Flora & Ulysses : The Illuminated Adventures is the latest book from Kate DiCamillo, the Newbery award winning author who is beloved by kids and adults. DiCamillo, who has a knack for working with amazing illustrators like Chris Van Dusen, Bagram Ibatoulline, Timothy Basil Ering and Tony Fucile is paired perfectly with newcomer K.G. Campbell, who is already garnering much deserved awards and attention (scroll down for Campbell's latest picture book.) In fact, not realizing that the "Illuminated Adventures" part of the subtitle referred to a comic book series that Flora reads rather than the quantity of illustrations to be found in Flora & Ulysses : The Illuminated Adventures, I was a bit disappointed not to see more of Campbell's wonderful artwork between the covers.
Flora Belle Buckman, child of a divorced writer of romance novels, is a natural born cynic, her mother often tells her. While Flora may hate romance novels, she loves The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!, a comic book series that she once read side by side with her father. The story of how the unassuming janitor, Alfred T. Slipper became the Amazing Incandesto is fantastic, and even better is a sensational section at the end of each comic book titles, TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU! and The Criminal Element. Beyond literary enjoyment, Flora lets the experiences of Incandesto and the advice offered at the back of his comic books guide and inform her experiences like it is the Boy Scout Handbook. This comes in oddly handy when a neighbor's new high-tech, high-powered vacuum, the Ulysses 2000X, runs amok in her backyard and suctions up a squirrel. Watching this from her bedroom window, Flora bursts into action and, using her comic book smarts, performs CPR on the squirrel.
Not only does the squirrel spring back to life, he seems to have more life than before, including super-strength and the gift of flight, a new perspective on life and the ability to compose poetry and type it out. Because of her unique way of looking at things, Flora becomes convinced that Ulysses, for that is what she names the squirrel the moment she cradles his partially de-furred little body in her arms, is a superhero. And, like any superhero, Ulysses is nothing without an arch-nemesis. But, before we get to the nemesis, we are treated to a few special characters who round out the story like Tootie, the poerty loving neighbor who was gifted with the snazzy vacuum, her great-nephew William Spiver who insists on being addressed by his full name and is experiencing temporary, hysterical blindness because his mother sent him away. Then there is George Buckman, Flora's meek, accommodating father and his interesting, elderly neighbor, Dr. Meescham, a professor of philosophy who emigrated from the curious country of Blundermeecen. There is also Mr. Klaus, the manager of the Blixen Arms where Mr. Buckman lives and Dr. Meescham is his neighbor, and Mr. Klaus, the manager's vicious cat and Mary Ann, the little shepherdess who is also a porcelain lamp that was the first purchase Flora's mother made with the earnings from the publication of her first romance novel, a lamp that Flora is sure her mother loves more than her own daughter.
Once Flora's mother discovers Ulysses is in her house, she is determined, in a maniacal sort of way, to get rid of this diseased rodent. When she catches him using her typewriter in the middle of the night she really loses it, making the uproars the Ulysses caused at the Giant Do-Nut restaurant and in the hallway of the Blixen Arms, seem tame by comparison. The climax of the story brings the whole cast together where Flora discovers that it's not just her father who has a capacious heart, but her mother, too. The same mother who said that her life would be easier if Flora moved in with her father. The epilogue of Flora & Ulysses : The Illuminated Adventures is the poem that Ulysses wrote for Flora as her mother was working on absconding with him in the middle of the night. Flora & Ulysses : The Illuminated Adventures, in a testament to DiCamillo's talent as a writer, is one of those great books that can remain boisterously childlike in its silliness while being adult in a non-condescending, meaningful manner. Flora recalls this tidbit of information from TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!, "a surprising number of people were walking around with tumors in their brains and didn't even know it. That was the thing about tragedy. It was just sitting there, keeping you company, waiting. And you had absolutely no idea." When Flora, Ulysses and George Buckman enter the Giant Do-Nut, it smells like "fried eggs and donuts and other people's closets." When Ulysses writes, the words "needed to be arranged, fussed with, put in the order of his heart." And, at a pivotal point in the novel, Flora realizes that her heart hurts and she thinks, "Cynic's hearts weren't supposed to hurt." DiCamillo also finds wonderfully plausible ways to quote the poetry Rainer Maria Rilke in the story and get in a descriptions of Pascal's Wager while also having Flora think to herself, "there was a murder to stop, a superhero to mentor, villains to vanquish, darkness to eradicate. She couldn't waste time trading stupid thoughts with William Spiver." Wacky, out of the ordinary and lovely, Flora & Ulysses : The Illuminated Adventures is a special book, one that's not for everybody, but one that certain readers will embrace gleefully. And then go out and try to find a Ulysses of their own...
If you liked Flora & Ulysses : The Illuminated Adventures, don't miss these books by Polly Horvath, author of books that are absurd and silly as well as movingly poignant.
And don't miss K.G. Campbell's award winning picture book, Lester's Dreadful Sweaters!
Of Campbell's book, Kirkus Reviews said, "If Edward Gorey and Polly Horvath had a literary love child, this would be it." I think that this could definitely be said of Flora & Ulysses : The Illuminated Adventures as well.
Source: Review Copy