Thursday, February 27, 2014

Flora & Ulysses, Kate DiCamillo

Title:  Flora and Ulysses
Author:  Kate DiCamillo
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Year:  2013
Pages:  233
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Family, Friendship, Superheroes
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  From Goodreads

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. 

Kate DiCamillo's work is always filled with a sense of magic.  From Because of Winn Dixie to The Tiger Rising to the Magician's Elephant, DiCamillo uses unusual animals to help her human characters deal with life's problems in charming, unexpected ways.  This particular book takes advantage of the current graphic novel craze to tell a story that is part fantasy novel, and part heartwarming family drama.   Flora & Ulysses is not a graphic novel in the strictest sense of the word, but DiCamillo's prose is broken up by mini-comics that move the story forward in a way that simple text could not.

Flora, the titular character, is a self-described cynic.  It isn't hard to see where this comes from-her mother, and author of romance novels, seems much more interested in her fictional characters than her own daughter, and her father, who she only sees on weekends, is more and more remote emotionally the longer he and Flora's mother are divorced.  Is it any wonder that Flora is obsessed with what to do if the worst happens? To her, the worst already has.  Rounding out the cast of remarkable characters are the neighbor lady and her nephew, who has come to live with her because of his supposed psychosomatic blindness.  But, in true comic book fashion, the true hero of the book is Ulysses, the superhero squirrel.  His heroic antics and his heartfelt, accidental poetry help everyone improve their relationships with each other by showing them that sometimes the impossible is anything but.

I think that this novel could be used to teach narrative structure, since it does have an unusual one, though the plot itself moves forward in the linear fashion of most fiction.  The themes provide plenty of discussion topics, and I could see kids really enjoying Ulysses and his antics, or relating to Flora and her ambivalence towards her parents.

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