Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures was this year’s Newberry Medal winner. You might be familiar with some of Kate Dicamillo’s other books: The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn Dixie, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Toulane. I first heard about this book in the pre-Newberry buzz and thought it sounded cute.
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Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures is a mix of comic book style illustrations telling the story and normal text. It tells the story of Flora, self-described “natural born cynic” who loves comic books. After a squirrel is vacuumed up by a powerful vacuum, Flora resuscitates him, and he begins to display unusual behavior (strength beyond his size, he can understand human language, he flies, and he writes poetry on the typewriter). Flora names him Ulysses and she is sure that he has been turned into a super hero. Her mother, a romance writer, is skeptical and determined to kill the squirrel (to save her daughter from acting weird). Various adventures happen both in written word and illustrations in comic book page style, and through it all, Flora relies on what she has learned from her comic books and the sections in the back of the comic books called “Terrible Things Can Happen To You!” to navigate all the events. She makes friends with a boy who has been rejected by his mother and stepfather, and Flora sees that her very sad father still loves her very much and that her mother loves her more than she thought. Ulysses survives an attack on his life, and he and Flora are reunited.
I did not love this book. The characters seemed a little flat to me, and even though everyone was reconciled at the end, I did not like how Flora’s mother acted. It’s a cute enough story, but not as great as some of the other books that came out this past year, so I was surprised it got the Newberry award. Liam enjoyed it, and it’s got a good message. Just wasn’t my top pick of 2013.
The message of Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures is that everyone needs something to believe in and that love inspires greatness.
Parents should be advised that Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures that Flora’s parents are divorced. Flora’s mother acts self-centered and it appears that she does not care much for Flora. At one point, she tells Flora that she doesn’t care if Flora wants to live with her father. Flora’s mother starts smoking when she is stressed out. William Spiver got so mad at his stepfather that he rolled his stepfather’s truck into a pond. Flora’s mother tries to kill Ulysses with a shovel. Throughout the book, Flora and her father use two phrases from the comic books they read together: “Holy Bagumba!” and “Holy Unexpected Occurrences!”
My Mom-Meter gives Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures an overall safety rating of 2 (Moderately Safe) for ages 8 and up.
The Lexile rating for Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures is 520L.
Category ratings (click on the category to see specifics):
This book opens with an illustrated comic book style spread when Tootie Twickham receives an Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner from her husband. The main character, Flora (a self-proclaimed cynic) lives with her mother, a romance novel writer, who is divorced from Flora’s dad, “a sad, quiet man.” Flora sees her neighbor, Tootie Tickham, using her new powerful vacuum cleaner outside, accidentally vacuuming up a squirrel. Flora rushes outside and performs CPR on the squirrel who has had a near-death experience. He comes back to life and picks up the heavy vacuum, displaying super strength, and Flora begins to suspect that the squirrel has gained superhero powers. She names him Ulysses because of the vacuum, and soon after discovers that Ulysses can understand her conversation, he can fly short distances, and he uses the typewriter to write poems.
Flora meets the boy who lives next door with his aunt Tootie Tickham. His name is William Spiver. His father died, and he is living with his aunt because he does not get along with his stepfather. He rolled his stepfather’s truck into a lake, and William Spiver’s mother sent him away. William Spiver says that he has temporary blindness caused by his mother sending him away, but he realizes he can see when his sunglasses fall off and break.
Flora’s mother asks Flora’s father to kill Ulysses with a shovel and Flora overhears it. She tries to distract her father from doing that, and they end up having an incident at a diner when Ulysses scares a waitress and is nearly killed by a knife-wielding cook. Instead, Ulysses flies into a door and may have a concussion. Flora’s father understands that Ulysses is not an ordinary squirrel and he promises not to kill him.
Flora then meets her father’s neighbor, Dr. Meescham, a doctor of philosophy. She checks Ulysses and decides that he is just hungry. She feeds him a sandwich, and talks with Flora about her childhood. Ulysses rescues Flora’s father from Mr. Klaus, a cat that attacks people in his apartment building, and Flora’s father begins to laugh and smile again.
Flora confronts her mother about Ulysses, and Flora says she will move in with her father. Flora’s mother responds “Go right ahead. It would certainly make my life easier.” It hurts Flora’s feelings tremendously, but her father convinces her to stay with her mother and her mother pretends to be okay with Ulysses. While Flora sleeps, her mother kidnaps Ulysses, forces him to type a goodbye message, and takes him to the woods to kill him. Ulysses uses his strength to take the shovel away from Flora’s mother, and he escapes. Flora wakes up and recruits William Spiver and his aunt to help her find Ulysses, and they end up at Dr. Meescham’s apartment, where Ulysses ran to. Flora’s mother goes to Flora’s father’s apartment, looking for Flora, and Flora realizes that her mother was worried about her and truly loves her. Ulysses is so very happy to be back with his beloved Flora, and Flora knows that she is loved.
- Flora’s father seems weak and very sad at the beginning of the story, but by the end, he is happy. What do you think made him happy?
- Flora thinks her mother loves her lamp more than Flora, but that isn’t true. She really loves Flora. Have you ever felt like someone loved an object more than you? When?
- When Flora tells her mother that she wants to live with her father, Flora’s mother says it will make her life easier. Why do you think she said that? How do you think it made Flora feel? Have you ever said something mean because you were sad?
- There are a few references to Flora’s mother smoking cigarettes. She used to smoke, and then she takes it up again.
- Mrs. Tickham is afraid she is a “victim of an extended hallucination” (she isn’t – she just saw Ulysses fly).
- Flora ignores her mother.
- Flora considers herself a “natural born cynic.”
- “For Heaven’s sake” is said 3 times.
- “Idiotic” is used 3 times (“Idiocy” is used once.)
- “Holy bagumba” is said 13 times.
- “Holy unanticipated occurrences” is said 5 times.
- “For the love of Pete” is said 7 times.
- “”Stupid” is used many times, and “Stupidest” is used once.
- “Shut up” is said once.
- Ulysses has a near death experience. Everything is black, and then he sees a great light. “He was just so happy. He was floating in a great lake of light, and the voice was singing to him. Oh, it was wonderful. It was the best thing ever.” He then regains consciousness and suddenly has unusual powers.
- Ulysses has unusual strength, he can fly short distances, he understands human language, and he can use a typewriter to write poetry.
- Dr. Meescham mentions trolls several times while talking about her childhood.
- One of the articles Flora had read questioned “Do inanimate objects… absorb the energy of the criminals, the wrongdoers among whom they live?… we are forced to admit that in this woeful world, there exists objects with an almost palpable energy of menace… spatulas that seem cursed, couches that contain literal and metaphorical stains of the past, houses that seem to perpetually groan and moan for the sins contained in their environs.”
- Flora’s mom is so shocked when seeing the squirrel fly that she acts “robotic.” Flora thinks “It was almost as if her mother was possessed.”
Potentially Offensive Behavior:
- Flora’s parents are divorced, and her father “since the divorce, he had become even sadder and quieter.”
- Flora’s mother writes romance novels. There are a few small references to that (nothing graphic).
- Flora thought that the reason her parents got divorced was because of her mother’s romance novel-writing. “Flora’s father had said, ‘I think that your mother is so in love with her books about love that she doesn’t love me anymore.’ And her mother had said, ‘Ha! Your father is so far off in left field that he wouldn’t recognize love if it stood up in his soup and sang.'”
- Flora has a dream that William Spiver holds her hand. It could be considered just her wanting a friend, or maybe it is romantic. It seemed ambiguous to me. She is glad later when he reaches out for her hand several times.
- Flora reads a lot of comic books, and remembers the “Terrible Things Can Happen to You!” section. At once point in the story, she considers if Mrs. Tickham has a brain tumor.
- Marie Antoinette is mentioned once.
- Ulysses is sucked up into a vacuum cleaner and nearly dies.
- Ulysses recalls several attempts on his life. BB guns are mentioned twice.
- “It was a sad fact of [Ulysses’] existence as a squirrel that there was always someone, somewhere, who wanted him dead. In his short life, Ulysses had been stalked by cats, attacked by raccoons, and shot at with BB guns, slingshots, and a bow and arrow… He had been shouted at, threatened, and poisoned… Once, at the public picnic grounds, a girl had tried to beat him to death with her enormous teddy bear.”
- Flora’s mother asks Flora’s father to kill Ulysses by hitting him over the head with a shovel. When Flora’s father doesn’t kill Ulysses, Flora’s mother kidnaps the squirrel and raises the shovel to kill him. Ulysses is strong enough to take the shovel from her, and is not murdered.
- Chapter 15 is called “The Electric Chair.” Flora thought her doorbell sounded like an electric chair.
- Flora learns that William Spiver was so mad at his stepfather, he pushed his stepfather’s truck into a lake.
From a ten-year-old’s perspective: “I liked this book a lot. It was an easy read, and very entertaining. I really liked the illustrations. Ulysses was not a normal superhero. Instead of thinking how to save things, he would think of food and Flora, so he kind of accidentally saved things. It made it more of a funny story. Kids that like comic books will like this book. I think that it was a good choice for the Newberry award.”
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