Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

The first book I read by Kate DiCamillo was Because of Winn-Dixie, a book about a young girl named Opal who moves to Naomi, Florida with her preacher father. When she goes to the local Winn-Dixie grocery store, she acquire a big, messy, lovable dog that she names accordingly; Winn-Dixie, who becomes her key to belonging to the new town. It's a beautiful book with a brilliant voice. And Scholastic's website for the book is so interactive, allowing readers to explore the town with book excerpts and through reader's theater. Kate DiCamillo is one of a handful of writers who writes a powerful story set in the southern United States (along with Kathi Appelt and Kimberly Willis Holt). But since Because of Winn-Dixie, I haven't read much more by DiCamillo, even though I loved that story so much. 

This year's Newberry Award wining Flora & Ulysses changed all that, and has made DiCamillo hit the top of my list again for summer reading. I'm a little late to reading Flora & Ulysses, which came out in 2013. It was published by Candlewick Press (based out of Sommerville, MA), which has developed into one of my favorite publishers of books for young people over the past several years. It's a hybrid novel, alternating between text and image, and that image alternates between a one-page illustration and several comic book style panels. 

Flora consistently draws on her knowledge of comic books, especially The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!, which she reads obsessively and shares with her father. When she witnesses a squirrel getting sucked up into a Ulysses vacuum cleaner that has gone out of control (a present from her next door neighbor to his wife, one she is not thrilled about), Flora utilizes what she's learned from comic books to determine what to do next. 

The encounter with the vacuum cleaner has utterly changed the squirrel, who Flora dubs "Ulysses" after the vacuum cleaner. For one thing, he can fly. For another, he has super strength. And finally, he can write poetry, which he composes at night on the typewriter that belongs to Flora's romance-novel-writing mother: "Poetry. He liked the word - its smallness, its density, the way it rose up at the end as if it had wings" (76). Ulysses, Flora determines, is a superhero. 

The book follows Flora and Ulysses on an unconventional adventure, populated by heroes and villains, sidekicks and supporters. The villain, for example, turns out to be Flora's mother, who wants nothing to do with the squirrel. In fact, she designates the job of "disposing" of the squirrel to Flora's father, who unwillingly takes a sack and a shovel from his ex-wife:
"There's a squirrel," repeated her father.
"The squirrel is not well."
"There's an unwell squirrel."
"There's a sack in the garage. And a shovel."
"Okay," said Flora's father. "There's a sack and a shovel. In the garage."
At this point, there was a very long silence.
"I need you to put the squirrel out of its misery," said Flora's mother.
"How's that?" said her father.
"For the love of Pete, George!" shouted her mother. "Put the squirrel in the sack, and then hit him over the head with the shovel."
Flora's father gasped. (73)
DiCamillo is so good at making devastating moments poetic, quiet, and adaptable. Like the fact that Flora's parents are divorced. Flora lives with her mother, and sees her father at scheduled times. He lives in an apartment building owned by Mr. Klaus, the landlord, and his evil cat, also Mr. Klaus. For example, Flora's recantation of the moment when her parents discussed getting their divorce,
Flora: Are you and Mom getting divorced?
Flora's Father: Who says we're getting divorced?
Flora: Mom.
Flora's Father: Is that what she said?
Flora: That's what she said.
Flora's Father: I wonder why she said that.
And then he started to cry. (86-7)
And all the while, the overarching structure of a comic book ties it all together. At times, Flora imagines words floating over characters' heads, speech balloons and narrative exposition just like in the comic books she reads. At other times, we see Ulysses flying through the air, showing his strength, or battling with the cat, Mr. Klaus. I wish it hadn't taken me quite so long to get to this book, but coming now, right before the summer, gives me a chance to revisit DiCamillo over the next few months and read a few of her other books that I may have missed. 

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