Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from the library - but my daughters own and adore this book
Kate DiCamillo wasn’t a part of my childhood for the simple reason that she hadn’t written anything when I was a kid. Her first children’s novel came out in 2000. My second daughter became a fan when she discovered The Tale of Despereaux (which we listened to last summer). She has always loved mice of all sorts, fictional and otherwise, stuffed and living, so she has made a rather extensive study of all the available protagonists of the small rodent persuasion found in the kids’ section of our library.
Cordelia (aka Cora), lover of all things rodent
Flora and Ulysses starres a slightly larger rodent, a squirrel, who finds himself unexpectedly transformed.
DiCamillo begins by satirizing the “superhero” trope. How does a certain kind of hero get his or her powers? By surviving a run-in with a deadly danger, such as a poisonous spider or radioactive goo. Ulysses is gobbled up by an out of control vacuum cleaner, and gains his name - and some unexpected powers - as a result. Ulysses may gain super strength and the ability to fly, but he isn’t really sure what to do with them. He also is able to understand humans and type his thoughts on a typewriter, but he remains a squirrel. Thus, while his human companion (and his inspiration), the overly dramatic Flora expects him to set off saving the world and righting wrong, he is unsure how to wear the weight of these expectations. He has gained a desire to write poetry (from the poetry book that was gobbled by the vacuum before it got him), and he discovers he can save people from an aggressive and pathological cat; but what he really wants to do is find food, particularly a giant doughnut, the tastiest thing he can imagine.
Flora, on the other hand, sees Ulysses through her imagination, fired by her many hours immersed in the comic-book world of “Incandesto,” a mere janitor by day, but crime fighter by night. This squirrel, to her, is her fantasy come to life, and a way of dealing with the pain of an inattentive mother and her parents’ broken marriage.
The best sort of children’s books appeal to adults as well because of the universal themes and ideas. I have found both of DiCamillo’s books (so far) to have enough hidden wit that may (or not) go over the heads of my younger kids, and also food for conversation. The characters are rarely entirely what one would expect - even the villains. (Roscuro in Despereaux is particularly delightful.) In this book there is the tension between the cynic that Flora thinks she is and the romantic that she really is at heart. There is a delightful skewering of the romance novels that Flora’s mother writes - and of the fact that she is as prosaic as they come, and constantly irritated at the bond of imagination and wonder that Flora and her father share. There is the imaginary book, Terrible Things Can Happen to YOU! that both prepares Flora for emergencies, and leads her to overreact to ordinary situations. There is the treatment of the fear of rejection which haunts many of the characters. There is an interesting perspective shift between a destructive giant squid as a hated villain and the same creature as the pitiable loneliest creature in the sea.
As usual, DiCamillo celebrates the oddball, the misfit, and overly dramatic. After all, who really wants to read about perfect people? And who could identify with one? We are all misfits, who, even if we don’t indulge in drama, have at least been tempted. (And, our kids do…) All of us have a fear of rejection, and perhaps we too would welcome a little superhero who loves us absolutely. And, come to think of it, I probably would have loved to have shouted, “Holy Bagumba!” when the unexpected happened.
One disadvantage of audiobooks is that you sometimes miss fun illustrations.
Flora and Ulysses contains extended sections of comic book style illustrations by K. G. Campbell which are fun.
Note on modern children’s literature:
I have all too often heard laments that modern kids’ books don’t measure up to the standards of bygone eras. I think this is overblown, but it is the product of two things. First of all, we forget that the worst art from the past has faded into forgotten obscurity, leaving the best behind as “classics.” So, we don’t have to read the dreck of ages past. Thus, whenever we read (or hear, or see) some poorly done modern effort, we tend to compare it to the giants of lore. Few come off well well when compared to Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Rembrandt.
The second factor is that modern books often address modern dilemmas. Many books, including this one, have divorced families in them. This is a turn off to certain parents because of the fear that this will “normalize” divorce. I find this a bit irrational. What it does is normalize the children of broken homes. And seriously, our children will be around those who come from all kinds of family situations, and the last thing they need is added fear of others. A little understanding of the stresses associated with feuding parents is probably a good thing - as is the truth that rejection is the last thing a child needs, regardless of how that child came to be.
Through my kids (and other friends and family), I have had the chance to read a number of modern books for children, and I have been impressed by how many of them are thoughtful, entertaining, and imaginative. Children’s literature is far from dead, in my experience.