Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book Review: Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo (2013)

Flora is a cynic who reads comic books, despite her mother’s insistence that she read literature. Ulysses is a squirrel who is accidentally sucked into a vacuum cleaner. When Flora saves his life using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, she discovers that Ulysses has superpowers - and specifically, the power to type poetry. Though her next door neighbor who owns the vacuum cleaner and her own father are fine with her keeping the squirrel, Flora finds that she must save Ulysses from her own mother, who would prefer to have him destroyed.

At first, this quirky story seems like a huge departure for Kate DiCamillo, whose books include heartwarming favorites like Bink and Gollie, The Tale of Despereaux, and Because of Winn Dixie. Looking closely, however, it becomes clear that this book is actually quite similar to all three of those titles. The text plays with language as DiCamillo does in Bink and Gollie. The story is partly a fairy tale, like The Tale of Despereaux. And above all, the main character is a lonely girl, just like Winn Dixie’s Opal, whose very special animal friend is the key to breaking her out of her shell and helping her to make friends and trust those around her. The style might be slightly different, but there is no doubt who wrote this book.

Like so many kids’ books these days, this one is partially illustrated with comic book panels. Though I suspect this feature will draw kids into the story, I didn’t think those panels were all that necessary, and I would have been just as happy to have DiCamillo write narration for those scenes. I like the illustrator’s style, and I especially enjoyed the sense of Flora’s personality that I got from her facial expressions, but I felt as though I would have liked some aspects of the book more had I been allowed to imagine them for myself. Especially jarring was the difference between Flora’s mother’s appearance in the illustrations and the version I conjured in my imagination. I had basically imagined a whole different character and found it difficult to reconcile her with what the illustrator provided.

All in all, I think this is an interesting book, but perhaps not as innovative as it appears at first glance. Kids who are interested in superheroes and super powers will probably enjoy the story. I do question whether a superhero squirrel is really what kids are looking for, but Spiderman and Batman do okay and they’re not the most likely creatures to be heroes either. I was a little disappointed that the squirrel’s powers come on so suddenly, with no explanation as to how being sucked up by a vacuum causes him to develop them, but I suspect I am in the minority on that point. Most readers will be happy to go along for the somewhat silly ride and just enjoy Ulysses and his squirrel poems. I also have to admit that I think “Holy bagumba!” is a great phrase, and I’m grateful to this book for introducing it into my vocabulary.

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures
will appeal to boys and girls, and especially to those readers who enjoy comics, animals, and magical realism.

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