Last spring, Jack Gantos and I were hangin’ out, shootin’ the breeze*, and talking about which new kids’ books we liked. He said that he really liked Mr. and Mrs. Bunny –Detectives Extraordinaire, partly because Horvath’s animals are smart. He remarked that just because your characters are animals doesn’t mean that they have to be dull-witted. I think he actually used a funnier word than that, but it’s been too long and I don’t remember what it was. If you see him around, ask him about stupid animal stories.
Anyway, I think that’s what turns a lot of people off about talking animal stories – they associate the genre with cutesiness, preciousness, and simpleminded characters. That stereotype has a basis in reality, of course, especially in picture books. There are some authors who seem to think that if your story stinks, moving it to the animal kingdom will disguise the smell.
Needless to say, Polly Horvath doesn’t fall into that trap, and neither does Kate DiCamillo. I thought of Horvath’s bunnies when I was reading DiCamillo’s newest, Flora and Ulysses, because the two books share a certain sensibility. As the Horn Book review of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny advised, “Look not for logic; this is a romp.” That advice holds true for Flora and Ulysses, whose plot is set into motion when a giant, multi-terrain vacuum cleaner sucks up an ordinary squirrel. Ulysses the squirrel, when resuscitated by Flora, retains extraordinary non-squirrellish powers (mainly flying, understanding human speech, and typing).
It is in the content of Ulysses’s typed compositions, however, that the novel diverges from the “madcap romp” genre. This wouldn’t be a Kate DiCamillo novel if it didn’t whack you in the head with pure beauty when you’re least expecting it. So what does a squirrel write, in DiCamillo’s world, when awakened from his dumb animal nature and presented with a typewriter? Why, he looks around at the trees and sky he loves, and at his new friend, and he writes poetry : “I love your round head / the brilliant green / the watching blue, / these letters, / this world, you.”
And then, because this is still a comic novel, he adds a postscript: “I am very, very hungry.”
Until that poem appeared, I thought this novel was just okay, but that’s just so exactly the kind of poem a newly reverent squirrel would write that, once again, I found that Kate DiCamillo had totally pwned my heart.
I think this one may have a hard time at the Newbery table. It has those gorgeous DiCamillo moments – Ulysses’ poems, Flora’s struggles with her feelings, her father’s loneliness and awkwardness… But it’s also a comedy, and it doesn’t have the kind of character development you see in, say, The Year of Billy Miller. In Flora and Ulysses, the characters are cartoonish, and I think that’s an appropriate stylistic choice here, but it may count against them when it’s time to vote. Then, too, I’m not sure the sentence-level writing is all that special, for the most part, when compared to Billy Miller or Hokey Pokey. Neither are the settings. Thematically, it shines, but that may not be enough.
And I should mention the illustrations. These are the “illuminated” adventures of Flora and Ulysses, meaning that some of the plot is advanced by comic strips drawn by K.G. Campbell. They tie in thematically with Flora’s interest in comics and superheroes, but they mean that the book could fall into the same liminal space occupied by Brian Selznick, though not to the same extent.
In any case, I like it a whole lot, and I think Jack Gantos would too.
*Okay, fine. He was here for an author visit and we were waiting for a class to arrive.
Publication in September by Candlewick Press