Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Reading: Flora and Ulysses

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Every Saturday morning, my perky-eared dog, Randy, wakes me up in a quest to bark at squirrels outside the window.  They taunt him, shaking their bushy little tails while staying put in their branches and munching on acorns.  I haven't slept in on a Saturday for months!  Even though those pesky rodents mimic my pup and make him cry and bark, even with the windows closed and curtains drawn, I have to admit: They're still kind of cute.  I still care about squirrels as living beings, even if they did chew the wires apart underneath my car and charge $600 of service fees.  I would never wish illness or harm upon any squirrel anywhere.  But I do wish they would stop teasing Randy.

In the book Flora and Ulysses, the latest novel by Kate DiCamillo and winner of the 2014 Newberry Award, Ulysses the squirrel isn't the mocking type.  No, he's a poet.  After being sucked up into the organs of a fancy vacuum and then saved by Flora, Ulysses seems to possess superhero powers.  At least, that's what Flora thinks, and she often compares Ulysses to her favorite superhero, Alfred T. Slipper (otherwise known as the famous Incandesto).  She later learns that Ulysess is a poet and that her mother is an arch-nemesis who wants Ulysses to meet his demise with a sack and shovel, respectively.  Oh, and one more thing:  Flora is a cynic.  We are reminded us of this quite often while reading the book.

As I begin to blog about this particular book, I'm not sure that there is one succinct word I could use to convey my thoughts about it.  As a novel, it contains elements of quality literature: complex vocabulary, interesting characters that develop and transform over time, a timely theme, adventure.  While I don't personally enjoy reading about superheroes, the themes in this book left my heart fluttery, and I can tell that the author had a lot of fun playing with words as she concocted this fantastical read.

First of all, the characters in the book are compelling and mostly relatable for young readers.  Due to its extensive vocabulary, Flora and Ulysses is suitable for middle school years (perhaps even high school), but elementary students are sure to be interested in it, as well, especially students who love comic books and superheroes.  (There are even a few chapters illustrated as comics, but this novel is not read with the ease of a graphic novel like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Babymouse.) Flora's parents are divorced, and her quirky mother is a romance writer that seems love her shepherdess lamp more than she loves Flora.  Her father, the loneliest man in the world, always sighs and introduces himself when he enters a room (even if he knows everybody there).  Readers are given the impression that Mr. Buckman did not want to divorce his wife and that he lost much of zeal for living after the split.  Flora is a cynic, and she befriends her neighbor's great-nephew, William Spiver, who is quite veracious though rather likable in the end.  He claims to be temporarily-blind due to traumatic stress.  Young readers might not understand the depth of the characters, but they don't need to in order to understand the breadth of the text.  As an adult, I found the characters to be richly depicted and, despite all of their quirks, sad representations of reality.  Flora's mother tries to get rid of Flora's seemingly only friend - the squirrel - and attempts to use lies, deceit, and murder to do it!  Her rationale is that of love, but she seems to fail to realize that 1) the fate she is trying to protect her daughter from is actually the same life in which she herself lives and 2) Flora's seemingly only friend is beloved by Flora and taking it away would be cruel and hurtful.  My favorite character, though, is Dr. Meescham, a neighbor to Mr. Buckman.  She teaches Flora that cynics only exist because they are afraid to believe, and that believing does nothing to hurt.  Why not believe in God? she questions.  Even if he is not real, believing will not hurt me.  I was touched by this sentimental, wise, and yes, still quirky character who made me feel at home.  This paragraph is just a glimpse of the colorful characters included in Flora and Ulysses and the adventures that they have together.

Through all of their adventures, the characters understand what it means to love - to really love, not to love like the kind of love that Mrs. Buckman writes about in her romance novels.  According to Dr. Meescham, love is having "someone bring you a can of little fishes in bed and staying up with you as you eat them.  To hum to you.  That is love."  Flora discovers the meaning of love throughout this unique novel when she listens to her father's heartbeat, holds the hand of William Spiver, watches Ulysses sleep curled up at her feet, and considers herself to be "beloved."   What's more is that Flora loves people/squirrels for who they really are and encourages the characters, particularly Ulysses, to just be as they are.  At the end of the novel, Flora isn't so much of a cynic anymore; she's isn't afraid to hope or to believe.  After all, her best friend is a superhero squirrel!  What's not to believe?  

Flora and Ulysses is certainly a memorable book unlike any others that I have.  The themes of the story are probably most going to be appreciated by adults, but children will still love the action that unfolds and will enjoy rooting for Ulysses as they read.  For younger students, this novel might be better-suited for an interactive read-aloud than an independent reading book.  Whether you want to read it to your class or read it for yourself, you can check out Flora and Ulysses at your local library! You can also catch the book trailer here

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