Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo

Self-described cynic Flora spends her summer reading comics, while avoiding emotionally dealing with her parent’s divorce and rebelling against her mother who just wants Flora to act like a normal ten year old. Then one day Flora’s life changes when a squirrel is sucked into a vacuum cleaner and gains powers: super strength, flight, comprehension of human speech, and the ability to write poetry on a typewriter. Influenced by her comics, Flora saves Ulysses (the squirrel) and realizes she has found a genuine superhero. This newfound friend helps restore her relationship with her father, but threatens her already fragile relationship with her mother. Flora believes her own mother will end up being Ulysses’s arch nemesis. After all, a girl whose best friend is a squirrel with powers is the very opposite of normal.

While mostly a traditional novel, there are occasional “graphic novel” chapters thrown in between the more traditional material, reflecting the comic book motif that plays a major part of the story’s content. There are some funny bits in this story, but compared to Kate DiCamillo’s other Newbery Medal winner, The Tale of Desperaux, this book fell flat. The book is too motivic for its own good. It feels like DiCamillo tried to challenge herself by picking random concepts out of hat such as poetry, squirrels, comics, super powers, divorced parents, cynical girl, donuts, Pascal’s Wager, and then tried her best to weld it into a coherent and interesting story. Her attempt is admirable in that she mostly pulls it off, but it does leave the work feeling a little odd and off-putting. There is just enough structure to glue the work together, but the seams of all this randomness are apparent and it always feels like it is missing something. Flora seems a bit too angsty to keep the reader interested. All of the characters are a bit too quirky. Although I suppose that is the point, behind all the talk that Flora is a cynic and her recall of bizarre factoids gleaned from comic books, which prove surprisingly handy, she is just a girl struggling to deal with her emotions. So are the other characters.

Flora’s mom is presented as an inattentive selfish parent who treats Flora like a nuisance, but the ending makes us realize how much she cares about her daughter and that much of her actions are driven by these repressed feelings. A side character named William Spiver is temporarily blind, a psychosomatic symptom, related to his inability to emotionally deal with the perception that his mom took his new stepdad’s side during an incident. It is also implied that William and Flora have a crush on each other, but neither quite knows how to express these feelings. Even the squirrel’s poetry writing habits stem from his desire to write the emotions bubbling up in his heart, a way of expressing his joy of the world and his newfound friendship with Flora. The novel then is about how social expectations and unexpected changes in our life hamper us from expressing what we really feel. Often it is difficult to say what we really want to tell others and what is really in our hearts.

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2 thoughts on “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo

  1. It’s fun to see you posting about children’s book; did the word “Ulysses” in the title make you pick it up?

    I’ve read Winn Dixies and Despereaux but stopped there. There are many far better older books than Camillo’s that I want to get through first. I hope to return to her at some point though.

    I confess, I absolutely hate graphic novels. I can occasionally read comics but I haven’t been fans of those either. Except Marcia Williams’ comic books ….. her tales of Homer, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. are exceptional!

    • I’m glad you’re enjoying my children’s book posts. I selected it for a book club that I run at school, figuring since it was the 2014 Newbery Medal Winner it would be a good choice. Tale of Despereaux is one of my favorite children’s books.

      Comics aren’t for everybody. I grew up on comic books, especially Marvel and DC. My favorites were X-men, Spiderman, Batman, and Superman. The last graphic novel I read was the Explorer: The Mystery Boxes edited by Kazu Kibuishi. It is a bunch of short comic stories, each about a mysterious box. Some of the tales were clever, others were weak, but overall I enjoyed it.

      I really didn’t start reading the “classics” or particularly great literature until I was in my twenties with the exception of what they required in high school. In DiCamillo’s book, there are just a handful of two page comic strips interspersed between the prose novel. Most of it is still in traditional novel format.

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