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Book review: Newbery medalist Kate DiCamillo's new novel about a squirrel, children and change

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 4:25 p.m. MDT

"Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures" is by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K.G. Campbell. DiCamillo will be in Salt Lake City on Sept. 28 for a book signing. (Candlewick Press)

"FLORA & ULYSSES: The Illuminated Adventures," by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell, Candlewick, $17.99. 240 pages (f) (ages 8-11)

The story begins with a vacuum cleaner (actually, a Ulysses Super-Suction Multi-Terrain 2000X) and a squirrel (with no unusual attributes at all).

The squirrel is swallowed whole by the vacuum cleaner.

Flora Belle Buckman rescues and resuscitates the nearly fur-less squirrel and names him Ulysses after the appliance that almost caused his demise. Ulysses (the squirrel), now a changed creature from the one sucked into the vacuum, becomes a superhero who has unusual strength, can fly, communicate with nods of his head and types poetry (not great poetry and often misspelled).

Ulysses is “born anew.”

Flora, a declared cynic because of her parents’ divorce, cherishes the Amazing Incandesto Comics and an added feature that prepares for times when “Terrible Things Can Happen to You.” These tips come in handy as she cares for Ulysses and keeps him safe from a disapproving mother, an obsessed romance writer, who threatens to kill the squirrel with a shovel.

Kate DiCamillo  is the author of Kate DiCamillo is the author of "Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures." (Tom Sweeney)

Flora finds support from Tootie Tickham, next-door neighbor and vacuum cleaner owner, and her quirky great-nephew, William Spiver, who has been banished by his parents.

The heart of the story lies in these youngsters whose tattered lives have been swallowed by forces beyond their control, much like Ulysses’ had been. Flora’s father with his “capacious heart” and an old woman from mysterious Blundermeecen who “knew the miraculous would come,” rescue and resuscitate them in heartfelt and hopeful ways. Flora learns many things but above all, “there was everything to gain by believing and nothing to lose.”

Kate DiCamillo is a fine storyteller who respects her readers with rich and sophisticated language that touches the mind and tongue like delicate spice. "Flora and Ulysses" is a great story for reading aloud. For example, Flora could have used many expressions of fear and delight but instead exclaims, “Holy bagumba!” that delivers the message with the energy that she intends. Vocabulary from the comics is sprinkled throughout the text and blends with the inclusion of K.G. Campbell’s comic strip sequences that divulge bits of the story.

Shaded pencil sketches propel the action and provide additional clues to characters and setting into a story of humor and joy tinged with sadness and unconditional love.

DiCamillo is winner of the Newbery Medal for “The Tale of Despereaux" and a Newbery Honor recipient with “Because of Winn Dixie,” both of which have been adapted into major feature films. She is also the author of “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” “The Magician’s Elephant,” “The Tiger Rising,” which was a National Book Award Finalist, and the chapter-book series about Mercy Watson.

If you go ...

What: Kate DiCamillo book signing

When: Saturday, Sept. 28, 3 p.m.

Where: Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City

Web: kingsenglish.com, www.katedicamillo.com

Note: Hosted by the King's English Bookshop

Email: marilousorensen@ymail.com

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