Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
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).
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.