Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, October 21, 2013

Of Vacuums, Squirrels And Lamps With Names

When you live surrounded by lakes in a land of sand and have a furry friend who gets an entire new coat twice a year, there is one essential device necessary for survival and sanity.  What is this device, you ask?  It's a vacuum cleaner, of course.  Not any old vacuum cleaner will do either.  I'm talking about a brand and model whose suction is off the charts.

Fortunately, I've found the ultimate machine for my wants and needs.  In fact, I have to be careful not to get it too close to the lighter objects in my home.  By now you are wondering why I've elected to talk about this particular household appliance.  Newbery Medal author Kate DiCamillo's new title, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (Candlewick Press) with illustrations by K. G. Campbell, begins with a birthday and a present.  Yes, a vacuum cleaner is given as a gift.

Flora Belle Buckman was in her room at her desk.  She was very busy.  She was doing two things at once.  She was ignoring her mother, and she was also reading a comic book entitled The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!

Looking out her window she sees the aforementioned birthday gift, a Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X, dragging her neighbor, Mrs. Tickham, around the yard heading straight for a squirrel.  Before the squirrel can think of anything except how hungry he is, he's being sucked inside the vacuum, except for his tail.  Flora races to the rescue, surprised at herself (she is after all a natural-born cynic) but determined, as this is clearly one of the Terrible Things Can Happen To You! previously addressed in the back of an Amazing Incandesto comic.

Shaking the squirrel, who at this point is missing much of his fur, loose from the cleaner's grip, she quickly begins CPR.  CPR on a squirrel?  Oh, yes indeed.  Revived the furry miracle remembers his one single previous thought.  Lifting the vacuum cleaner over his head with one paw, he loosens food from the inside before lowering it to the ground.

Mrs. Tickham thinks she has a brain tumor.  Flora thinks she is in the presence of a superhero.  She names him Ulysses.

Let's pause here for a moment.  Of the eleven living characters in this book, we've met four, a husband, Mr. Tickham, with less than perfect taste in choosing birthday gifts, his wife currently in a state of shock, a resourceful girl named Flora and her new companion, a squirrel who understands human speech and is stronger, a lot stronger, than he should be.  Continuing throughout the ups and downs of this tale, we meet Flora's mother, Phyllis, a writer of romance novels, who appears to love plunking out stories on her typewriter and her recent purchase of a shepherdess lamp she named Mary Ann, more than her daughter, Flora's father, George, a mild-mannered accountant who enjoys reading Amazing Incandesto as much as Flora, William Spiver, an extremely intelligent boy, banished by his mother, staying with his Aunt Tootie (Mrs. Tickham), a knife-waving cook, a hysterical waitress, a disreputable cat name Mr. Klaus, and Dr. Meescham (philosophy not medical).  Of significance to this story is the fact of Flora's parents' divorce.

With all the excitement of the exploits and dialogue found in the comics she loves so well (and the advice they provide, proving to be helpful in the most unbelievable circumstances), Flora, Ulysses and company, fight the evil of the arch-nemesis, defy threats and attacks, revel in poetry written by someone with a huge capacity for compassion, and soar, like an eagle, when necessary to save life and limb.  Least you think this is a series of tension-filled episodes only, rest assured it is not.  Deftly woven into the adventures are revelations which hurt and heal the heart.  Founded in hope, love finds a way.

You can't help but feel the need to celebrate the characters, the plot and the use of language conceived by Kate DiCamillo in this title.  The layers of dialogue and thoughts of her people and animals is rich in its realism even when it steps into the world of fantasy.  She makes you believe the impossible is probable.

Humor, the kind making you laugh out loud every time you read a passage, is an integral element enhancing the appeal this story has for readers.  Vocabulary, which may have some heading for a dictionary (a good habit really), conveys the exact mood necessary for everything to mesh together.  Pauses and pacing are perfection in DiCamillo's hands.  Here are a few samples.

She said the words, and then she had a strange moment of seeing them, hanging there over her head.


There is just no predicting what kind of sentences you might 
say, thought Flora.  For instance, who would ever think you would 
shout, "You're going to vacuum up that squirrel!"?

"Holy bagumba," said Flora.

"Talking to my baby doll? said Flora.  She felt a flush of 
outrage crawl up her cheeks.  For the love of Pete! She was ten
years old, almost eleven.  She knew how to administer CPR.
She knew how to outwit an arch-nemesis.  She was acquainted
with the profound importance of seal blubber.  She was the
sidekick to a superhero.
Plus she was a cynic.
What self-respecting cynic would carry around a doll in a
shoe box?

The first four pages of this book are done in the style of a comic book with panels.  Each time Ulysses is highlighted all text smoothly switches to the pencil drawings of K. G. Campbell.  We are also treated to full page illustrations and insets as well as one double page picture; each deftly presented, filled with the emotion of the moment.  They not only enhance the narrative, but become the narrative.

 Captivating, entertaining, causing uncontrollable bursts of laughter and warming our hearts as only the best kind of storytelling can, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures written by Kate DiCamillo with illustrations by K. G. Campbell is one of this year's finest pieces of literature.  It would be a wonderful read aloud with your children or your students.  I daresay, Holy bagumba, will find its way into your conversations.

For more information about the author and illustrator please follow the links embedded in their names.  Flora & Ulysses have their own website containing Flora & Ulysses Teacher's Guide, Read an Excerpt, Flora & Ulysses Discussion Guide and Q & A with Flora & Ulysses author Kate DiCamillo.  Follow this link to Holy Bagumba! An exclusive webcast with beloved children's book authors, Kate DiCamillo and Jon Scieszka.

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