Unexpected Friends – A Review of Flora & Ulysses

Flora & Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures (Candlewick Press, $17.99, ages 8-12) by Newbery medal winning and New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo with Illustrations by K. G. Campbell, is reviewed today by Hilary Taber. Pre-order the book today or find it at your local independent bookseller on September 24th.

Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo with illustrations by K. G. Campbell

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo with illustrations by K. G. Campbell, Candlewick Press, 2013.

I’m a huge fan of unexpected things, and finding unexpected friends tops this list. It just takes the strain off everything if you just happen to find a friend. This is precisely what occurs in Kate DiCamillo’s new book, Flora and Ulysses, the Illuminated Adventures.

When Mrs. Tootie Tickham receives a new Ulysses, Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain vacuum cleaner for her birthday from her husband she has no idea that it contains enough power to drag her outside her home, into the front yard, to ultimately suck up an unsuspecting squirrel! Luckily, her next door neighbor, Flora Belle Buckman, is watching and is able to bring the squirrel back to life by remembering advice from a comic she is fond of reading called “Terrible Things Can Happen to You!” Flora remembers how to administer CPR and the squirrel is brought back to life. Not just to his normal life though, for now he can appreciate life on a higher plane entirely! He can heft the vacuum cleaner over his head, he can type, and he can write poetry! Flora dubs him “Ulysses” after the vacuum cleaner that almost took his life. She tells him that he is a superhero, much like the ones she reads about in the comic books she loves.

Every self-respecting superhero needs an arch-nemesis to overcome, and Flora has decided that this has to be her mother who is convinced that Ulysses is diseased. Flora’s mother has decided that Ulysses must go. What ensues is nothing short of high adventure. It will take Flora, both her parents, a boy named William Spiver (who seems a very unlikely, slightly paranoid friend), and a doctor of philosophy to help Flora on her quest to sort out her life. Of course, all along the way there is Ulysses, the very best friend a girl could have. After all, when I look back on this sweet story, I begin to see that it is when Ulysses arrives that the problems in Flora’s life are pulled to the forefront. It is only through their adventures he finally brings out the truth in her life.  Here is the truth of Flora’s life. She has parents who love her, discovers three new friends, and comes to find that she is not a cynic as she thought she was. Someone who can see superhero potential in a squirrel is someone who has hope dwelling in her heart.

K.G. Campbell’s illustrations, in a comic book style that appear every few pages, add soft, detailed, but action packed visuals to DiCamillo’s story. What originally appeared to me to be a funny, original story turned out to be something more. As so often in DiCamillo’s books, there is a depth of emotion and potent symbolism throughout the story. What is presented here is a tale that can be fully appreciated by young readers, but which is full of a deeper meaning that it took me two readings to truly understand it. What is wonderful about this book is that the reader can enjoy the book with or without understanding that deeper layer of meaning because it is so very funny! From the get go, Ulysses and his resurrection as superhero set the stage for many comic events (including my favorite one involving a giant donut restaurant), that lighten the tone of the book. Well done again, Kate! Very well done indeed. Be sure to put this one on your “to read” list right away! How can any of us say no to a story of a superhero, poetry-writing squirrel who loves Rilke, and giant donuts? You have to admit that this tale is extraordinary, and it is the sort of story only Kate DiCamillo could pull off, adding yet another wonderful title for readers of all ages to enjoy. Holy bagumba!

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