Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo is the 2014 Newbery Medal winner. I could finish that sentence with an addendum: though I don’t know why. I’m usually pretty mild-mannered, as in I really don’t like to offend people. However, I’m taking a cue from Carrie’s blog post “On Writing Negative Reviews” and trying to share what it is exactly that I don’t like about this story. I mean, I’m generally a fan of Kate DiCamillo: I’ve read and re-read Because of Winn Dixie; I loved (I mean LOVED) The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane; and I even like The Tale of Despereaux pretty well. I read aloud The Tiger Rising to multiple classes of fifth graders back in my elementary library media specialist days! Writing this negative review feels sort of like I’m dissing a close friend. But, I do think negative reviews are helpful, especially when it comes to children’s books. I like to know whether or not there’s anything potentially objectionable in a book, as well as whether or not my girls are likely to like it. That’s my motivation for spending time writing a review on this book I really didn’t like–that and the fact that I have this idea that some day I’d like to be able to say I’ve read every Newbery Medalist and honor book.
Flora and Ulysses is fantastical, a story about a girl named Flora, a self-proclaimed cynic who lives with her mother, a divorced writer. At the beginning of the story, Flora rescues a squirrel, whom she later names Ulysses, after he is sucked up into her neighbor’s vacuum cleaner. This unfortunate incident gives Ulysses super powers, and Flora quickly grows to love Ulysses. Flora then decides that Ulysses is hers and she must keep him at all costs. Unfortunately, her mother doesn’t think so (especially when Ulysses, whose super powers include the writing of poetry, begins using her typewriter). What unfolds then is just a weird story about Flora’s relationship with her father and a neighbor boy she meets and their attempt to keep Ulysses. I don’t mind fantasy, but when it’s so enmeshed in a story that in some ways is realistically sad (the relationships in this story are really painful), I can’t figure it out.
Second, this book is a hybrid, with comic strip (graphic novel?) pages interspersed with the actual text. I found myself reading the illustrated pages and kind of nodding to myself, “Hmmm. . .that’s nice,” and then getting on to the real business of the story–the text. Then I’d realize I had to actually read the comic panels–they actually do further the story. This actually helps further the story in more than one way since Flora is a comic book junkie. I realize this is a personal preference, but I just prefer words, plain and simple. I just can’t get used to the back-and-forth of this format.
The long and short of it is this: I just think this story is a little too weird for me to find any redeeming qualities in it. It seems like a fun, silly story, and I suppose it is, but Kate DiCamillo waxes philosophical, as she is wont to do, just as much in this one as she does in her others. The neighbor boy, William Spiver, discusses with Flora the randomness of the universe, and Flora has to decide if she believes this or if she believes that love will conquer all. (He even brings up Pascal’s Wager, for Pete’s sake!) There’s a bit of over-the-top weirdness when Flora’s mom begins to act strange and zombie-like, and Flora wonders if she’s possessed. I don’t know. It’s just weird. Maybe I have the target audience pegged too young, or maybe I underestimate kids, but it just seems like there’s so much going on in this book that will go over many children’s heads, yet the packaging has kid appeal, so it’s deceptively complex. I dunno.
My take on this book is definitely colored by the fact that we’re supposed to be reading it for our library’s mother-daughter bookclub, and I’m always much more critical of books I know my girls will be reading right away as opposed to at some unspecified time in the future. I’m still not sold on this one as a bookclub pick, though I would like to see if others who actually read it feel as I do, too.
That’s this curmudgeon’s take on the 2014 Newber Medalist. If you read Flora and Ulysses, please come back and tell me what you think. (Candlewick, 2013)