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flora and ulysses

11 february 2014

Kate DiCamillo has just won her second Newbery Medal for the hybrid novel Flora and Ulysses: illustrator K.G. Campbell deserves more than a sliver of the gong, too, for her comic-book interludes.

Like DiCamillo's 2004 Medal book The Tale of Despereaux, Flora and Ulysses verges on the precious; heck, it steps over into preciosity more than a few times. But like Despereaux, it's quirky enough to be readable. It delivers some emotional rawness behind some of its gauzy surfaces; in fact, one of its themes is the contrast between the raw and the precious. Flora and Ulysses has too many ideas going for its short scope, and too many of them are package-wrapped from other kinds of books. But somewhere in its busy layers are genuine hurts and longings – much as there are in The Tale of Despereaux.

Flora is a 10-year-old girl, almost 11, immersing herself in comic books to deal with a romance-novelist mother who neglects her and has driven away Flora's none-too-emotionally-open father. Flora needs a superhero to rescue her, and who better than Ulysses the squirrel, who has been sucked into a fabulous vacuum cleaner and emerges with powers that include flying, super strength, and typing.

Flora gets most of her wisdom from advice features in her comics and from the equally wispy boy next door, the sententious William Spiver, whom she meets shortly after the vacuum cleaner incident, and soon falls soul-matily though totally platonically in love with. (William Spiver, after all, is just 11, so we're safely in that locked-down asexual universe of the 21st-century children's book, where everybody's a Peter Pan.)

Though the love story stuff is precious, I do like Ulysses, whose superpowers are dimmed a bit by his constant appetite. But he has his preciosities too. Among them is a taste for poetry. (Many of Campbell's drawings feature the backs or spines of volumes from the literary canon.) It wouldn't do to have our heroine's only reading material be comics, so from her feckless neighbor Tootie (William Spiver's great-aunt and owner of the magic vacuum cleaner), Flora and Ulysses imbibe a love of great poetry, especially Rilke. Well, props to Kate DiCamillo for invoking Rilke in a children's book, though she does so by means of a vaguely numinous passage that proves inspiring to our super squirrel. I guess that's what poetry does: inspire people vaguely.

For too much of Flora and Ulysses, these characters wander around and interact mildly with other equally dotty adults and the occasional souped-up animal. (Ulysses has a couple of run-ins with a really bad cat named Klaus.) You begin to get tired of these strained, fey encounters among the highly verbal, but fortunately DiCamillo brings some plot back into the mix. Plot requires characters to want different things: Flora wanting to keep Ulysses and Flora's mother wanting to kill him. That conflict drives the last quarter of the book very strongly. Flora is one emotionally-deprived protagonist. At one point we realize that Flora's mother loves a kitschy lamp with a china girl at its base more than she loves her real girl. It's a striking reverse-Velveteen-Rabbit motif.

I've seen Flora's avatars in adult fiction (The History of Love, The Elegance of the Hedgehog), as well as other recent Newbery Medalists (Moon over Manifest). But I do have to realize that children might not have seen them and tired of them quite as sharply as I have.

DiCamillo, Kate. Flora and Ulysses: The illuminated adventures. Illustrated by K.G. Campbell. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2013.