Flora Belle Buckman reads comics. Perhaps due to her choice in comics she's a cynic, with a cynic's heart. But her cynicism demands that she believe what she sees with her own eyes, and when Tootie Tickham's new Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner sucks up a squirrel and turns him into a superhero she believes it.
Ulysses (the name she gives the squirrel) soon demonstrates great strength, the ability to fly, and a penchant for typing squirrel poetry on any typewriter or computer he can find. This, much to the disgust of Flora's mother, who as a professional romance novelist earns her living on the same typewriter Ulysses manages to use for his own compositions.
Soon, Flora, Tootie, William Spiver (Tootie's eccentric, exiled great-nephew), and Mr. George Buckman (Flora's father) are locked in battle with the forces of evil (Flora's mom) who want Ulysses dead. Dr. Meescham (the living one) becomes a source of comfort and a safehaven for the heroes as they destroy a donut restaurant, hold an ugly lamp hostage, and write (and speak) poetry.
Flora doesn't like William Spiver at first. He claims to be temporarily blind, utters precocious philosophical statements, and is just plain annoying. But soon they realize they're more alike than she thought: William Spiver is a sort of cynic in his own right, and where Flora's parents are divorced, William Spiver's father is dead and he doesn't like his mother's new husband, Tyrone.
The outrageous events of the novel (and they are outrageous, and hilarious, told only as Kate DiCamillo can tell them) are really no more than a foil for themes of loneliness, love, and loss. Flora loves Ulysses, and through their adventures together she sees that she is loved by others and in fact loves others herself.
Some parents will no doubt balk at Flora's rebellious streak. She talks back, and expresses deep resentment toward her mother. But this is precisely what DiCamillo intends to demonstrate: while Flora is responsible for her own actions, she's also been cast aside by her mother's devotion to her career, and Flora's behavior is largely a response to this.
Mr. George Buckman has suffered the same fate as his daughter. He's an unassuming man, clearly with not enough backbone, but he's lost without his daughter and without his wife. By the end of the book there's at least a hint that the parents are on the road to reconciliation, and that wrongs will be righted.
What sets Flora & Ulysses well beyond the pale of the majority of children's literature is the humor. DiCamillo has shown many times that she has an excellent grasp of comedic timing and wordplay, but here she excels. The illustrations by K. G. Campbell are brilliant, with many appearing as comic book panels to further the story.
This isn't the deepest or most meaningful of the Newbery Medal winning books. It's probably the funniest, and in many ways it's one of the most subtle since DiCamillo has mastered the art of telling through showing. It's also a huge improvement over the last few years, and gives us hope that there is good children's literature yet to be written. Until then, enjoy Flora & Ulysses.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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