Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by: K.G. Campbell
Genre: Children’s Books > Middle Grade
Published September 24th 2013 by Candlewick Press
Winner of the 2014 Newbery Medal
Who knew a certain Ulysses Super-Suction Multi-Terrain 2000X vacuum cleaner can impart super powers and poetry writing prowess to a squirrel? Exactly! Who knew? But what a fantastic start to a veritable action-packed story featuring endearing characters, humor, not-so-common adventures, and witty dialogue.
Flora, our heroine is a cynic, hates romance and is a comic book junkie. The story starts with Flora witnessing a squirrel getting sucked into a rather huge vacuum cleaner given as a gift to Tootie Tickham, Flora's neighbor. The squirrel lives, thanks to Flora's lifesaving action which she learned from a bonus comic book (called Terrible Things Can Happen To You!) at the back of every issue of The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto. The squirrel did not waste time showing its super powers, surprising Flora and Tootie (even yours truly). Convinced that the squirrel possessed super powers, Flora brings him home and aptly calls him Ulysses. And you know what inevitably comes next when we're talking about superheroes - adventure, an arch-nemesis and poetry. Somehow the incident with the vacuum has also given Ulysses the capacity to write poetry (makes me want to get sucked into a vacuum myself), has made him think of other things besides food, and also gave him the capacity to be profound and reflective of his world- "When did things become so beautiful? And if it has been this way all along, how is it that I never noticed before?" An unexpected arch-nemesis threatens to separate Flora and Ulysses and that's where their adventures begin.
While the story itself was inventive and outstanding, the appeal of Flora and Ulysses lies in the characters. They are perky, unconventional, bright, witty and brave. One of my favorite characters from the book (aside from Flora and Ulysses, of course) is William Spiver. This little guy knew his way with words and he is not afraid to admit it- "I must admit that I have always had a certain facility with words. And I am terribly fond of the novel form. Though my interests lie less in the area of romance and more in the speculative nature of things. Science fiction, if you will. Fact blended in fantasy, an extended meditation on the nature of the universe." Ha! Adorable.
The brilliant black-and-white illustrations by K.G. Campbell and Kate DiCamillo's writing provides us with a medley of beautiful art and words. The illustrations perfectly enhance the narrative. While the illustrations are in black and white, K.G. Campbell truly has the ability to show emotion (even gesticulations) through her drawings. The use of comic book panels in the illustrations, of course, is a much talked-about feature of the book. The use of these elements in a children's book is believed to be ground-breaking. But the books appeal doesn't stop there. The essence and heart of the story is love, depicted in different ways and levels. I was surprised by how much the characters' experiences and relationships portray a deep message of forgiveness and love. This book makes you want to believe and hope. Yes, even if our heroine is a self-confessed cynic.
Before reading this book I told myself that I'm going to shed any skepticism, obliterate any cynical cell within and just enjoy the story. When I was younger, I remember one of my teachers telling us about the difference between being childish and being child-like. The latter was much more desired. Needless to say, the book did not fail to awaken that child-like wonder in me. Reading this story reminded me of my younger days, traversing magical worlds and meeting implausible characters through books. I loved that familiar sting of excitement and wonder that we so often 'misplace' as we grow older. It's a wonderful thing when a book gives you the opportunity to relish the wonders of the impossible and for making you believe.
Flora and Ulysses is an immensely enjoyable read. It's an engaging, original and heartwarming tale of love, friendship and family. The writing is beautiful. The characters themselves lend an emotional depth to the story. If you're going to read a children's book this year, make it this one.