Last Monday the American Library Association announced the 2014 winners of the Newbery awards – as prestigious as the Oscars are for movies, only this award recognizes distinguished contributions to children’s literature. It was a thrill to see Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses (Candlewick Press, 2013, illustrated by K.G. Campbell) garner the Newbery Medal, a hugely deserved tribute to a truly outstanding book.
This middle-grade novel, heavily illustrated with a graphic novel component, is about a gifted and eccentric child named Flora Belle Buckman, who has an obsession for comics and a mother who calls her daughter a “natural-born cynic.”
The story unfolds when 10-year-old Flora witnesses her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Tootie Tickham, getting dragged around the backyard by her spanking-new Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X vacuum cleaner, an unfortunate squirrel directly in the vacuum cleaner’s path.
Just as her comic-book hero Alfred T. Slipper (a.k.a. “Incandesto”) would say, Flora declares, “‘This malfeasance must be stopped.’” Flora revives the squirrel in the same way she continues to take action throughout the novel – by overcoming her fears, drumming up her courage, and listening to her soft heart. She’d read about CPR in her comics, after all, so in the heat of her own superhero moment, improvises mouth-to-squirrel resuscitation. The squirrel – Ulysses, as Flora aptly names him – is ‘re-born’ with obvious superhero traits. He can now lift vacuum cleaners high above his head, understand humans… and, of course, write philosophical poetry.
This laugh-out-loud novel can be enjoyed purely for its witty humor, stunning pencil illustrations, and delightful plot-twists – which include a viciously crazed cat named Mr. Klaus attacking Flora’s father’s bald head; an uncertain-yet-blooming friendship between Flora and Tootie Tickham’s nephew, William Spiver, who’s sure he’s blind; complete chaos in the Giant Do-Nut and a narrow escape from the cook wielding a knife; and a squirrel kidnapping/murder plot that leads Ulysses to conquer his ultimate superhero skill of flying; to name a few.
But underneath the novel’s hilarity, DiCamillo tackles mighty subject matter – a sensitive, eccentric, and gifted young pre-adolescent struggling with parental divorce… a mother who doesn’t invite all of her child, so attached to her lamp (Mary Ann) and other depersonalized endeavors that she can’t see or fully invite her daughter… other safe adult attachments and their power to shield a child… as well as obsessions, defendedness, the counterwill dynamic, and more.
There’s also a lot of language of the heart presented in this book, handled with impeccable, non-saccharine style. Case in point: “‘What are you doing?’ said William Spiver. He stopped, too, because she was attached to him and he was attached to her. Which is to say that William Spiver and Flora Belle Buckman were, unbelievably, still holding hands.”
And oh, the characters! As is true across all of DiCamillo’s novels, the characters in Flora and Ulysses are unique and lovable, their quirks and strengths equally and authentically alive.
Dr. Meescham, Flora’s father’s unconventional neighbor, is full of wise lines and insightful stories. When Dr. Meescham describes her childhood in Blundermeecen, she beautifully describes the importance of bridging separation. Dr. Meescham says: “‘Blundermeecen was a place of dark secrets, unmarked graves, terrible curses. Trolls were everywhere! So we said good-bye to each other the best way we could. We said: I promise to always turn back to you. I say those words to you now, Flora Belle. I promise to always turn back toward you. And now you must say them to me.’”
Through the perceptive eyes and open heart of Dr. Meescham, Flora learns of her father’s soft heart and mixed feelings. “’It means the heart of George Buckman is large. It is capable of containing much joy and much sorrow.’”
Dr. Meescham is exactly the kind of alpha-caring adult attachment Flora needs in her world, match-making Flora back to her primary attachments; generously taking care of Flora’s food needs and later, providing nourishment to Ulysses; and gently welcoming Flora’s tears in the horsehair sofa. “‘You see?’ said Dr. Meescham. She smiled at Flora. ‘I told you. This is how it is with this sofa.’”
Each character matures in big ways as the story progresses. Flora is able to believe in her mother’s love; William Spiver loses his glasses – and his defenses – and is able to see again; even Ulysses the superhero squirrel comes to his mixed feelings. You can’t read this novel without feeling endeared to each character – with one exception: Flora’s mother, who ultimately makes a turn in the right direction but her heart doesn’t soften quite enough to fully win back the reader.
Big accolades and applause for Flora and Ulysses – a superb book to read with your middle-grade reader (usually 8-12 years of age).