Flora (don’t you dare care her Flora Belle) Buckman is a cynic. How a ten year-old becomes a cynic, no one knows, but she is. Her mother is a romance writer and why someone would want to read such frivolity is beyond Flora. All her mother does is clack away at her typewriter to meet her deadlines, punctuated by the continuous clang of the carriage return. And she thinks Flora is strange, too strange.
Although Flora Buckman is a cynic, which she reminds us often, she longs to be a superhero like the Amazing Incandesto of her beloved comic books, The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto. In fact, she lives her life guided by the bonus comics at the end of her Incandesto Adventures: TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU! Within these bonus comics are bits of knowledge that Flora uses when strange things happen. They cover everything from what to do if you somehow manage to consume a bit of plastic fruit to a bag of frozen peas making a handy cold compress. It’s within TERRIBLE THINGS that Flora learned how to perform CPR, yet it did leave out how, exactly, to administer it on a squirrel that was sucked up into a rogue vacuum.
And thus, we meet Ulysses. After being sucked into a vacuum--and brought back to life through Flora’s use of CPR--Ulysses is changed. He thinks, he loves, he writes poetry, and he flies! Ulysses is the superhero Flora has dreamed about. Together they will fight crime because, as her second bonus comic, The Criminal Element Is Among Us, explains, criminals are everywhere and they mustn’t fool you. Together Flora and Ulysses work to uncover the mysteries and challenges of the aloof shepherdess, a loopy neighbor, a temporarily blind boy, a quirky father (“George Buckman, how do you do?”), the Giant Do-Nut, tales of Blundermeecen, and one arch nemesis.
The characterizations of Flora and Ulysses are positively delightful. Flora may be a self-professed cynic, but she’s brave, independent, and craves the love of her parents. Ulysses, her faithful crime-fighting pal, is equally brave and adores Flora and her round head. Even little William Spiver and his battle with temporary blindness due to an unfortunate event involving his mother, her Tyrone, and an unsupervised car leaves a giant smile on your face.
Each character has a great need for love, especially Flora the cynic, and you want them all to succeed. Kate DiCamillo also penned The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie. If you’ve read either of these books, you know she has a great knack for taking incredibly unique, quirky characters and making them undeniably loveable. Same with Flora and Ulysses. Undeniably loveable.
The pacing is spot on for a middle grade reader of 8 to 12 years, and possibly older. DiCamillo challenges the reader with more complex vocabulary than found in much older books, and that is wonderfully enjoyable. The words flow off the page as you read them in a near dance. I could almost see the bouncing ball over each word, bobbing in time with the cadence of the text. It is beautifully written.
The message of love in Flora and Ulysses is so powerful. In the end, Flora is just a little girl who had lost her father and mother to a complicated divorce. Her mother became overbearing and her father stopped laughing. The love of a child, the love for a child, is a precious thing. There is no love greater in this world. Flora and Ulysses touches the soul in a quirky tale of a cynical little girl who learns just what is means to be capacious of heart.