Kate DiCamillo’s newest book, the semi-graphic, madcap “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures,’’ is that rarest of all treasures, a truly inventive and appealing children’s middle-grade novel.
Readers likely know DiCamillo’s work: her Newbery Medal-winning “The Tales of Despereaux’'; the Newbery Honor novel, “Because of Winn-Dixie,’’ as well as her popular porcine Mercy Watson series. But “Flora & Ulysses’’ (already long-listed for the 2013 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature) is light years ahead of these.
It is, in every sense of the word, a leap — a word that comes to mind since one of the novel’s main characters, Ulysses, is a squirrel who is turned into a superhero (and poet) after a dangerous encounter with a runaway vacuum cleaner and saved by a young girl named Flora Belle Buckman.
“Flora & Ulysses’’ offers, among other things, a tribute to old-school, superhero comic books. It’s also DiCamillo’s love song to pulp detective fiction, poetry, and magical realism.
Key plot moments are rendered in graphic-novel fashion by illustrator K. G. Campbell. The reader must not only read the book, but look at it, and this double engagement of the mind and eye is part of the novel’s genius.
“Flora & Ulysses’’ takes place within the confines of just a few days. It follows the burgeoning relationship and adventures of the recently transformed Ulysses and Flora, a comics-loving 10-year-old, who must hide her new friend from her mother, Phyllis, a somewhat soured writer of romance novels. It alternates point of view between the two friends.
Flora, the young human protagonist, is a mix of Little Nell and Little Nemo, thoroughly unisex with her boyish haircut and enormous glasses. Tender-hearted, brave, and defiant to a fault, Flora consoles herself by playing the cynic in the wake of her parents’ divorce — but, like many cynics, she remains ardently on the lookout for something to believe in.
Enter Ulysses who is catapulted (sometimes literally) into heroics in a world badly in need of rescue. After the initial vacuum cleaner incident “His brain felt larger, roomier. It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self . . . had suddenly been flung wide.”
At its core, “Flora & Ulysses’’ is about love: the love between a girl and her squirrel; the love of life itself; of friendship; the love that holds families together or pushes them apart; even the old married love of a new ally:
“ ‘Little fishes in a can. He would put these little fishes onto crackers for me, and then I would hear him coming back down the hallway, carrying the sardines and humming, returning to me.’ Dr. Meescham sighed [recalling her late husband]. ‘Such tenderness. To have someone get out of bed and bring you little fishes and sit with you as you eat them in the dark of night. To hum to you. This is love.’ ”
Is “Flora & Ulysses’’ a perfect book? Certainly not. At times coy, at times over-the-top, DiCamillo takes risks like any writer worth her salt. Someone once called the novel “a long piece of fiction with a mistake in it.”
But “Flora & Ulysses’’ is a book filled with beautiful writing — “The streetlight fizzled into darkness and then flared back to life and then fizzled again . . . darkness; light; darkness; light. What, Ulysses wondered, does the streetlight want to say?” — and wisdom (“Do not hope; instead, observe.”)
I’ll take the hijinx and manic energy of this genre-blender over dull safety or another vampire/zombie/teen sex novel any day.