Flora & Ulysses!

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K. G. Campbell

Published by Candlewick Press in 2013

I’m lucky to be studying children’s literature. When I’m asked what my favorite books are it’s impossible to narrow a list down because I LOVE so much of what I read. Usually I just name the most recent things I’ve read, because I’m weekly finding a new favorite.

However, if some cruel person forced me to actually put together a list, Flora and Ulysses would be on it. No question. It’s been nearly a year since I first read it, and after returning to it again this week, I was renewed with affection for it.

It was the winner of the 2014 Newbery Award, generally received raving reviews, and spent weeks on many bestsellers lists. So I’m not the only one who loves it. The narrative is told through both text and comics, which I argue makes for a broad potential reading audience.

Flora is “a natural born cynic” who loves to read comic books, especially The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto! and TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!

Ulysses is a squirrel. He starts out as an ordinary squirrel who mostly thinks and cares about food. But one fateful day the squirrel is sucked up by Mrs. Tickham’s Ulysses 2000x powered vacuum. Due to quick thinking on the part of Flora, who gives the seemingly dead squirrel mouth to mouth, the squirrel is reborn as Ulysses who can do things he’d never been able to do before. Like think about more than food. Like fly. Like . . . other things I won’t spoil.

Could Flora have possibly found a REAL LIFE SUPERHERO?

Ulysses is the most enchanting animal character I have read in years. I always appreciate a good animal character, as I am an animal lover (if you haven’t already noticed through my irrational love of my dog Wallace). Animal characters often pull the strongest on my heart strings, and I (confession) am often more attached to the animal than human characters.

Toto from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite animal characters. In gray Kansas, Toto is what brings Dorothy joy. Toto is also the driving force for most of the plot. Dorothy is transported to Oz because she runs into her house, instead of the storm shelter, to get Toto. Dorothy misses the air balloon ride back to Kansas with the Wizard because Toto jumps out and Dorothy jumps out after him. So basically, Toto is the most important character. My favorite quote from the whole book is: “Toto did not really care whether he was in Kansas or the Land of Oz so long as Dorothy was with him.” Wallace is 100% my Toto.

Another favorite is Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. I have read this book over and over, and watched the film version over and over. Each time I cry my eyes out over my love of Wilbur, and decide to give up bacon (which usually only lasts a few weeks). My favorite quote about Wilbur’s love for Fern is: “he planned to stand perfectly still and think of what it was like to be alive, and to wait for Fern.” Wallace is totally my Wilbur.

Why is Ulysses as loveable as Toto and Wilbur? Because he ADORES Flora. Like Toto, Ulysses doesn’t really care about the plans Flora makes, just that Flora is happy and that he gets to be with her. And like Wilbur, when Ulysses is separated from Flora, all he can think about is getting back to her. Again, I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises that make reading this book so fun, but the friendship between Flora and Ulysses is what makes this book so incredibly lovely.

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The narrative is also filled with hilariously odd characters that electrify the book. For example:

  • Eleven year old William Spiver is doing such a good job of pretending to be blind he actually believes he is, and says things like “Flora Belle? What a lovely, melodious name” and “Surely you jest!”
  • There’s old Dr. Meescham who listens to opera, misses her lately passed husband the other Dr. Meescham, talks about life as a girl in Blundermeecen.
  • Flora’s mother, and villain to the story for she cannot understand why Flora keeps sneaking a squirrel into the house, writes romance novels, irrationally loves her shepherdess lamp, and is struggling to navigate recently being divorced.

The whole cast of characters (including those I don’t mention) are vibrant, allowing DiCamillo to create a complex and exciting world.

The back cover suggests reading ages for Flora and Ulysses of 11 to 13 years old. I think this books can appeal to readers both under 11 and over 13. Being part comic, the images allows the book to be accessible to younger readers. The writing is straight forward enough that early elementary aged children could read it on their own, or it could read with parents. I imagine this would be a fun book for parents to read to their children (I would have LOVED for my mom to have read this to me. She would have done an awesome job with the voices).

The book ends with the possibility of there being more adventures of Flora and Ulysses. After reading (click here if I’ve inspired you), I’m sure you, like me will be wishing on every shooting star that this happens sooner rather than later.

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Adventure into School Stories

Sarah Fielding’s The Governess

I returned to Toronto this week after tearfully ending my winter holidays in Calgary (I watched a movie on the plane hoping that the person next to me would think I was crying because it was a sad movie, not because I’m pathetic).

Now that I’m back at York, I’ve started reading for my second candidacy exam which is on school stories. Since this will take up the majority of my reading for the next few months, get ready for lots of posts on school stories! This is more exciting than it sounds. I promise. One would think that something with “school” in the title automatically equals boring. Sometimes this is true (like with the book I’ll talk about later in this post). But MOST of them are thrilling! Titles on my list like The Harry Potter series, Ender’s Game, the Percy Jackson series, Looking for Alaska, Diary of a Wimpy Kid are anything but boring. So I invite you to tag along with Wallace and me as we wade through the evolution of school stories over the next couple months!

The first book on my reading list that I tackled this week is Sarah Fielding’s (yes, the sister of Henry Fielding if anyone was wondering) The Governess: Or, The Little Female Academy which was first published in 1749. This book is the first entry on my reading list AND the first book I read because it’s arguably considered to be the FIRST EVER school story for children. Therefore, I am beholden to start my exploration with this book.

The story surrounds the pupils of Mrs. Teachum and her star student Jenny Peace. In order to better themselves, the students decide they will come together once a day to have Jenny read them stories with a good moral (because the only books worth reading are those with morals), as well as share their own stories of their lives before coming to the school (apparently this school has a rehab-like vibe, because the girls were all terrible human beings before coming until Mrs. Teachum’s tutelage). So the main portion of The Governess includes each girl telling her back story, two fairy tales that Jenny reads to the group, and a retelling of a play. Very simple story line.

This being said, I would not recommend this book to the average young reader. Why? Sarah Fielding was part of a literary movement called the Rational Moralists, some who like Fielding, wrote texts intended to be read by children. However, the Rational Moralist still wrote as if they were writing for adults. They believed if they changed their writing style to be easily read by children, they would not improve and be developed into more rational creatures by the reading. The outcome of the Rational Moralistic writing style is the language is elevated, the young characters are not very child-like, and the narrative is highly didactic and moralistic. The politically correct academic term is: the text is “heavy-handed.” However Fielding is not just heavy-handed. She bangs readers over the head with her didacticism. Readers tended not to appreciate this as much as, say, a reader in 1749.

So who would I recommend this book too? Well, if you are a young reader who is interested in seeing what the first ever school story is like, I urge you to give it a try! Otherwise, I assume it will only be people like me studying children’s literature and interested in the history of the genre that would willingly pick up this book today. The feelings and emotions in the novel are timeless (obey your parents, study hard, beauty is on the inside), but the way the text is presented is dated.

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