Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. Candlewick Press, 2013.
Flora loves comics, especially the ones about the Amazing Incandesto, even though her mother, a romance writer, doesn’t believe that comics are Literature Worth Reading. Flora’s reading merges with real life when she sees a squirrel sucked into a vacuum cleaner. Ulysses comes out a superhero squirrel who can understand human speech, type poetry on Flora’s mother’s typewriter, and fly. The story is filled with flawed and colorful larger-than-life characters, including Flora’s quiet father (divorced, and in opposition to her loud mother), a temporarily blind boy named William Spiver, and an attack cat. The story is told mostly in prose with short section in comic panels, and the action takes place over the course of just a couple of days as Flora tries to save Ulysses from her mother (who is sure he’s rabid) and Ulysses helps Flora comes to terms with her parents’ divorce.
I was really prepared to love this one. I’ve loved many of DiCamillo’s books, and I was excited about the blend of comics and prose. Somehow, this fell a little flat for me. Maybe it was that the human characters seemed too close to caricature, or that the scope of the story wasn’t quite epic enough for a superhero premise. It also felt too magical for realism, but not quite magical enough for true fantasy, while the little magic that was there was too fantastic for magical realism – labels shouldn’t necessarily matter, but something, somewhere didn’t quite jibe for me. Sadness.
Obviously other people have felt very differently about this – the Newbery is the biggest, best-known honor for American children’s books, and I’ve read lots and lots of positive reviews of this. But for now, I’m going to stick with Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Desperaux as my favorite DiCamillo books.