Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

  • Title: Flora and Ulysses
  • Author: Kate DiCamillo
  • Illustrator: K. G. Campell
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 0763660406
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 232
  • Age Range: 8-10
  • Genre: magical realism
  • Award(s): Newbery Award Winner; see more here.

Author information: Kate DiCamillo has written many award winning books for youth, including Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux. Her website includes her biography, FAQs, a list of her books, some thoughts on writing, and a list of speaking engagements. In the FAQs, DiCamillo addresses the fact that many of her works have absent mothers (or, in Flora and Ulysses a difficult one), and says that it may have to do with the fact that she grew up in a single-parent home; she lived only with her mother when she was growing up.

Reviews: Everybody loved this book. Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly all gave it starred reviews. All of these reviews note the eccentric characters and the humor of the book, but agree that, as Publisher’s Weekly puts it, “there’s real emotion at the heart of this story involving two kids who have been failed by the most important people in their lives: their parents”.

Readers annotation: What do super powers, kidnappings, temporary blindness, and giant donuts all have in common? They are all part of the adventures of Flora and Ulysses!

Summary: Ulysses is an average squirrel until one day he is accidentally sucked into a vacuum cleaner. Flora, a self-described cynic, comic book lover, and child of divorce, witnesses the vacuum cleaner incident and saves the squirrel, who develops super powers from his near-death experience. Flora and Ulysses become immediate friends, but Flora’s mother, who wants nothing more than for her daughter to be normal, wants to get rid of Ulysses. With the help of her friends, Flora protects Ulysses and learns valuable lessons about family, friendship, and love.

Evaluation: This book is, literally, laugh-out-loud funny. The characters presented are hugely enjoyable and the situations that Flora, Ulysses, and company find themselves in are absurd and entertaining. Beneath this silliness, however, is a touching story about a child whose parents have divorced, whose mother doesn’t understand her, and who feels alone in the world. These themes are explored with tenderness and avoid the heavy-handedness that can often accompany novels that take on themes of this depth. The comics that are interspersed throughout the text are a delight, and not only are they funny in their own right, they highlight the comic-book reality that Flora inhabits in a natural, unforced way. The characters do often speak and act as if they are older, but many children of Flora and William Spiver’s age do struggle with difficult issues, and even if they may not articulate themselves as eloquently as these characters, they will appreciate their voices.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This book has humor, heart, and illustrations that complement the text perfectly. Blending three elements like this can be tricky, and sometimes one element can be overwhelming or underdeveloped because of the others, but DiCamillo balances them all with grace. It is a book that will elicit laughs from all age groups, but can also manage to bring tears or make the reader think about difficult themes.
  • Popularity5/5  This book has something for everyone. Those who enjoy humor will find plenty, those who like their books more serious will find that too, and readers who want a stronger visual component than is often found in books for this age range will be pleased.
  • Appeal factors: superheroes, animals, comics, quirky characters, humor.

Read-alikes: 

  1. If the reader enjoyed the unlikely friendship of two incredible and unusual characters, she may enjoy Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. This book shows the friendship that develops between a giant gorilla and a baby elephant, and examines themes such as family, loneliness, and self-discovery.
  2. Readers who loved the humor of DiCamillo’s book may like Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk. Although Gaiman’s tale doesn’t have the serious undertones of DiCamillo’s, it would be a good suggestion for kids who want a book that will make them laugh and has an increasingly wacky cast of characters and situations.

Book talk ideas: Two of the main appeal factors of this book are the superhero factor and the bizarre cast of characters. Start by asking kids what they think of when they think of super heroes. Have them make a list of super hero traits or powers. Once this is done, tell them to imagine that the super hero is a squirrel. Tell them a little bit about Ulysses–his powers, his creation story, his relationship with Flora–and talk about some of the other zany characters in this book, such as Dr. Meescham, William Spiver, and Tootie. 

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Flora and Ulysses depicts more than one strained mother-child relationship. Discuss these and what they can tell us about the nature of love and family relationships.
  2. “When I was a girl in Blundermeecen we wondered always if we would see each other again. Each day was uncertain. So, to say good-bye to someone was uncertain, too. Would you see them again? Who could say? Blundermeecen was a place of dark secrets, unmarked graves, terrible curses. Trolls were everywhere! So we said good-bye to each other the best way we could. We said: I promise to always turn back toward you.”  What do you think about this quote? What are other ways to say goodbye?
  3. Who was your favorite character? Why?
  4. Is Ulysses a true super hero? What is his most heroic act?

Reason for reading: Because this was the 2014 Newbery Winner, I thought it would give me some good insight into the award and what current judges value when considering books. I thought it would be interesting to read this and the first Newbery Winner, The History of Mankind, to see how the award has changed in the 80+ years of its existence, and it is clear that the criteria for these winners has changed significantly. I would happily recommend Flora and Ulysses to a wide range of children; I think that it was hilarious as well as poignant and enjoyed the exploration of divorce, troubled relationships, and building friendships and think that children today can relate to and enjoy this book on many levels. The History of Mankind is not as accessible to today’s children–although it has some tongue in cheek humor, it’s approach is primarily educational. I think this shows the shift from Newbery judges from choosing books that are deemed “good for kids” to choosing ones that they can relate to and enjoy.

Additional relevant information: Kate DiCamillo was chosen as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress in 2014. A new ambassador is named every two years and travels the country to promote reading. Previous ambassadors were John Scieska, Katherine Patterson, and Walter Dean Myers. More information can be found here.

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