Holy bagumba! Kate DiCamillo scores again. And it all begins with a vacuum cleaner. Really. A Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X vacuum that sucks up a squirrel whose last thought is, “Man, I sure am hungry.”
Encouraged by 10-year-old, self-proclaimed cynic Flora, the squirrel not only survives but emerges with superhero powers, now able to lift the vacuum cleaner above his head with one paw, clack out poetry on typewriter keys – and transform Flora’s life. Together Flora and the newly named Ulysses lead us on a fantastic reading journey in Flora & Ulysses, the latest novel aimed at middle-grade readers (ages 8 to 12) from the award-winning DiCamillo.
Before the vacuum-cleaner incident and somewhat as a result of her parents’ divorce, Flora Belle Buckman, our narrator, had spent most of her young life reading and quoting comic books. At least, that is, until her romance-novel-writing mom wrested a contract out of her, requiring her to turn away from “the idiotic high jinks and comics and toward the bright light of true literature.”
Flora must give up both Alfred T. Slipper, unassuming janitor morphed into crime-fighting superhero, and her favorite comic, “Terrible Things Can Happen to You!” But while she may leave comic books behind for a summer, nothing can prevent her from embarking on her own adventure, complete with comic-strip bubbles over her head.
When Flora’s neighbor Tootie Tickham first vacuums up the squirrel, Flora teeters between saving him and protecting her cynicism. But from her careful reading of comics, she knows superheroes are born of “ridiculous and unlikely circumstances: spider bites, chemical spills, planetary dislocation.” Why shouldn’t this newly vacuumed and revitalized squirrel save the day? And doesn’t Flora need a friend – or maybe a mom who’s just a bit more caring?
Yes, this is more than a superhero story starring a squirrel and his girl. “Flora & Ulysses” is about family, love, and sticking up for what you believe. It’s also about finding and keeping a friend – even a friend like William Spiver, a boy some might call strange.
All the characters, including William – temporarily residing next door with his Great-Aunt Tootie – tumble off these pages in irresistibly funny, lyrical language. From the chapter titles (“Cootchie-Coo,” “Singing with the Angels,” “A Giant Ear,” “Kidnapped!”) to K.G. Campbell’s wonderful black-and-white graphic-novel-style illustrations, “Flora & Ulysses” is a perfectly constructed book. It will be appreciated by sophisticated readers of all ages.
In the end, it is the widowed Dr. Meescham, a delightfully eccentric neighbor ever reminiscing about her girlhood in Blundermeecen, who sums it all up: “This I did not expect at all. It is what I love about life, that things happen which I do not expect.”
And that is what I love about this literary gift. The story is filled with so many twists and surprises that readers will not expect. “Flora & Ulysses” is a perfect joy, a book that made me smile and laugh on almost every page.
Augusta Scattergood regularly reviews children’s books for the Monitor.