Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures would simply be the poignant story of a lonely and cynical 10-year old named Flora if it weren't so funny. After all, how sad can it be when one of the main characters is a squirrel who becomes a poet after the life-changing experience of being sucked up by a giant vacuum cleaner and rescued by Flora who names him "Ulysses." The more serious story of how Flora learns to cope with her parents' divorce and her relationship with her mother, makes a friend, and begins to exchange hope for cynicism is brilliantly woven into the adventures of Flora and Ulysses.
Summary of the Story
It all starts when the next-door neighbor, Mrs. Twickham, receives a new vacuum cleaner that is so powerful that it sucks up everything in sight, indoors and out, including a squirrel, which is how Flora comes to meet Ulysses. Getting sucked into a giant vacuum cleaner turns Ulysses into a superhero with great strength and the ability to learn to type and write poems. As Flora Belle would say, "Holy bagumba!" While Flora is thrilled with Ulysses, her mother is not and conflict ensues.
As the story unfolds with the "illuminated adventures" of Flora and Ulysses, the reader learns that Flora is a very cynical child who expects the worst at all times. Now that her parents are divorced and she is living with her mother, Flora misses having her father around all the time. Flora and her father understand one another and share a great love for the comic book series The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!, which her mother hates.
Flora and her mother do not get along well. Flora's mother is a romance writer, always busy trying to meet deadlines, writing what Flora calls "treacle." Flora is lonely -- she feels abandoned by her mother and unsure of her love. It takes a master storyteller to weave the wacky story of a squirrel with superpowers with a poignant coming-of-age story, but Kate DiCamillo is up to the task.
In addition to the imaginative story, the reader benefits from Kate DiCamillo's love of words. Children tend to be intrigued by interesting new words and DiCamillo has a lot to share, including: “hallucination,” “malfeasance,” “unanticipated” and “mundane.” Given the story and the quality of the writing, it's not surprising that DiCamillo won her second Newbery Medal for young people's literature for Flora & Ulysses.
An Unusual Format
While in a lot of ways the format of Flora & Ulysses is like many other illustrated middle-grade novels, there are some notable exceptions. In addition to the black and white one-page illustrations that are interspersed throughout the book, there are brief segments in which the story is told in comic-book format, with panels of sequential art and voice bubbles. For example, the book opens with a four-page comic-book style section, which introduces the vacuum cleaner and its incredible sucking power. In addition, throughout the 231-page book, with its very short chapters (there are 68), a variety of bold typefaces are used for emphasis. A recurring phrase, in bold caps, is one Flora has adopted from her favorite comic: "TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN."
Awards and Accolades
- 2014 Newbery Medal
- Parents' Choice Awards Gold Award
- Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2013
Author Kate DiCamillo
Kate DiCamillo's has had a successful career since her first two middle-grade novels, Because of Winn-Dixie, a Newbery Honor Book, and The Tiger Rising. DiCamillo has gone on to write more award-winning books, including The Tale of Despereaux, for which she won the 2004 John Newbery Medal.
All About Illustrator K.G. Campbell
Although he was born in Kenya, K.G. Campbell was raised in Scotland. He was also educated there, earning a Master's degree in Art History from the University of Edinburgh. Campbell now lives in California where he is both an author and an illustrator. In addition to Flora and Ulysses, his books include Tea Party Rules by Amy Dyckman and Lester's Dreadful Sweaters, which he both wrote and illustrated and for which he received an Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Honor and a Golden Kite Award.
In reference to illustrating Flora & Ulysses, Campbell said, “This has been an expansive and joyful experience. What wonderfully oddball and charismatic characters people this story. It was a thrilling challenge to bring them to life.”
Related Resources and Recommendation
There are additional resources on the Candlewick Press website where you can download the Flora and Ulysses Teacher's Guide and the Flora and Ulysses Discussion Guide.
Flora & Ulysses is one of those books that will appeal to 8 to 12-year-olds on multiple levels: as a wacky story filled with eccentric characters, as a coming-of-age story, as an engaging story with an intriguing format, as a story about loss, hope and finding home. As Flora copes with the changes the squirrel brings to her life, she also finds her place in her family, realizes how much her mother loves her, and becomes more hopeful. Her feelings of loss and abandonment are ones many kids will easily identify with and the book's outcome will be celebrated. However, it is the addition of a healthy dose of humor that makes Flora and Ulysses a "must-read." (Candlewick Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780763660406)
- Candlewick Press, Flora and Ulysses press kit
- Kate DiCamillo's website
- K.G. Campbell's website