Janie and I are back to discuss another potential Newbery contender (see our discussion of The Real Boy).
The prestigious Newbery and Caldecott awards (along with other ALA awards) will be announced at the end of January; children’s literature fans across the country love trying to figure out which books the tight-lipped committee is considering. History tells us that books earning multiple stars from big review journals (i.e. Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal, etc.) are often contenders. In addition, if an author is a previous award-winner, everyone wonders if his or her latest offering might be “as good.” In any given year, books are only compared with that year’s crop, so a book needs to be “as good” when compared with its contemporaries.
Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. Candlewick, 2013. Age/interest level: 8-12.
Which brings us to our discussion today! Kate DiCamillo has earned her fair share of awards (including Newbery-winning The Tale of Despereaux and Newbery Honor-winning Because of Winn-Dixie). Her latest book, Flora & Ulysses, is a chapter book sprinkled with sequential art (think: comic books) that made the National Book Award Longlist this year. Just like classic comic books, the plot is larger than life and full of over-the-top characters: a super hero squirrel (Ulysses), a high strung and controlling mother, a strange kid who is temporarily blind (William Spiver), a spunky next door neighbor (“Tootie” Tickman), a loving-but-distant-father, and a curious girl with a strong imagination (Flora).
Award Material? Janie and Betsy Discuss…
Betsy: I liked the format of the tale; the comics added nicely to the theme of underdog hero v. his arch nemesis. And yet, this story doesn’t work as well for me as DiCamillo’s other books. Janie, I know you had a similar reaction. What were your initial thoughts on Flora & Ulysses? What do you think its strengths and weaknesses are?
Janie: Without question, the strength is an attention-grabbing narrative voice with outsized characters and events (even though it may rely a little too much on all-caps and exclamation points). Flora is a self-described cynic, down on life because of her parents’ divorce—which, we will come to see, emphasizes their weaknesses rather than their virtues. But Ulysses, who was just an ordinary squirrel until he was sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, posses a joie di vivre that’s hard for Flora—or anyone–to resist. Here’s how DiCamillo describes his awakening: 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. That’s pretty impressive. And besides, superhero squirrels are super-cute.
The great weakness is, I think, an over-reliance on quirky characters. Maybe it wouldn’t be so much a weakness if we don’t already see so many books that try to out-quirk each other. The characters in Flora and Ulysses take over the plot, driving it down an improbable set of circumstances (yes, I know, it’s a fantasy) that start to seem random, as if the author turned off her authorial control and just let things happen. I’m sure that wasn’t the case, but the book has that feel about it. Is that somewhat similar to the impression you got?
Betsy: That’s a great way to put it, Janie: the characters take over the story. Creating memorable characters is a gift of DiCamillo’s; this is partly what makes her Mercy Watson early chapter book series such an outstanding read for new readers. Flora & Ulysses tries to straddle the early chapter book/children’s novel line, and it starts to wobble in the last third especially. There is certainly depth to the storyline in that Flora and her parents come to a greater understanding of each other, and Ulysses saves the day in more than one sense for many of the characters. But at the end of the day, this felt more like a wild roller coaster ride than a book with the kind of oomph DiCamillo has delivered in her other children’s novels. Do you think we’ll see it awarded come January?
Janie: It’s probably in the running, but I’ll go out on a limb and say it doesn’t win an award this year. Once an author has won twice, the Newbery committee usually moves on to other authors worthy of consideration. And I can’t think of any other ALA award besides the Newbery that Flora & Ulysses would qualify for. That said, it’s a fun read with the worthy point that life is worth living and the world with all its sorrows and woes is still a spectacular place.
Betsy: Great sum-up. It is indeed a fun read and celebrates life in all its quirkiness. I’d say it’s chances are, at best, an Honor. We’ll see if we’re right come January! In the meantime, Flora & Ulysses is a great choice for a reluctant reader trying to make the transition from graphic novels and picture books to a “regular” chapter book–especially if that kid is a bit quirky, too.