Book Review: Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Flora

Book Summary

From Goodreads: Holy unanticipated occurrences! A cynic meets an unlikely superhero in a genre-breaking new novel by master storyteller Kate DiCamillo. 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. From #1 New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo comes a laugh-out-loud story filled with eccentric, endearing characters and featuring an exciting new format—a novel interspersed with comic-style graphic sequences and full-page illustrations, all rendered in black-and-white by up-and-coming artist K.G. Campbell.

Review: 5 out of 5 Stars

Holy bagumba, I loved this book!

In this Newberry Award winning novel, Kate DiCamillo tells the tale of young Flora, a self-professed cynic living with her mother, a romance novelist, after the divorce of her parents. While reading comic books, she spies a young squirrel outside her window who nearly meets his doom at the hands of a vacuum cleaner. Flora saves him (sidenote: squirrel mouth-to-mouth is gross) and then befriends him after it is revealed that this near-death experience has left him with super-powers. In these pages we also meet her father, left adrift after the divorce, her neighbor, and her neighbor’s great-nephew, William Spiver (both names, please, and never Billy). Their story is told through both words and the clever illustrations of K.G. Campbell. I loved it all.

This story was in turns hilarious, touching and heart-breaking. Flora is so fun to read and I just want to hang out with her and make sure she knows it is totally ok to be exactly who she is. I thought it was really smart how they highlighted the ways that reading affected her life and how much she had learned from the reading that her mother classified as trashy.  I love books like this that validate what kids like to read.  Her budding friendship and sweet little developing crush on William Spiver was excellently handled.  William Spiver’s side story was, to be honest, heartbreaking.  I feel like for many kids it will go over their heads and was possibly a *touch* much for the middle-grade set.

Ulysses completely stole the show for me, though. His newfound love of living and life (and giant doughnuts, of course) is just beautiful. And one of his super-powers in particular literally brought me to tears at the end of the novel. I read and re-read the epilogue and wish that all Flora’s out there could have an affirming Ulysses by their side at all times.  Ms. DiCamillo’s writing of this character was just perfect, but it was enhanced so much through the illustrations.  Since Ulysses cannot speak, they cleverly used the illustrations to make him so endearing and show his inner monologue.  I thought it was really brilliantly done.

Obviously I personally can’t speak to how well this would play with the middle grade intended audience, but I bet many would like it. It seems like a good bridge book for kids who already like reading comics or graphic novels. I do see some reviews that complain about the advanced language used by Flora and William, but I think lots of young kids could relate to it. And as for the heartbreak, many of the most loved children’s novels are downright depressing when you think about it — Charlotte’s Web (death), Harriet the Spy (intense bullying), Narnia (lots of evil and betrayal) and the list goes on and on. I think this honest depiction of a divorced household and parents and children who don’t always communicate that well will actually ring true for many.

That being said, I have had the opportunity since reading this novel to speak to an 11-year-old who also read this book and, while she did like it, she thought the actions of the mother were a bit over-the-top.  In this book the mother is so focused on Flora having a “normal” life, that she does take some extreme measures to try to stop Flora from being friends with Ulysses.  After all, I’m sure toting around a balding squirrel wouldn’t be so good for your daughter’s image.  Having spoken with this 11-year-old reader, I can COMPLETELY understand why this part of the novel would be tough for kids to read (or to understand).  While — SPOILER — the mother does come around in the end, I don’t think it would have hurt the story to tone the mother down a bit.  She was neglectful, a chain smoker, and at the end did threaten physical harm to a beloved pet (and an anthropomorphic pet at that, basically guaranteeing that the young readers would be pretty horrified at the thought of harm coming to him).

Bottom Line

I really loved this read and, while I got through it in a single sitting, it has stuck with me long since.  The characters were touching and so well-written and drawn that you can’t quite let them go after reading.  Additionally, I think this book would be a great conversation starter between a parent and their child and that’s the perfect result from a middle grade read.

Book Review: Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

The Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

Handbook

 

Book Summary

From GoodreadsTilda has never given much thought to dragons, attending instead to her endless duties and wishing herself free of a princess’s responsibilities.

When a greedy cousin steals Tilda’s lands, the young princess goes on the run with two would-be dragon slayers. Before long she is facing down the Wild Hunt, befriending magical horses, and battling flame-spouting dragons. On the adventure of a lifetime, and caught between dreams of freedom and the people who need her, Tilda learns more about dragons—and herself—than she ever imagined.

Merrie Haskell, author of The Princess Curse, presents a magical tale of transformation, danger, and duty, starring a remarkable princess as stubborn as she is brave.

 

Review: 4 out of 5 Stars

I recently finished Handbook for Dragon Slayers and couldn’t wait to review it, mostly because I just KNOW there are some of you out there who still have not read any Merrie Haskell and that truly pains me.  I sincerely credit her novel The Princess Curse with kicking off the most marvelous reading spree I’ve had in a very long time.  I read that novel and suddenly could not get enough of fairy tale retellings or female heroines or feel-good reads.  In fact, I am hard pressed to think of a book I had read before hers that was even a middle grade book, and since then I have been much more willing to browse that section of my library.  So when I heard Haskell had a second novel coming out I knew I would have to get my hands on it.  And while Handbook for Dragon Slayers probably won’t end up on my Best of 2013 List, it reinforced everything I loved about Haskell’s novels and firmly placed her on my Must Read list.  So in this review I plan to highlight what I thought was great about Handbook for Dragon Slayers, but also explore what I think is so great about Haskell more generally as well.

  • Strong Female Heroines:  Haskell writes some of the best middle grade heroines I have ever read.  Her characters are complex and full; they aren’t ever mere damsels in distress.  They are intelligent, and strong, and they overcome obstacles with aplomb.  This is not to say, of course, that they are flawless.  For example, in Handbook for Dragon Slayers, the main character is a princess named Tilda, who was born with a clubfoot.  This has always made her feel like an outsider, and the novel explores really well the various ways she has shut herself off from most of the world in order to protect herself from feeling too much.  Since the novel is written from her standpoint, you believe along with her that everyone is afraid of her and that certain characters are out to get her, and so as Tilda grows and learns to give people a second chance, so does the reader.  It’s so cleverly written that I was even surprised when some of the reactions I had expected — because Tilda had told me to expect them — never came.  The secondary female character, Judith, also displays a strong loyalty and love for her friends and family.  Plus Judith is a really kick-butt dragon hunter.  And no spoilers but there is an excellent twist at the end that allows this theme of female strength to really shine. 

 

  • Healthy Female Friendships: Nothing annoys me more than the trend in literature to constantly pit women against each other.  It is truly rare to see novels that explore the beautiful strength to be found in female friendships.  In both of her novels Haskell has spotlighted a female friendship without jealousy or competition.  Although Judith and Tilda have moments of discord, they are able to come back together and be truly stronger than when they started, usually through communication and apologies rather than some intermediary or some magical solution.  They are able to both be friends with a boy whom they obviously both like being around without much strife.  I loved that this example of friendship is being modeled, particularly in Middle Grade literature when the healthy female friendship can start to go the way of the dodo. 

 

  • Intelligent Mingling of Recognizable Fairy Tale Themes:  My one complaint about some fairy tale retellings is that they are so true-to-tale that there is no surprise or character development.  The princess is the princess, the prince is the prince, and we all know it will turn out well in the end.  What Haskell does so beautifully in both of her books is draw from multiple fairy tales and pull various elements together to make a really interesting mingling of familiar story lines packaged together in a new and completely fresh feeling and unpredictable way.  In Handbook for Dragon Slayers, we see elements of Bluebeard, the Swan Maiden, the Wild Hunt, and some great dragon lore.  I love that she does this, especially when taking into account younger readers.  I now have a really easy answer for a young reader who loves this book and asks me what to read next.  I think it also helps her stories feel familiar, like you’ve known them all of your life, without going down the path of the expected outcome.

 

  • Unexpected Main Characters: In both of her novels, Haskell writes from what in many other stories would be a secondary character’s perspective.  Because Tilda has a clubfoot, she is not physically able to be a dragon slayer.  In fact, there are many instances where her friends are shown literally carrying her because her strength has given out (more plus points for Judith).  And so Tilda becomes the scribe, which allows her to be the partner in crime to her friends, and to be a main player in the action without actually being the one doing the dragon hunting.  I love that Haskell chooses to highlight these “secondary” characters and I think in the end it makes for more interesting reading.

 

  • The Un-Lesson: One almost necessary part of a great Middle Grade read, for me, is the un-lesson, or the lesson that doesn’t feel like a lesson.  As we watch Tilda grow and develop, we see her learning to distinguish between what she thinks is important and what is truly important.  Learning this difference and the related difference between what we want in life and what we actually need is such an important part of growing up, and I love that Haskell chose to explore it in this novel.  But at no times did it feel like a morality play or like the lesson was being shoved down our throats.  It was just an important, understandable part of Tilda’s development, but I think we all walked away feeling like we learned something.

 

These are just a few of my favorite parts about Haskell’s novels.  I think that in Handbook for Dragon Slayers there were a few small issues that kept it from being a five-star read for me.  There was one particular shift in tone that didn’t all the way work for me in the middle of the book.  I wanted a bit more by way of depth — there were certain story lines or plot points that seemed to come out of nowhere and then everything tied itself up very neatly and very quickly at the end.  Some of this can just be chalked up to the age the book is directed at – these things stand out more to someone in their early 30s than someone in their tweens, but I still think it could have been developed differently.  That said, it did not diminish my overall enjoyment of the novel and I definitely highly recommend it. 

Bottom Line

Handbook for Dragon Slayers is a great, fast read that explores deep themes of friendship, loyalty, responsibility, self-esteem and growth, all neatly hidden away in a novel with a beautifully developed world and endearing characters that you want to befriend.  While there are some small issues, if you’ve read and liked middle grade novels before, I do not think it is anything that will keep you from enjoying this novel.  Perhaps even more importantly, though, Merrie Haskell has convinced me that middle grade novels are truly not just for kids.  Although I was an established reader of YA, it was Haskell who brought me into the middle grade world.  She writes intelligently and with such heart, you cannot help but fall in love with her characters.  And while there are elements of her novels that boys will also love, these books are such a good introduction to fantasy for young girls and, I feel, provide great examples in her heroines and her female characters generally.  Haskell is accomplishing so many important, necessary things with her writing and still managing to weave beautiful stories that stay with you long after you close the book.  I, for one, am excited to see what she comes up with next.