Not much goes on in the mind of a squirrel.
Huge portions of what is loosely termed "the squirrel brain" are given over to one thought: food.
The average squirrel cogitation goes something like this: I wonder what there is to eat. This "thought" is then repeated with small variations (e.g. Where's the food? Man, I sure am hungry. Is that a piece of food? and Are there more pieces of food?) some six or seven thousand times a day.
All of this is to say that when the squirrel in the Tickhams' backyard got swallowed up by the Ulysses 2000X, there weren't a lot of terribly profound thoughts going through his head.
As the vacuum cleaner roared toward him, he did not (for instance), think, Here, at last, is my fate come to meet me!
He did not think, Oh, please give me one more chance and I will be good.
What he thought was Man, I sure am hungry. (p. 10)
There is something magical that occurs when a child is around nine or ten years old. The flights of fancy that inspired green skies and blue blades of grass with elongated, misshapen stick-humans populating perilously-leaning houses begins to transform into something more self-aware, something both universal and uniquely personal. Looking back on my elementary school years in the early 1980s, 4th through 6th grade were wondrous years. They were the years that I was introduced to Beverly Cleary's Ramona and Ralph S. Mouse, to Old Dan and Little Ann in Where the Red Fern Grows, to all the ways that one could eat worms to fulfill a bet. Thirty years later, those stories linger like an old TV afterimage, influencing still how I decide which stories are worthy of joining my juvenile pantheon of great books.
It is tricky to write stories that speak directly to what is now termed "middle grades" (ages 8-12) readers while still maintaining a freshness of imagination. Too often the works feel stilted, insincere, as if the adults composing them are uncertain of how to address their readers. Perhaps the problem lies with "addressing" in the first place. After all, few people like having someone address their opinions to them without at least some intimate connection. Judy Blume was one of the rare few authors who could pull this off with aplomb; Margaret and Peter are vastly different characters on the surface, yet there is something about them that speaks to young boys and girls alike even decades after her most famous works were published. Often writers settle for one of two extremes: young, developing readers or the "young adults" of 13-21. There is nothing wrong with writing for those audiences and several marvelous works have emerged in recent years that speak to these audiences. However, it is a different matter when it comes to readers who are beyond basic reading but who have yet to experience the weird shifts that hormonal changes bring to the adolescent body.
Therefore, I was curious to see how Kate DiCamillo, who twice was either a finalist or winner for the Newberry Award, would tell the story of a bookish ten-year old girl, Flora, who was the only child of divorced parents. Certainly the premise held great promise: the introverted, comics-loving girl who discovers that a squirrel she rescues from an out-of-control vacuum cleaner has somehow gained superpowers in the process of surviving the suctioning force of the vacuum. This is the sort of tale that I enjoyed in 4th or 5th grade, that of the inexplicable granting of anthropomorphic superpowers to an animal. But would it ring true, or would the premise be all that is appealing about Flora & Ulysses?
For virtually the entire story, I found myself reading the story as if I were ten years old again. Leaving aside the numerous in-jokes I have made over the years about squirrels, Ulysses (such a fitting name, that, although DiCamillo never directly references The Odyssey) is such a fascinating character in his own right. DiCamillo has her characters make wry, sometimes witty observations without ever appearing to break the tone of the narrative. Flora may be more of a shy violet than Cleary's Ramona ever was, but like Cleary's lovable rascal, Flora's views on her life, comics, and her parents' post-divorce lives contains a strong ring of truth to them because she never feels as though the author were talking at the target audience. Instead, Flora's experiences, madcap as they often were in the novel (especially toward the end), are realistic even though the narrative is anything but quotidian life. DiCamillo's slightly-skewed suburban setting (romance novel-writing mother, sadistic neighborhood cat, antique lamp shaped like a figurine) allows readers to laugh at the absurdities and to imagine themselves in such improbable events while still empathizing with the emotional aspects of the story.
Flora & Ulysses contains very few flaws. The writing is engaging, with a sly wit that rewards those readers who have perhaps read a bit more than their peers without ever feeling as though a joke were being played outside their comprehension. Flora and Ulysses are well-drawn characters (literally as well as figuratively, as there are some comics-like scenes where Ulysses' new superpowers are on display), but even the secondary characters (such as Flora's parents, a neighbor, and the neighbor's troubled great-nephew) shine in the limited time that they appear in the narrative. Perhaps the story could have been even better with a more tense, drawn-out conclusion, but this is quibbling over a minor flaw. Flora & Ulysses was recently longlisted for the National Book Award for Young Peoples' Literature and it certainly merits it, as it is one of the rare few middle grades fiction that reminds me of the voracious 9-10 year-old reader that I once was and the stories that most captivated the younger me. Yet despite being nearly 30 years older than that reader, Flora & Ulysses contains a charm that belies its target audience. Perhaps it will be a book that my nearly one-year-old niece will love when she is older. I plan on finding out, as I will give this book to her when she is older. If that is not a testament to how well-written this book this, then my words above will not serve any better to underscore this.