Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, K.G. Campbell (Illustrator)

Flora Belle Buckman would have been a great character in the comic strip "Peanuts" by Charles Schultz.  But rather than saying "Good Grief" all the time and failing at everything she did like Charlie Brown, she would have been the self-proclaimed cynic whose favorite line would be "Holy bagumba!" Flora loves words and shows a weariness resulting from her parents divorce. This odd dichotomy of cynicism and hopefulness reveals a sad yet warm girl struggling with loving the people around her. While this sounds somewhat heavy the story is laugh-out-loud funny with rapid-fire episodes that satisfied the imaginative, hyperactive kid in me. It's not for everyone. Be prepared for lots of silliness, a superhero squirrel, and nutty characters that try to figure out what is important in life.

Flora's mother, Phyllis, is a romance novelist who neglects her daughter and doesn't know how to tell her she loves her. She shows a doll-like lampshade more love than Flora who pretends it doesn't hurt her feelings because she is "a cynic" that doesn't feel anything. It's obvious she does though. When Flora observes her neighbor, Tootie Tickham, being pulled around the yard by her Ulys­ses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X vacuum cleaner that she can't control, and that is about to suck up a squirrel, she screams to Tootie to stop. Sadly, Tootie doesn't hear Flora and the squirrel gets slurped into the machine only to get pulled out minus fur and enhanced with the superpowers of great strength and being able to think like a human.

Flora names the squirrel, Ulysses, who shows unconditional love, flies, and types poetry. Her nagging mother can't stand that Flora adores the squirrel. Phyllis also hates Flora's obsession with her favorite comic, “The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!” and its companion, “Terrible Things Can Happen to You!” Flora filters life and makes decisions based on the comic all the while chanting, “Do not hope; instead, observe” in an effort to squelch her hurt feelings over her parents painful divorce.

When Flora's dad, George, picks her up for his day to be with her, Phyllis, hands him a bag and shovel instructing him to kill the squirrel. Instead, the mild-mannered George takes Ulysses and Flora out for breakfast at the Giant Do-nut shop. Chaos ensues when the squirrels flies into the waitress's hair causing George to laugh for the first time since his divorce. "Holy bagumba," he cries and as the day goes on George finds so much joy in Ulysses, Flora has hope that maybe he'll be happy again.

When Flora returns home, her arch-nemesis mother still has murder on her mind and Flora teams up with Tootie Tickham's blind nephew, William Spiver, who sounds like a walking encyclopedia using big words and exhibits an unwillingness to see Ulysses superpowers. William Spiver is in the dark both literally and figuratively. His aunt Tootie insists that he is not blind, but he acts that way because he is grieving over the death of his dad and remarriage of his mom. His new dad wants to call him Billy and this makes him retaliate in a way that gets him banished to his aunts. Adults oftentimes don't respect kids wishes regarding names which can lead to all sorts of frustrations. When it looks like Flora will lose Ulysses to death just like he lost his dad, he is no longer blind but can see. It seems to symbolize him facing the changes in his life and moving forward.

The illustrations by K.G. Campbell are brilliantly interspersed in comic strip form that add humor to the text. The beginning pictures show the vacuum cleaner sucking the pants right off the legs of Tootie Tickman's husband before gulping down the cleaner's instruction manual and a cereal box. A pantless husband holds the door open to the yard telling Tootie the vacuum cleaner is multi-terrain while she is getting propelled sideways as if it is jet-powered. The text bubble reads, "And that's how it all began. With a vacuum cleaner. Really."  The madcap fun continues at a galloping pace as text and illustrations keep coming from the slippery horsehair couch, the headless Mary Ann lamp, the pyscho cat, Mr. Klaus, to the watery-eyed Dr. Meescham from Blundermeecen. As Flora would say, "Holy unanticipated occurences!"

Reading Level 4.3
Fountas and Pinnell: U 
5 Smileys

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