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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. Written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K.G. Campbell. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2013. $20.00 ages 10 and up

"They were making their getaway, but they were making their getaway slowly. Because even when Flora's father was thinking that things were hilarious, even when he was talking like a parakeet, he still, apparently, did not believe in speeding. Flora kept looking behind them to see if they were being followed by the cops. Or Rita and Ernie. When she finally looked down at Ulysses, his eyes were still closed..."

She doesn't like romance novels, but she loves comic books. One morning, while reading, the sound of her neighbor's newest gift to his wife stopped her in her tracks. Flora found the source of the noise just in time to see that new vacuum pull Mrs. Tickham all over their yard and suck a squirrel straight into its dust bag!

"Seemingly, swallowing a squirrel was a bit much even for the powerful, indomitable, indoor/outdoor Ulysses 2000X. Mrs. Tickham's birthday machine let out an uncertain roar and stuttered to a stop."

Getting the squirrel out of the vacuum bag, not knowing its condition, makes for a very funny scene. Flora has watched what happened, propelled herself into action, shaken the squirrel out of its death trap, and given it CPR. The squirrel's thoughts are shown to readers as all of this is happening:

"The squirrel heard another voice. This voice was counting. The light receded.
"Breathe!" the new voice shouted.
The squirrel obliged. He took a deep, shuddering breath. And then another. And another.
The squirrel returned."

What an auspicious beginning for Kate DiCamillo's new book! And it only gets better.

Once the squirrel is breathing on its own, his new best friend gives him the name Ulysses, and makes the astounding discovery that his near-death experience has given him some superhero powers. They are an unbeatable team. Life changes for both Flora and Ulysses, and not always for the better. Their story only lasts for a few days, but there is a lot of action packed into its passage. The use of two points of view make it laugh-out-loud funny at times.

Flora has a warm heart, a brave spirit and is an unrelenting skeptic. She takes a stand and sticks to her personal beliefs with passion and independence. She lives by the tenets of TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU! She loves Ulysses and together they love what life serves up. Ulysses is a squirrel with a new outlook, following his harrowing experience:

“His brain felt larger, roomier. It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self (doors he hadn’t even known existed) had suddenly been flung wide. Everything was shot through with meaning, purpose, light.”

He is also a great companion for a young girl dealing with divorce, a distracted mother, and time on her hands. Their adventures are awesome because they are together. As we learn as we come to know him better, Ulysses' view of the world is quite eye-opening:

"He was a squirrel riding in a car on a summer day with someone he loved. His whiskers and nose were in the breeze. And there were so many smells!
Overflowing trash cans, just-cut grass, sun-warmed patches of pavement, the loamy richness of dirt, earthworms (loamy-smelling, too; often difficult to distinguish from the smell of dirt), dog, more dog, dog again (Oh, dogs! Small dogs, large dogs, foolish dogs, the torturing of dogs was the one reliable pleasure of a squirrel's existence), the tang of fertilizer, a faint whiff of birdseed, something baking, the hidden hint of nuttiness (pecan, acorn), the small, apologetic, don't-mind-me odor of mouse, and the ruthless stench of cat."

Sorry...I just couldn't stop myself! Not for bedtime reading because of its often frenetic pace, it is a perfect family read on long, cold winter nights. Comic panels scattered throughout the telling add to the appeal and to understanding as the story moves along. They also speak to Flora's love of the black and white medium. Inventive and witty, this is a story that begs to be read out loud, and then to be read again. It is poetic, irreverent, and magical. It is filled with beautiful writing What a truly engaging gift at Christmas for any middle grade reader, or for your family!


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