Name of Book: Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Illustrator: K.G. Campbell
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Audience: This book would appeal to people age 8 to 88 and beyond! An 8 year old will enjoy the adventure and unique characters. Adults of all ages will enjoy and identify with DiCamillo’s sense of humor and the complicated relationships she creates between her characters.
Summary: Flora Belle Buckman is a self-described cynic and lover of comic books who is also the daughter of divorced and distant parents. Her world is turned upside-down the day she witnesses her next door neighbor’s Ulyssess 2000X Vacuum Cleaner violently attack an ordinary, backyard squirrel! Flora rushes to rescue the poor squirrel from the bowels of the vacuum and administers CPR to revive him. Soon, Flora discovers that this ordinary squirrel has been transformed by this experience into something entirely extraordinary….a poetry typewriting superhero. Flora decides to name him Ulysses (after the offending vacuum cleaner) and takes him home. The adventures they experience and the cast of characters they encounter–from Flora’s own murderous mother to the enchanting Dr. Meescham–will have every reader laughing, crying, trembling and wishing the story would never end.
Literary Elements at work in the Story: Kate DiCamillo, the masterful genius behind many beloved youth and young adult books, has weaved together two genres to bring Flora’s world to life: fantasy fiction and graphic novel. The marriage of fantasy and graphic novel deeply engage the reader to experience the gritty, hilarious and often unpleasant reality of the human experience: separation, loneliness, the price of non-conformity, the need for acceptance, friendship, love, loss, recovery, and forgiveness.
How does the perspective on Gender/Race?Culture/Economics/Abilitymake a difference to the story? Flora does not conform to the norms of her age or gender. She is cynical, highly intelligent, in love with comic books, and has a superhero squirrel for a pet. Her mother cannot bear the thought of Flora being viewed as abnormal, and having a pet squirrel seriously pushes the boundaries of “normal” in her mind. Ulysses is an ordinary squirrel plucked from his “normal” existence by a vicious vacuum cleaner and is transformed into a thinking, feeling, understanding creature full of love, hope and words to share. Their various perspectives, and the perspectives of the entire cast of characters, shine a light on so many facets of what it means to be a human being and how we can begin to attempt to understand one another.
Theological Conversation Partners: Any Sunday School class, no matter what age group, could spend an entire series discussing the rich characters of this book and how their life experiences weave with many found in the Bible. The first that comes to mind is how God often uses the simple and the ordinary to do His extraordinary work. (See Genesis for story of Abraham and Noah; see 1 Samuel to read about the future King David; see Judges 6-8 for the story of Gideon; see Acts for the conversion of Saul to Paul, etc.). In this story, a simple and ordinary squirrel is transformed and is ultimately able to heal deep wounds in Flora’s family and in others, as well. A wonderful theological conversation could also be shared over Flora’s cynicism and doubt. Although she feels disconnected to and disappointed in the adults in her life, she has faith that Ulysses, her superhero squirrel, will vanquish the inequities and evil she has experienced. Her faith in Ulysses ultimately brings her to overcome her doubt in the people she loves the most, and accept them, despite their flawed nature. (See Matthew 21:21 for Jesus’ view of faith and doubt).
Faith Talk Questions:
- Flora does not conform to her mother’s idea of what is perceived as “normal.” How does God use our unique abilities and differences, those qualities that make each of us a little “abnormal,” to enhance our world?
- Why do you think the author chose a squirrel as the superhero of the story? Do you find it interesting that one of his superpower abilities was the power to type poetry? What are the power of words and Ulysses’ words in particular in this story?
- Flora perceives her mother as her evil arch nemesis with a dark heart and purpose. How do you view Flora’s mother and her intentions? How does Flora intend to vanquish the perceived evil in her mother? Is this in line with the Bible’s view of how we are to face and overcome evil in our world?
- Flora’s father clearly has been defeated by his divorce and his separation from Flora. What is it about his encounter with Ulysses that inspires him and gives him renewed strength?
- Flora is a self-described cynic, which is someone who doubts that people can be motivated by anything other than self-interest rather than acting out of honor. During her encounter with Dr. Meescham, her father’s neighbor, Dr. Meescham examines Pascal’s Wager regarding cynicism. Pascal holds that since it could not be proven whether God existed, one might as well believe that He does, because there was everything to gain by believing and nothing to lose. How do you feel about Pascal’s Wager? Do you feel that Flora ultimately wants to believe? In what or whom? What are the dangers of cynicism? How do people use cynicism to protect themselves? What does Jesus have to say to the doubters and the cynics?
This review is written by Union Presbyterian Seminary student Allison Tibe