Sunday, March 16, 2014

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (Kate DiCamillo)

Every now and again I decide it's time to get back into the world of children's literature because there's something fun and easy and light about it that recharges me when I'm burned out of annoying adult literature that's trying too hard to be thoughtful and emotional. It's had for me to express my sentiment here without talking down to children's literature, and that's not what I want to do, because I have read a good many children's books that are more thoughtful and emotional than anything written for adults. Perhaps the best way to put it would be to describe children's books as less laden with pretention--can I say that? Whatever it is, it's a joy to return after a long period away from it.

So in I jumped, and where did I end up but at the feet of the Newbery Prize. I recently heard someone raving about Kate DiCamillo's Newbery-winning Flora & Ulysses; I rather enjoyed her previous win for The Tale of Despereaux, and of course I was sucked in by the talk of the comic strips woven into the narrative. So I bought it (I can't resist online impulses).

Flora describes herself as a natural-born cynic. Her parents are divorced, her mother writes tawdry romance novels, and she immerses herself into the world of the comic book about a janitor-turned-superhero named Incandesto. One day, her neighbor accidentally sucks a squirrel into a crazy, high-tech vacuum cleaner, and when Flora rescues him, she discovers that he has been gifted with superpowers: super-strength, the ability to understand human speech, and a knack for composing poetry. She names him Ulysses, after the vacuum that almost destroyed him, and their adventures begin.

Growing up, my mother used to use the word "cute" to describe lots of things I liked: books and movies, mostly, but things that I thought (at the time) were the best. I suppose I am finally distanced enough from the world of children to understand applying that adjective to something. Maybe at one time in my life I would have loved Flora & Ulysses, but now I can definitively say it is "cute".

What's not to like about the concept of the book? Every character is a little oddball in his/her own way and the story manages to meaningful without feeling forceful or obvious with its message (which I hated as a kid and hate as a not-kid). So why didn't I love it? It's hard for me to say, exactly. Perhaps it's because the book felt a little too smug and self-assured. The quirk flavor is obvious and delightful, but it starts to wear on you when DiCamillo unflaggingly reminds you "hey, this book is kinda quirky, right?"

But it's cute. It's fun. It's a great book for kids, and maybe my sense of whimsy is getting a little harder to provoke these days. Read Flora & Ulysses because it will make you smile and giggle. I certainly did.

My rating: 4/5
Flora & Ulysses on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!

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