Flora Belle Buckman’s mother wrote romance novels for a living. Flora did not believe in romance; she was a confirmed cynic. Her mantra was, “Do not hope; instead, observe,” a piece of advice she picked up from one of her favorite comics, Terrible Things Can Happen to You. Since her parents’ separation, Flora had preferred to live in a comic book world, where superheroes could fight off any villain and make the world alright again. Her mother did not approve of this at all, but then, Flora did not approve of her mother’s smug shepherdess lamp, either. One day, when Flora was upstairs reading The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!, her next-door neighbor’s new Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner ran amok and vacuumed up a squirrel. When the poor creature plopped out of the machine, minus a good deal of fur, he had been transformed into a superhero! Holy Bagumba!
Flora is sure that she and the squirrel are destined to have great adventures, and since her mother wants to get rid of Ulysses (named after the vacuum), she is revealed as his arch-nemesis. The neighbor, Tootie, and her loquacious great-nephew, William Spiver, become devoted Ulysses fans, particularly when Ulysses writes such lovely poetry on Mrs. Buckman’s typewriter. Ulysses accompanies Flora on her weekend visit with her dad, during which the squirrel hero runs into some trouble in a donut shop when he has to fly through the air in order to escape from a waitress with a Marie Antoinette hair-do. Unfortunately, his flight ends suddenly on a glass door. Cradling the bleeding squirrel, Flora asks for help from her dad’s neighbor, Dr. Meescham, who turns out to be a psychiatrist, not a medical doctor. However, she cares very much that they are all well-adjusted, and she feeds Flora and Ulysses jelly sandwiches, regaling them with stories of her childhood in Blundermeecen while they slide off her horsehair sofa. Everyone in this story is looking for love, a search that involves tromps through the woods, battles with evil cats, temporary blindness, hateful shepherdesses, and, most importantly, avoidance of sacks and shovels.
How is it that most of us put these squiggly black lines down on paper and they say things like “milk, eggs, toilet paper,” while Kate DiCamillo puts squiggly black lines on her paper (or screen) and they break your heart open? This book is a humorous children’s story, but it is written with such delicacy and poignancy that it takes on layers of meaning. Every character is quirky, but most are so endearing and vulnerable that we have to hope, and not just observe. The children are both precocious and use the sort of formal, vocabulary-test language that could become cute in a lesser writer’s hands, but neither their dialogue nor their sorrow ever turn into what Flora would disparagingly call “treacle.” Flora and William Spiver (never just William, and certainly not Billy) just need to know that their parents love them unconditionally.
The absence of parents, whether physically or emotionally, is a major theme in children’s literature, and I’m finding it in our award contenders this year more than ever. It’s always been around, as we can see from all of the stepmother stories through the ages, but the increasing number of children whose parents have divorced—whether they are living with stepparents or not—has perhaps made it more difficult for children to feel secure and cherished. Flora and William have both found ways to cope, to toughen their little hearts and deal with the world, but they are still children and therefore fragile.
At this point in my reading, Flora & Ulysses is my Newbery front-runner, and it will be very difficult to topple it from its peak. Admittedly, I am a DiCamillo fan, and The Tale of Despereaux was my favorite the year it won the Newbery, but she is truly a tremendously gifted writer. I was misty-eyed through much of the book, but there is one passage that concerns sardines on crackers that I had to immediately reread, put the book down, and sob. You’ll get it when you read it. I also wept at the end of the book. Furthermore—and not unimportantly— she even works in a scolding on the misuse of apostrophes, a rant that is always dear to my heart. So, just hand me that lovely gold medal and I’ll slap it on right now. I love this book.
Can I recommend it more highly? For children from 9 to 90.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.