Flora and Ulysses The Illuminated Adventures

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A summary… in brief

Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo’s latest novel, Flora and Ulysses The Illuminated Adventures (a Newbery Medal recipient), is really best captured by the author herself. She says, “I set out to tell the story of a vacuum cleaner and a squirrel. I ended up writing a book about superheroes, cynics, poetry, love, giant donuts, little shepherdess lamps, and how we are all working to find our way home…”

This is a book that gives you a little bit of everything: humor, adventure, fantasy, love, sadness. DiCamillo packs it all in, using her main character, Flora, as a vehicle to access these many aspects of her story. A self-proclaimed “cynic”, Flora uses the words of her favorite comic book, The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incadesto!, to drive her thinking, decisions, and desires. So, when Flora spots her next door neighbor outside with a runaway vacuum vacuuming up a squirrel, she runs outside to assess the situation. And, this is the start to the story where a squirrel is revived by Flora (with CPR!) and comes back as a superhero who Flora coins Ulysses (after the vacuum that nearly killed him). This squirrel superhero has uncommon strength, the ability to fly, a love for poetry, and the ability to communicate with humans! Together, Flora and Ulysses develop a friendship and an understanding of each other that ultimately helps all sorts of people (including themselves) find their “home” as DiCamillo so aptly puts it.

As a parent…

This is a fantastic, gender-neutral, story to read with our middle elementary school-aged kids (say, 7 – 9 year olds). While the illustrations and short chapters make this a book that many kids this age would try to read with independence, it is actually a wonderful book to read with these kids. There is really sophisticated vocabulary as well as some complicated topics (divorce, parent-child relationship troubles). While, on the one hand, reading this together can help the child with his or her understanding of the text, it also offers you the opportunity to engage in conversation about these topics in a natural and contextualized way.

After reading this book myself, I started reading it to my seven-year-old son. One of the aspects that enchant him most is the comic book element that DiCamillo and the illustrator, K.G. Campbell, weave into the story. He has not read many graphic novels or comics before, so the little snippets of comics in this book were a great “taster” for him. Interestingly, he then asked me yesterday if he could make a comic strip for his grandfather’s birthday card. It’s always special to introduce our kids to a new (or even new-ish) genre and to see how it resonates for them!

This is also a special book to read with your child(ren) because DiCamillo does what she does so often in her books and crafts a story that genuinely resonates for both young and old(er).

As a teacher…

The first thing that smacks me in the face  are the possibilities it lends for teaching kids about language – both as readers and writers. DiCamillo has loaded this book with rich, complex, but story-appropriate language: words such as “cynic” and “malfeasance”. Kids will need to strategically work to make sense of it, but, once they do, DiCamillo supports them in really internalizing that language by reusing it over and over again. DiCamillo also crafts characters that latch onto language. Flora, for example, hangs on just about every last word that she reads in the Incandesto comics and uses this language as her own. Ulysses loves words, seeing the feeling they can evoke and the images they create. Flora and Ulysses are the two most upfront examples of how DiCamillo’s characters are tuned into language, but each of the main characters has a strong connection to language – either how they use it or how they consider it.

This book also draws my attention to Kate DiCamillo as a writer of novels for children. On the surface her stories are all so different in terms of the characters and settings, but I began to wonder if maybe they aren’t so different after all. Flora and Ulysses, Opal and Winn-Dixie, Edward Tulane and Abilene, Desperaux and Pea, Rob and Sisteen… I wonder what similarities we might find when looking at these character relationships and what they mean for the stories that DiCamillo tells. I wonder how looking at the body of work might help students to deepen their sense of theme and character relationships.

Kate DiCamillo is in an especially interesting role right now. Not only is she a popular and prolific author of children’s books, but she is also the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2014-2015. It could be interesting to see what work she does in that role. What messages might she have for us to consider about young people and reading and writing?

And, as always, the author’s website is a great place to gain some insight: http://www.katedicamillo.com/index.html

Happy Reading!


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