Flora loves comic books. She gets to experience somewhat of a real life comic book story when she befriends a squirrel with superpowers. There are also deeper philosophical undertones in the book as well.
Reading Experience: The writing is simplistic yet effective. The chapters are short and so the book is a fast read. There are many illustrations which helps further the reading experience. The best way to describe reading Flora and Ulysses is fun, there’s not a single uninteresting moment in the book.
Creativity/Originality: This is one of the most creative books I’ve read in awhile. It’s only a standalone but I could picture it becoming an amazing cartoon series. And let’s be honest, a premise about a squirrel with superpowers could have easily turned out to be stupid and over-the-top. But DiCamillo makes it into a beautiful, clever and funny story.
Characters: Flora Belle Buckman— she describes herself as a ‘natural-born cynic’ and loves comic books. The illustrations show her as a young girl with short hair and glasses. Much of her views on life seem to come from the comic books she reads. She’s overall a good character. I like that the narrative doesn’t throw in the reader’s face that she’s a ‘nerd’ or a ‘tomboy’ (most will probably get that impression on their own though). She’s just her. The only label she gets is ‘natural-born cynic.’ That’s all she needs.
Ulysses – The superpowered squirrel. His powers are gained by being sucked into a vacuum. His powers include super strength, flight and poetry writing. He’s cute and his friendship with Flora is heartwarming.
Phyllis Buckman – Flora’s mom, romance novelist, sociopath and worst character in the whole book. If there’s one flaw with the book it’s that it seems to expect the reader to forgive and like her by the end. Well, no. She wasn’t redeemed enough, at all. George Buckman – Flora’s dad and a sweet character that grows throughout the book. Him and Phyllis are divorced.
William Spiver – an eccentric, sunglass-wearing character who claims to be temporarily blind. He’s not like most kids and almost talks in riddles. Also has some unfortunate issues with his mom and her new husband.
Tootie Tickham – Flora’s neighbor. A nice and sweet character that loves poetry. I’d say she’s the third best character in the book.
Mary Ann – A cutesy shepherdess lamp owned by Mrs. Buckman. Flora hates the lamp because she believes her mother loves it more than her. She only has one sheep, so she’s probably not a good shepherdess.
Themes/Analysis: Flora’s parents are divorced, so the subject of how divorce can effect children is present in the book. It often makes them have to chose between their parents. At one point when Flora is upset with her mother, she says she wants to go live with her father. Flora’s mother says her life would be easier without her daughter. And, of course, this is devastating for Flora to hear. Supposedly Mrs. Buckman doesn’t really mean it. But either way this is one of the reasons it’s so hard to forgive her in the end. To me, saying that to your daughter isn’t easily forgivable.
In fact, I would say Flora’s mother is unstable to a scary extent. She has a complete break down over her daughter saying she wants to live with her Dad (come on, every parent gets the ‘I hate you’, ‘I’m gonna run away’ -type treatment). And worst of all she takes Ulysses to the woods in a plastic bag with plans to beat him to death. That’s not just jealous or concerned behavior, it’s psychopathic. And, as I said before she wasn’t redeemed in my eyes at all. It could be the narrative tries to redeem her, because it has to. Maybe, it could only go so far with demonizing a biological mother. The father is immensely more likeable in this book (even though he’s kind of a pushover and goofy).
But on to William Spiver who also has some parental issues. He has to deal with his mom’s new husband who he clearly isn’t fond of. It’s hard to know if William’s dislike is justified since we don’t actually meet the stepfather. His weird behavior could easily hint at him blocking out his problems. The wearing of the sunglasses and claim of temporary blindness represents him being unwilling to face his problems. He simply doesn’t want to see them.
As for the other star, Ulysses. He has a much deeper purpose as well. When people think ‘squirrel’ they don’t think of a hero. In fact, a squirrel is usually an animal that takes off in the face of danger. Well that it isn’t Ulysses. He surprises everyone and shows that the seemingly weaker and insignificant ones can have great strength in them.
Final thoughts: An amazing children’s book that can be enjoyed by everyone. The Newbery is well-deserved.