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Flora is a ten-year-old girl who loves to read comic books, plans for random emergency situations, and tries her best to be cynical. Then she watches a squirrel get vacuumed up in a neighbor’s yard. She resuscitates him, discovers he has super powers, and names him Ulysses. Naturally, she has to protect him and help him become the best superhero he can become. Meeting both opposition and support, she and Ulysses “stop malfeasances” and “defend the defenseless.” It was recently awarded the 2014 Newbery award, which it very much deserves.
The illustrations by K.G. Campbell are lovely, reminding me a little of William Joyce’s work and the odd good-old-days feeling his illustrations often evoke. Their details add to the character’s personalities and I found every expression exaggerated but appealing. Better yet, they are often in a comic book format, which is a natural but effective way to suit Ulysses’ superhero feats and Flora’s favorite pastime.
What impressed me most about this book was its ability to fondly and surely handle every character, every quirk, and every inside joke. The power of words is realized and celebrated by the characters, and that by itself is a powerfully positive message for readers of any age. (Lots of fun new subject vocabulary is picked up by characters and used throughout for humor and contextual definitions, something I’ve loved ever since Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and PBS’ “WordGirl”) But DiCamillo employs this idea herself as Ulysses learns, any word can come to be wrapped in associations and possibilities. DiCamillo uses this idea herself to create a story world that is delightfully full.
Kate DiCamillo handles real problems, too, with a gentleness and subtlety I think is rare and much-needed compared to today’s trends in children’s literature. Flora’s view of her parents, their divorce, and her attempts to protect herself feel very genuine. Unlike other children’s books that name-drops “the issues” and centers wholly around them, Flora and Ulysses approaches them the way a child would. The world and problems of adulthood feel strange and are powerful influences on those who are—for the most part—powerless. Real problems are mentioned without being explained or immediately attended to. There is no condescension, coddling, or grittiness. DiCamillo does a wonderful job illustrating the intrinsic miscommunications between adults and children, as well as the understanding and comfort that members of both sides can ultimately offer to each other, and the similarities that bring them together.
I’ve probably already made this book sound a lot heavier than it is—it isn’t! It’s tons of fun! It’s full of silliness and charm! It’s about superheroes, poetry, food, and learning to hope. It’s full of inside jokes that are brought back again and again, becoming funnier and more poignant every time. The characters are quirky, winning, and true.