Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures is the story of Flora, a girl who is a proud cynic and comic book fan, and a squirrel who gains superpowers after surviving being sucked into a powerful vacuum cleaner (of course!). Parts of the story are told in comic strips, showing the action instead of describing it.
It is, first and foremost, a story about learning to hope. Flora has decided that she will observe and prepare for disaster, using the skills she learns from the bonus comic, TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU! Anytime she feels an inkling of hope, she reminds herself to observe what’s happening around her and prepare for the worst.
But when Ulysses (so named for the vacuum that sucked him up) enters her life, she begins to hope that he may be more than he appears and she lets other people into her life who become friends and allies by also being supporters and believers in Ulysses.
It’s a cute story with more depth than you might expect from a story about a superpowered squirrel. The vocabulary is challenging, but in a way that makes the meanings of the words clear (for instance, Flora’s favorite comic book hero frequently talks about how “This malfeasance must be stopped!” so it’s a phrase that Flora frequently uses as well).
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
It took me a little while to get used to how idiotic the adults are. It’s all over the top and silly, and to be fair, everyone in the book is a little idiotic, but it bugged me a bit at first. Flora’s mom is a romance writer (Flora HATES romance) who thinks Flora is an inconvenience and eventually becomes Ulysses’ nemesis. Flora’s dad is pretty incompetent and won’t stand up for himself, but at heart he’s a good person. Tootie Tickham is Flora’s neighbor, and she’s the one who accidentally vacuums up Ulysses. She’s mostly a good person, and believes in Ulysses pretty much from the beginning, but Flora still doesn’t trust her for a while. Perhaps the adults seem so annoying and incompetent because we see them mostly from Flora’s proudly cynical point of view?
William Spiver (who prefers to be called “William Spiver”), the nephew of Tootie, is temporarily blind because of trauma when his mother doesn’t want him anymore. He is cured in the end. His Aunt Tootie pretty much never believes that he’s truly blind and is annoyed with him throughout the book, but it does seem to be how his body is responding to a terrible situation.
Flora’s parents are divorced. Flora is convinced that her mother loves her shepherdess lamp more than she loves Flora. And her mom is really awful about Ulysses, demanding that Flora’s dad kill the squirrel. When that doesn’t work, she even pretends to accept Ulysses so she can try to kill him again. Flora hates the novels her mom writes, and her mom despises the comics Flora reads.
William Spiver’s father died, and he really doesn’t get along with his mom’s new husband, who doesn’t seem to have a lot of respect for him either. His blindness and his abrupt arrival at his aunt’s house have to do with how he reacted to his stepfather calling him “Billy” one too many times (he pushed his pickup truck into a pond).
There’s a lot of cartoonish violence, although the only one really in mortal danger is Ulysses. Flora’s dad gets attacked by a very mean cat. There are a few other injuries, too, but nothing too major. Much of the action is portrayed through the comic sections, rather than in the text.
When Ulysses is sucked into the vacuum and brought back to life by Flora, a whole world opens up to him. About a third of the chapters are written from his point of view. He is aware of people and beauty and a desire to express himself. However, he’s still a squirrel, and his primary drive is hunger. He can type, and most often he types poems on Flora’s mom’s typewriter. Tootie shares poems with him—love of poetry is a theme through the book. He loves Flora unconditionally.
It’s a fun book, and particularly good for precocious or reluctant readers with the relatively short chapters and the frequent visual aspects to the storytelling. I’d recommend it for precocious readers 8 and up.
Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo
Published in 2013 by Candlewick Press
Read my personal copy