Wednesday, November 13, 2013

2014 Second Takes: Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, by Kate DiCamillo

If there's one thing that I find myself thinking about over and over in the course of writing about books, it's that comedy is terrifically hard to evaluate. And here, with Flora & Ulysses, that again comes into play. Is it funny? I thought it was hysterical, but if you're, say, the kind of person who found last year's Mr. & Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! overly weird, you're unlikely to agree with me.

As Rachael mentioned in her review, the bits where Ulysses the squirrel writes his poetry are simply beautiful. There's a real emotional center to this book -- as ridiculous as a lot of it is, it isn't just a pile of jokes. That mixture of poignancy and silliness is pure DiCamillo, and though sometimes that feels manipulative to me, I think she pulls it off in Flora & Ulysses.

There was one thing that did bother me, though. I'm starting to grow weary of books that give their characters obsessions with Treasure Island, or Heloise's Hints, or that old standby, the dictionary. There are times where it's effective, but too often, it feels like a writing shortcut to give characters a memorable quirk. Flora is a huge, huge fan of a comic series starring The Amazing Incandesto (as well as its associated "bonus comics"), and I didn't feel like that was particularly effective. It would have been a better book, I think, if DiCamillo had fully trusted the humor and the poetry to carry the novel, rather than shoehorning all the comic book stuff in there too.

Anyway, I think Flora & Ulysses is still quite good, and I think it would be one of the easiest sells to a child reader of anything we've discussed on the blog this year. Even aside from the question of its illustrated nature, however, I don't think it's going to be in the running for the year's major awards.

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