Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

FloraUlyssesNewberry Award winner for 2014!

The thing that first caught my eye about this book was the title, because it has a subtitle where it says “The Illuminated Adventures.” I love the word “illuminated.” It sounds more regal than “illustrated,” doesn’t it? This book is illustrated though, more than a chapter book, but less than a graphic novel or comic, and the illustrations are adorable.  If I had a daughter, I couldn’t help but think she’d look just like Flora.

Flora is a self-described cynic. That means she has a hard time putting her trust in people and the world around her, and when we meet her newly divorced parents, we can seen why she has adopted this outlook. Her father is nervous and awkward, constantly and repeatedly introducing himself to people he already knows. Her mother is a writer and a chain-smoker, always hunched over her typewriter and does not have much to offer to Flora for emotional support. You definitely get the idea that Flora is a lonely child. Flora loves to read, in particular a comic book that sounds amazing called “Terrible Things Can Happen to You,” which contributes to her cynical outlook.

One day when she is watching out her bedroom window, she sees the neighbor chasing her new super-powered vacuum cleaner out into the yard. Flora is horrified when the vacuum sucks up a squirrel and runs outside to help. The squirrel is saved and he miraculously lifts the heavy vacuum up over his head! Flora names him Ulysses, after the machine that somehow gave him his superpowers, and takes him home to discover that the little guy has some more hidden talents as well. Flora’s mom does not react well to having a squirrel in the house though, and so begins a mission to save Ulysses.

Flora’s neighbor, Mrs. Tickham of the vacuum cleaner mayhem, has a nephew staying with her. He goes by his first and last name all the time, William Spiver, and he is always wearing sunglasses. He claims to be blind, but it turns out he has his own backstory to overcome. Mrs. Tickham and William turn out to be Flora’s biggest allies. I love that they are so willing to believe in Ulysses and his impossible feats, and they were my favorite part of this book.

Everyone learns something on this journey, as they have their eyes and hearts opened by this magical little squirrel. The one thing I do wish for is that we had been given a little more about Flora’s parents, because their resolution is unclear and I’d like to know how it impacted Flora in the long-term.  I enjoyed this book, but I’m not sure I would have chosen it for the Newberry Award. That might be because it feels so different from Kate DiCamillo’s other books. Read them all, see for yourself, compare and contrast! Maybe a poetry-writing squirrel will inspire you to make your own comic book someday, but mostly just read it because it is a fun story.

Flora and Ulysses has an AR level of 4.3 and is worth 5 points.

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File Under: 13 Suspicious Events by Lemony Snicket

13 suspiciousThis past weekend, I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which is held on the campus of the University of Southern California. It is a free weekend event which I highly recommend if you live nearby. There are all sorts of booksellers, in all sorts of categories, plus many other bookish things to discover and purchase, like posters, tote bags, journals, and nerdy t-shirts. All throughout the weekend, authors are giving talks, doing book signings, or teaching cooking classes, and there are people reading poetry, performing live music, puppet show-ing, and goodness knows what else! Some of the author panels, or “conversations,” require a $1 ticket to reserve a seat, but otherwise you are free to walk around and attend whatever catches your eye.

I attended two author conversations that were both very popular– John Green (The Fault in Our Stars, and several other titles, but he’s more of a 8th grade-and-up author), and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket.) I saw Daniel Handler do a reading last year, but this time it was just him talking about how he got into writing and the surprising success of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and his new series, All the Wrong Questions. His panel was moderated by Ransom Riggs, author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, another book I quite enjoyed reading, and together they made a great interview team. I met them both afterward to get my books signed. (Authors are my celebrities, what can I say? It’s all very exciting!)

This particular book takes place in the All the Wrong Questions world of Stain’d-by-the Sea, a town that once had a thriving ink industry until the sea dried up and the octopi that produced the ink disappeared. The town is now practically abandoned, except for a few locals who still live there. A young Lemony Snicket is stationed here with his mentor, but since she is pointless and no help at all, he begins working on some mysteries on the side.

Here we have 13 short mysteries to solve alongside Lemony Snicket. You can put your own detective skills to work as you read each story and then flip to the back of the book to see if you were right. This is in the style of the Encyclopedia Brown books I read when I was a kid, in which the neighborhood boy detective solved disputes by using his keen powers of observation, with the answers located separately in the back. (One of the character names actually refers to the Encyclopedia Brown creator, Donald Sobol!) In addition, watch for references to books that are mentioned, but never named.  I figured one out this morning as I was sitting down to blog, as a matter of fact.

These are fun to share and I started reading aloud as soon as we got into the car to drive home. This book is also important because it tells us about some of the other people who live in Stain’d-by-the-Sea, which is interesting since we have only met a few residents in the other books so far.  Will these people play a part in the larger mystery that Snicket is working on? We will have to wait and see!

HINT: Read the stories.  Read the solutions.  Then read the solutions again. I’m just sayin’.

 

Breadcrumbs/The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

breadcrumbs real boyHere are two very different books by the same author, presented for your consideration. They are similar and yet not at all, and I am still trying to decide if I liked one of them. Let’s investigate…

I had read about The Real Boy before it even hit bookstores and I was intrigued, especially by the cover art. I read this article about how the cover evolved and I knew I had to read it right away. When I went to purchase it, I also ended up buying another book by Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs, and I actually ended up reading that one first.

Breadcrumbs is twist on the fairy tale story of the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, in which a boy is hit with a shard of glass from a terrible, magical mirror that makes everything he sees look ugly and hideous. Breadcrumbs takes place in a modern setting, with two best friends, Hazel and Jack as neighbors and best friends.  Jack is the mirror’s victim in this version, and he suddenly stops hanging out with Hazel at home and at school.  Hazel’s mother tries to explain that perhaps they have just reached an age where boys and girls don’t play together anymore and relationships tend to be awkward, but Hazel knows that there is something else wrong. When Jack vanishes into the woods, she decides to go after him because she has read too many books to let Jack’s strange disappearance go without investigation. Hazel enters into a new world, marked by a clearing that features a ticking clock, and embarks on a classic journey to find and free Jack. This world is wholly magical and wonderful to read, and I loved how Hazel knows how to negotiate through this world, something that imaginative kids do quite naturally. Of course her quest is to free Jack from the Snow Queen, but will that be enough? This is a powerful story about growing up and I highly recommend it.

Then I read The Real Boy, and I will be honest and tell you that it took me much longer to finish than I had anticipated. It is also a story about magic, but I had to work a lot harder at this one. Oscar is the main character, working for one of the land’s last magicians. He has a gift for working with plants and herbs, but he is very aware of how different he is from the other people in his town, preferring to work behind the scenes and befriending a score of cats who live in the workshop.  At one time, the land was seething with magic, but it seems to be dwindling and the children of the city are becoming ill. When the magician’s apprentice is mysteriously (and gruesomely) killed, and other awful things happen, Oscar and his very kind and patient friend Callie begin to search for the truth. There were a couple of gasp-out-loud moments as I read this story, as it has a very twisty plot. It is also beautifully written, as is Breadcrumbs. I found this magical world to be much more chaotic though, and it left me feeling unsettled at the end. The magic felt ominous, or maybe I was supposed to experience Oscar’s point of view of not fully fitting in with the world around him. (In that case, it worked!) The story I really wanted to know more about was the history that Oscar and Callie spent so much time researching. Perhaps that tale will show up as a prequel one day!

Naturally read these books if you like magic and fairy tales and friendship. Read Breadcrumbs for sure if you’ve ever grown apart from a best friend because Ursu absolutely nails what that particular sense of loneliness feels like, and then you can read it and not feel so alone. And that, kids, is why we read.  Enjoy!

Breadcrumbs has an AR level of 4.8 and is worth 9 points. The Real Boy has an AR level of  4.9 and is worth 10 points.