2014 Newbery Award Winner Book Review:
Flora and Ulysses
(Note: It is not the purpose of this review to draw conclusions for the reader but rather to focus on literary elements and topics of critical importance for the Christian School Solutions constituency.)
Kate DiCamillo is an award-winning author whose published works include picture books, early chapter books, and novels that often feature humorous stories about childhood friendships. Her name already appears on the Newbery Award list for Because of Winn Dixie, a 2001 Newbery Honor book, and The Tale of Desperaux, the 2004 Newbery Award winner. The ALA honored DiCamillo again in 2014 by naming Flora and Ulysses the winner of the 2014 Newbery Award.1
Candlewick Press has incorporated the novel-plus-graphic novel format into Flora and Ulysses. This is the same format that was first seen in Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and readers will need to read the graphics as part of the story.
According to the Flora and Ulysses book trailer, “Flora and Ulysses conquer all in a genre-bending, villain-vanquishing, darkness-eradicating adventure of the comic kind.”2
Flora, whose summer reading promise to her novel-writing mother was to “work to turn her face away from the idiotic high jinks of comics and toward the bright light of true literature,”3 finds her word put to the test when neighbor Tootie Tickham accidently vacuums up a squirrel in the backyard. When the furless squirrel is extracted from the machine, Flora performs a miniature CPR rescue by pressing on his small chest. She names the revived rodent Ulysses (the brand of the vacuum that nearly caused his demise), deems him a superhero, and launches the story with regular excerpts from her favorite comic book, The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto. She bases many of her actions on facts she has learned in the “Terrible Things Can Happen to You!” issue of the comic. Flora uses terms like “Holy Bagumba” and “Holy Unexpected Occurrences!” adding to the retro-comic book references.
The characters include Flora, a precocious, young skeptic; her chain-smoking mother divorced from her overly sad father (both people who react to life in unusual ways); her next-door neighbors, the Tickhams, owners of the runaway vacuum; the Tickhams’ nephew William Spiver who suffers temporary blindness caused by emotional loss; Ulysses, a poetry-writing squirrel; and Dr. Meescham, a doctor of philosophy, who finds herself the inadvertent facilitator of the story’s resolution. Each of these characters is peculiar at best but could legitimately be seen as dysfunctional. William Spiver sums up that point when he says, “Normalcy is an illusion, of course. … There is no normal.”4 Readers who like to like a character and to cheer and care about what is at stake may be disappointed. The story delivers characters that are easier to laugh at than to care about.
The book features DiCamillo’s typical strokes of friendship needed and friendship won—elements that warm the story. There are plenty of graphics for young readers to enjoy, and the book has lots going on, but the activity feels frenetic. The story is told in short sentences, short paragraphs, and short chapters interspersed with graphic segments, which today’s readers will probably enjoy. But all of this is combined with a lack of clarity about what is at stake for Flora and Ulysses, resulting in a disjointed (and silly) story.
Numbers of reviewers of various ages on various websites focus on the funny factor in the book, but opinions are mixed as to whether the book is truly funny or merely quirky. The author herself says in an interview on the Candlewick website, “I did a lot of rewrites, and I laughed my way through all of them. This could be because I am crazy. Or maybe it is because the book is funny. You decide.”5 Yes, readers. You decide. And while you are drawing conclusions, take note that this Newbery winner does not appear in the 2014 Children’s Choice Book Awards6—awards chosen by children and teens to honor their favorite books.
What is the takeaway from this award winner, Flora and Ulysses? What theme will remain in your thinking when you’ve read the squirrel’s closing poem? Perhaps you will be reminded of the need for loving and nurturing relationships for children and adults alike. Maybe you will have enjoyed the flight of fancy each character undertook in the search for meaning and truth. But it might be that William Spiver’s words will echo in your thoughts: “The truth is a slippery thing. I doubt that you will ever get to The Truth. You may get to a version of the truth. But The Truth? I doubt it very seriously.”7
Contrast the boy’s words with the words of John 8:32, also referring to capital-T truth: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” You can’t have it both ways, and that would be a good talking point for readers of this Newbery winner.
3 DiCamillo, Kate. Flora and Ulysses. (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2013) 5.
4 Ibid., 227.
7 DiCamillo, 221.
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