Friday, February 21, 2014

Review - "Flora & Ulysses"

When patrons ask me about my favorite books, my mind usually reaches back for the classics that I read when I was young; Little Women, The Wizard of Oz (and its sequels, especially Ozma of Oz and The Patchwork Girl of Oz) and The Secret Garden.  But if anyone asks about my favorite authors, the first name that always floats to the forefront of my mind is Kate DiCamillo.  The Tale of Despereaux is one of my everything books (“it’s got everything!”), and I can’t think of a single book she’s touched that I didn’t enjoy.  Whether it’s Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken for picture book audiences, Bink and Gollie (with the equally talented Alison McGhee) for the early reader set, or her middle grade novels, Ms. DiCamillo has been capturing my imagination since I first turned my attention towards juvenile literature.  For all these reasons, when her latest work, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures won the Newbery Medal this year, I was over the moon.  Not only was it another win for a comic novel (kids love funny stories!), it was a book that featured comic/graphic panels throughout to help tell the story.  I think this is a significant recognition of the value of graphic storytelling.  And of course the best thing might be that this is a book that simply sells itself…(“It’s about a squirrel that gets sucked into a vacuum cleaner and gets superpowers” – that’s as far as my book talk gets before I see the spark in their eyes).

Young Flora is a self-described, “natural-born” cynic.  Her mother, divorced, is a romance writer, a profession Flora disdains for its, well, romantic nature.  Flora loves comic books, which her mother disdains as “idiotic high-jinks”.  Needless to say, there is tension in the house.  Flora’s life turns upside down when, as the result of a well-intention but poorly thought out birthday gift, a regular squirrel gets sucked up into a super-powered vacuum cleaner.  Flora rescues the poor animal, and is surprised and delighted when she discovers that Ulysses (for that must be the squirrel’s name) has gained superpowers.  Ulysses can fly!  He can understand human speech!  He can type!  He can type poetry!  As Ms. DiCamillo’s masterful human/squirrel comedy unfolds, the reader is treated to a story of arch-villains and heroes, poetry, donuts, wise words, great escapes, a vicious cat and meaningful journeys for our cast of characters, both human and squirrel alike.

There’s just something about Kate.  Ms. DiCamillo has a soft touch, a poetic voice and just a big enough dash of magical realism to make her stories fantastic, but not completely out of reach of the human experience.  She’s written about a brave mouse, a journeyman toy, best friends, and the ties that bind, and every story seems to glow from within, even when they are making you laugh, as Flora & Ulysses most certainly does.  Ms. DiCamillo, along with her vital illustrator K.G. Campbell, meld words and pictures to create memorable characters.  Ulysses the squirrel is a stand out, of course, but I found myself in love with Flora’s soft-spoken father, whose exposure to the extraordinary Ulysses opens up a part of him that seems to have been closed off for quite some time.  This is often the case with characters in Ms. DiCamillo’s books; they are healed, like Flora’s Wililam Spivey, by the magic they find in their very own world.  

Books have healing magic, too.  I believe that with all my heart.

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo; ill. by K.G. Campbell
2013, Candlewick Press
Personal copy