Book Review: Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Holy unanticipated occurrences! A cynic meets an unlikely superhero in a genre-breaking new novel by master storyteller Kate DiCamillo. It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences. The squirrel never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, but self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, is the just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight, and misspelled poetry — and that Flora will be changed too, as she discovers the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart. From #1 New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo comes a laugh-out-loud story filled with eccentric, endearing characters and featuring an exciting new format — a novel interspersed with comic-style graphic sequences and full-page illustrations, all rendered in black-and-white by up-and-coming artist K. G. Campbell.

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My Review:

One of the things I love most about reading middle grade books is how a really complex message is written to convey something very deep and meaningful.  Kate DiCamillo is one of the authors that does this extremely well – which is one of the reasons for her popularity, I am sure.  Still, when I saw what Flora and Ulysses was about, I was a bit hesitant.  I mean.. a squirrel? as a main character? Really?  But it worked.  Let me tell you why.

I teach piano for a living.  Many of my students are in the 4-6 year age range and one of the things that I’ve learned over the years of teaching is that in order to get a message across well, I need to bring a third party into the lesson.  Thankfully, the method books I use understand this as well and so with a little help from Faber and Faber, I bring in characters that live on the pages of the method book – in particular, a little firefly named Tap.  Lessons pass by so smoothly because Tap not only is there to offer encouragement to the student, but he’s there to sympathize.  When a student struggles, I can show him that Tap is there and he also is learning right along side that student.  When a student does well, Tap celebrates with them.

So, with that thought and lesson in mind, I approached Ulysses the Squirrel with a different mindset and what I took away from DiCamillo’s tale is a story that deals well with the separation of parents through the medium of a fantastical creature who is able to listen, sympathize, and love unconditionally.  Also, he can write poetry.

That’s gold in a middle grade book, folks.  Sure, there’s humor and silliness and moments where the story might drag a little bit, but ultimately, the message comes across loud and clear.  Establishing a relationship with a parent or sibling or anyone close to you doesn’t just go away when things don’t work out between that person and another in your life – yes, that’s a great message, but ultimately the message that it’s important to know that the feelings that happen when the split happens are not to be lightly dismissed and to look and find where the strengths are in those relationships to pull you through.  That’s what Flora and Ulysses spoke to me about and I’m glad that I am not too old to be taught something by a book that may come off as simple, but in reality, is something quite else.

Check out these reviews!

  • “The book is all about hope and love and a heart that can change.” – Of Books and Reading
  • “I’m surprised by just how many people over at Goodreads did not seem to enjoy this book at all.  Instead of just having quirky characters and constant grief rising up in Flora’s life, she is a heroine who meets every challenge head-on.” – Fausti’s Book Quest
  • “I thought FLORA & ULYSSES was wonderfully written and that the story was playful and exciting. ” – In Bed with Books

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