Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures
by Kate DiCamillo; ill. by K.G. Campbell
Candlewick Press, 2013
Finding inspiration in the sublime or the exceptional is fairly easy: the girl who bravely battles the wilderness, cancer, or a super-villain is an obvious candidate to inspire the next generation of women.
The problem is, most girls don’t live that kind of life. So while books about extraordinary people and situations are important, so are books that celebrate the ordinary or even oddball. That’s where most girls are going to find a point of identification and, by extension, of inspiration.
Which brings us to Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, illustrated by K.G. Campbell.
Preteen Flora Belle Buckman is a character many girls can easily identify with. She lives in an ordinary middle-class home in an ordinary middle-class neighborhood. Her clothes, her bedroom, her dad’s car, her street – they all look like anything or anyone you’d encounter in your own home or city.
Flora also faces challenges many girls can easily identify with – the kinds of problems that are a part of many ordinary people’s lives. Her parents are divorced, she and her mom don’t quite connect, and she misses her dad, whom she sees only on weekends. She copes by escaping into her favorite hobby and by detaching herself from her peers and family. She calls herself a “natural-born cynic” and takes “Do not hope; instead, observe” as her motto.
Flora’s life becomes suddenly un-ordinary, however, when Ulysses the squirrel appears. Flora rescues the rodent after he suffers a run-in with neighbor Tootie Tickham’s vacuum cleaner. The accident endows him with superpowers: super strength, the ability to fly, and the ability to compose poetry (though he has to type it, since he does not receive the power of speech).
Being devoted fans of comics, Flora and her dad know that every superhero must have an arch-nemesis – and they quickly figure out that Ulysses’ is none other than Flora’s mother. With the help of Tootie, her great-nephew William Spiver, and Mr. Buckman’s neighbor Dr. Meescham (who tends to speak in wise but enigmatic axioms), father and daughter set out to save Ulysses from his climactic encounter with the enemy.
If all this sounds a bit oddball, it is – deliciously so. Flora & Ulysses is the geek’s version of Judy Blume’s middle-grade problem novels. The characters are all a little wonky, comics and superhero references are everywhere, the kids are incredibly smart, and there’s a touch of magical realism to boot.
Overlaying it all is DiCamillo’s classic wry humor and barely self-conscious lyric phrasing. Campbell’s beautifully-shaded, animation-style pencil illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.
Being a geek myself, I would have loved this book even if there were nothing inspiring about it, but of course it is inspiring, or I wouldn’t be writing about it here.
Flora’s friendship with Ulysses calls out all the best in her. It opens her heart, commands her courage, and pushes her intelligence to its limits. It also leads her to call out the best in others: she gives Tootie a chance to be decisive and brave, her father a chance to reforge their bond, Dr. Meescham a chance to nurture others, and William Spiver the chance to belong. By book’s end, she’s even pulled her own denial-steeped mother back to reality.
This all happens through means that are kooky rather than heroic, but perhaps the quirkiness is what helps make the messages unforgettable. Flora & Ulysses tells girls that changing things for the better – whether in their own lives or the lives of others – is not just for superstars, the popular, or the beautiful. However “outside” they may think themselves, there are people waiting to welcome them in and befriend them. Hope is for everyone. And extraordinary opportunities to become an even better version of themselves are waiting right in their own backyards.
Which all means that, for ordinary girls facing ordinary problems, Flora is a heroine for the books.