A child’s loneliness and isolation is also at the heart of our junior fiction book the Newbery Award winning Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo. Kate DiCamillo is a favourite author of many of our members and most of us were not disappointed by this book. One of the aspects that we most appreciate is the visual component of the novel, noting that the incorporation of a graphic novel component will really appeal to some of our readers. We loved the use of different fonts and graphics to highlight the comics and books that Flora reads and noted that when reading this out loud we would need to change our voices dramatically to reflect this.
The extension of language was a feature that we were impressed with; some of us had to look up words in the dictionary as we went and we felt this would be a great way to extend vocabulary. We might even incorporate “Holy bagumba!” into our own vocabulary! Some of you could picture your own little Floras and Williams in your school communities who would really relate to this book.
We spent quite a bit of time talking about characters. Some of us were still a little unsure about Flora’s mother. We discussed ideas that perhaps she is disappointed in or worried for Flora who is already different, believing that talking to a squirrel would only exacerbate Flora’s strangeness. Yet we noted that her mother is quite accepting of William’s odd behaviour quirks. We thought that possibly she is using writing her romance novels as a form of escape as she is a person who has difficulty coping with real people. Generally we thought Flora’s father is a dear, gentle man who is possibly quite frustrating to live with and also someone who ended up being divorced without ever knowing why (and therein lies part of his problem!). We also believed that he had quite a good understanding of Flora (who seems to take after him) and her sadness and needs. Some of us though were quite frustrated at times with the characters.
The supporting characters of Dr Meescham and Aunt Tootie as providing comic relief were a great foil for the seriousness of Flora’s parents. We loved Dr Meescham’s positive outlook on life when she says to Flora,
Cynics are people who are afraid to believe.
Most of us were under the impression that although she has witnessed great suffering in the war, “hiding from the trolls”, her optimistic nature has the power to restore some harmony in Flora’s family. William is also a character who invokes our sympathy, as well as providing the “straight man” in many of the comic scenes and a true friend for Flora. We had some fondness for the squirrel Ulysses and were touched by the simplicity of his poetry, particularly his poem to Flora on the last page. Finally, we felt that the Shepherdess lamp is a character in its own right. We thought that she has become, in Flora’s mind, the symbol of everything that her mother wants in a daughter and that Flora herself lacks. The last image of the lamp – in its headless glory – reflects Flora’s realisation that her mother does love her more than the lamp.
Humour is a large part of this book and we felt that some children may not get the subtle references and digs, but even so, there is enough blatant humour for most readers; certainly some of our readers will get the quirky and less obvious humour. We also thought the book opens up a chance for some discussion on the qualities of super-heroes; Ulysses is a super hero, although he is not quite sure what he needs to do to prove his greatness. Really his greatness comes in being a friend for Flora and William and assisting them to overcome their loneliness. Overall this is a great text for mid to upper primary.