All of Kate DiCamillo’s books use illustrations to enhance her stories, but her newest book goes a step further. Flora & Ulysses : The Illuminated Adventures is a text/graphic-novel hybrid, and though the amount of text is more abundant, K.G. Campbell’s graphic illustrations do more than expand the tale—they are essential to it.
The story starts with a vacuum cleaner in the kitchen of Flora’s neighbors, the Tickhams. It is Mrs. Tickham’s birthday, and the vacuum cleaner is her present. Mrs. Tickham is not exactly thrilled. (I wasn’t either, when I got one as a gift.) However, this is not just any vacuum cleaner—it is a Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X! (Still not thrilled.) And when the Ulysses 2000X is turned on, it roars to life, snaring Mr. Tickham’s pants and inhaling them before it takes off outside, with Mrs. Tickham holding on for dear life.
Flora looks out her window into the Tickham’s backyard just as the runaway machine charges toward a squirrel and vacuums it up. She races outside to hear the vacuum hitch to a stop and to see a tail sticking out of it.
So far the story is pretty realistic.
Here’s where the magic starts. For after Flora shakes the squirrel out of the vacuum and gives it CPR (which she had learned how to do from a comic book titled TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!), something amazing happens! The squirrel becomes a superhero! Holy unanticipated consequences!
Now Flora doesn’t realize this all at once, and she doesn’t immediately figure out all of Ulysses’s super-powers (she names him after the vacuum). But she does know that trouble might lie ahead, because, as everyone knows, all superheroes have a foil, an opposite, an arch-nemesis. Flora knows Ulysses must have one, too, but who could it be?
No spoilers here—you must experience the rest of the book for yourself.
I love Kate’s stories and her realistic characters with interesting foibles. Flora loves comic books, especially The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto! She wants to be a force for good in the world. Ever since her parents divorced, she considers herself to be a cynic, and her motto is “Do not hope; instead, observe.” Hoping is too painful. Ulysses, despite his powers, is still just a squirrel—his mind is usually on eating and he admits something that I, as a dog owner, have always thought to be true: “The torturing of dogs was the one reliable pleasure of a squirrel’s existence.” He also writes poetry. And the book’s secondary characters are compelling and poignant—likable despite their oddities.
And I love the little language arts lessons. There’s poetry by Rilke (“Flare up like flame / and make big shadows I can move in”) and vocabulary (capacious, vanquished, vehemently, treacle, euphemisms—all explained quite satisfactorily in context) and, best of all, punctuation (“What was the apostrophe doing there?” “And what was it with exclamation marks? Did people not know what they were for?”)
Flora & Ulysses : The Illuminated Adventures is a must read—and a must-buy for schools. But don’t take my word for it—the National Book Award included it on their longlist of 10 books in the running for the 2013 award for Young People’s Literature. And it has received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal. It is an amazing read.
And what about the arch-nemesis? Flora knows just one thing: This malfeasance must be stopped! One of two things usually happens to the bad guy in stories. Either he has a life-changing turn for the better—or he gets his comeuppance. Both endings can be quite satisfying…but I’ll let you read the book and find out for yourself.