities for good rather than evil. 

It's a quirky, heartwarming story that's about much more than just a girl and her super-powered pet squirrel. Fittingly, the inspiration for DiCamillo's book is also surprisingly profound.

Death, a vacuum cleaner, and an E.B. White essay inspired Flora & Ulysses

DiCamillo revealed during the Flora & Ulysses press event that her mother's death, a vacuum cleaner, an actual squirrel, and an essay by Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web author E.B. White helped inspire her novel. 

"My mom had a vacuum cleaner that she loved, and she passed away in 2009 — my mom did. And in the last year of her life, she kept on saying, 'What's going to happen to the vacuum cleaner when I'm gone?' And I [asked], 'Why are we worried about the vacuum cleaner? There are bigger things to worry about,'" DiCamillo explained. "But when she died, I did as I promised her I would do: I took the vacuum cleaner so that it would have a good home."

The problem was that DiCamillo's mother had a cat, and DiCamillo is allergic to cats, so the vacuum couldn't be kept inside DiCamillo's house. "My mom had a cat, the world's most evil cat named Mildew," she said. "I couldn't bring the vacuum cleaner into the house because of all the Mildew hair in it. So I had to leave it out in the garage." Keeping the vacuum in the garage meant that DiCamillo would see it when she drove in and parked her car — and every single time, it reminded her of her mother and made her miss her even more.

As DiCamillo further explained during the press junket, the spring after her mother's death, she found a squirrel "dying on [her] front steps." Her friend suggested that they "whack him over the head," which made DiCamillo think of Death of a Pig, White's essay that chronicles White's thoughts on how to save an ailing pig from dying.

Put all these elements together — her mother's passing, the vacuum cleaner she promised to look after, the squirrel, and the musings about death — and you've got a foundation for the Flora & Ulysses story.

There's no denying that a lot of heart and soul went in to the making of Flora & Ulysses — both the novel and the film upon which it's based. Featuring Matilda Lawler as Flora, and John Kassir as the voice of Ulysses, plus Parks and Rec's Ben Schwartz and How I Met Your Mother's Alyson Hannigan as Flora's parents, Flora & Ulysses will premiere on Disney+ on February 19.