Newbery Challenge | Flora & Ulysses (2014)

Newbery Challenge | Flora & Ulysses (2014)Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
Published by Candlewick Press on 2013-09-24
Genres: Action & Adventure, Comics & Graphic Novels, Family, General, Marriage & Divorce, Newbery Gold Winner, Superheroes, Young Adult
Pages: 336
Buy on AmazonBuy on Barnes & Noble

Winner of the 2014 Newbery Medal! Holy unanticipated occurrences! A cynic meets an unlikely superhero in a genre-breaking new novel by master storyteller Kate DiCamillo. It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences. The squirrel never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, but self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, is the just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight, and misspelled poetry- and that Flora will be changed too, as she discovers the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart. From #1 New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo comes a laugh-out-loud story filled with eccentric, endearing characters and featuring an exciting new format- a novel interspersed with comic-style graphic sequences and full-page illustrations, all rendered in black-and-white by up-and-coming artist K. G. Campbell.


God save me from people who write like John Green. Actually, God should save them from me because I want to smash them over the head with hardcover editions of Strunk & White.

If you write a phrase and think, ‘Wow, that’s really poetic, that’s really pretty, I really nailed it,’ you get rid of it [because] you’ve overdone it.

–David Sedaris

YES. Yes, David Sedaris. YOU ARE CORRECT.

Flora & Ulysses is the Newbery Gold Medal winner for 2014 and mark my words, this book will not stand the test of time. It is the product of Twitter and Snapchat, of John Green and quirky characters, of precocious kids using big words in place of humor. It is what I call “soundbite writing,” a collection of clever sentences strung together without synergistic effect. It’s like John Green, Kate DiCamillo (in this case), and authors with the same writing style clack away at their keyboard until they can lean back in their vintage rolling chairs and say, “Hot damn, that sentence is going to look awesome when someone overlays it on a soft focus image and puts it on Tumblr. Please, God, let it hit Pinterest!”

No more quirky characters, please. Flora Belle is a hopeful cynic; William Spiver is her temporarily blind neighbor; Ulysses is a superhero squirrel who flies and writes poetry because he was sucked up by a vacuum.

No more children with odd hobbies, I beg you. Flora compulsively reads a bonus comic book series called TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU! because hipsters don’t play with Barbies.

No more witty sentences, for the love of everything holy. “Nothing would be easier without you, because you are everything, all of it — sprinkles, quarks, giant donuts, eggs sunny – side up — you are the ever – expanding universe to me.”

F&U, 2

Many people I know loved this book. It’s so clever and inventive! It’s funny! It captures the spirit of childhood! Is that so? Because when you take away the clever dialogue, it’s a story about a girl who feels lost after her parents’ divorce. It’s funny the way tweets are funny until you retweet and forget about them. As for capturing childhood, I don’t know a single 10 year old like the ones in this book. Mikey is the age of Flora and William Spiver, and if I ever heard him say to a girl “Your face, Flora Belle, is particularly beautiful to me. Even the sepulchral gloom of this hallway cannot dim your loveliness,” I’d straight up roundhouse kick him into anti-poser class.

[sidenote: reviews claim this book is wonderful for teaching kids SAT words. Stop. Stop trying to communicate your thoughts. This book is marketed to late elementary/middle schoolers. Grades 4-8. Middle schoolers don’t need to worry about SAT words, and they learn their SAT words by reading increasingly complex material as they progress through school, not by reading ONE BOOK ABOUT A SQUIRREL THAT WRITES POETRY.]

Legions of people loved this book and it won a Newbery, so it’s both commercially and critically adored. I know I’m in the minority when I say I was completely underwhelmed reading this book. I’m trying to imagine enthusiastically recommending this book to the students at school. “Holy unanticipated occurrences!”

That’s how clever people say ‘ain’t gonna happen.’

EDITED TO ADD: Called it.

Jules Kendall writes about books, family, and easygoing simplicity.


  1. Adeline says

    Jules, the way you wrote this post perfectly sums up why I faithfully check your blog every day, David Sedaris reference included. It made me so happy I’m going to read it one more time, actually.

  2. says

    I hate it when books (or movies or tv shows) make awkward teenagers and pre-teens sound like 40-somethings from an Aaron Sorkin script. THEY DON’T TALK LIKE THAT. Anyone who has ever spent any time around this age group can attest to this. “Even the sepulchral gloom of this hallway cannot dim your loveliness”?? Give me a break.

  3. Caitlyn says

    Hahaha. When I saw this post in my blog feed I thought, I should really read these books along with her – this is such a fun idea for a project. Then I read your review and thought – correction, I should read the books AFTER her and only the ones that she recommends. Thanks for taking one for the team!

  4. Sarah S says

    I love all your book reviews, and this one was spot-on about this writing style. (I’d read *your* book for sure!)

  5. says

    Awww…. I thought Flora was both clever AND funny! And I hardly think that a book featuring a flying, typing squirrel can be expected to portray anything particularly realistically. Then again, some of my favorite books when I was Flora’s age featured a 30 story elementary school building with an evil teacher who turned students into apples, so I have a soft spot for a certain amount of literary over-the-top-ness.

    Are you going to review The Tale of Despereaux? I haven’t read it, but I’d love to see a Kate DiCamillo head-to-head :-)

    • says

      I wasn’t complaining about the flying squirrel. I love Garcia Marquez, and he turned a woman into a swarm of yellow butterflies. That’s hardly realistic! :)

      DiCamillo did Ulysses an injustice. He’s a squirrel that can write poetry, and no one seems to think that amazing! They’re surprised at first, but then they act like it’s NBD. Just a squirrel, writing poetry. Tootie, the neighbor, asks him to participate in a poetry reading wither her. Huh? DiCamillo takes away any power Ulysses had as a literary device by surrounding him with equally quirky characters. Every single character in that book was quirky. There was no balance! No ordinary foil. The mom loved her shepherdess lamp to distraction. The dad introduced himself formally to everyone, including his family, every single time he entered the room. The landlord had a killer cat. The diner waitress was larger than life with a bouffant hairdo. The therapist spoke in riddles. <—that one’s actually pretty true to life 😉 My #1 complaint with this book is that it’s too much. Every sentence is quotable. Every character is unique. I don’t need Kate DiCamillo to prove to me she’s a great storyteller. Everyone already knows she’s talented just by looking at how many of her books have won the Newbery. And, if at the end of the day all that fantastical, clever, witty writing is about a fairly ordinary story that has been done many times and to greater effect, it’s not something I’m going to give 5 stars. My #2 complaint is that it’s trendy. This book is the literary form of chevrons. I hate trendy, and to me this book showcases every current trend in middle school and YA publishing. Quirky characters! Fantastical elements! Clever dialogue! Illustrations! Animals! One or two trends is expected. All of them seems like marketing. And finally: HELL YES I’m going to do a head-to-head DiCamillo review! 😀

      • says

        See, I almost thought that Ulysses WAS the ordinary foil! He was weird, yes, but he was also silent and serious while everyone else was a little nutty. Just trying to get his work done, yo.

        I will give you “quirky characters” as a trend and maybe “clever dialogue” but fantastical elements, illustrations, and animals are old kidlit news. Just maybe not old Newbury-winning news? Humor is so often snubbed by the Big Award Givers…

        I will look forward to your DiCamillo throwdown! You should get some of your students to weigh in, too :-)

        • says

          A beatnik squirrel as the ordinary foil! DO YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN? 😉

          Yes, fantastical elements and illustrations are old kidlet news. You’re right. Maybe I should have said that they are now the norm rather than the pleasant surprise. Remember when Hugo Cabret was a revolutionary picture book?

          I so wanted to love this book. I bought it for the library long before it won the Newbery medal, and when I heard it won I was excited because I knew it was a humorous book. You’re right that humor is an overlooked category.

          • Frances says

            I just wanted to note that Jessica here is referencing the wonderful Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar in her original response above. If you haven’ read that yet, you should! I think his book Holes won the Newbery, and it’s good, but Sideways Stories is funny funny funny, and great for boys and reluctant readers. Sachar is great for those groups in general.

            Also, if you have anything negative to say about The Hero and the Crown or The Grey King I’m just going to avert my eyes, plug my ears, and sing La la la until you’re done. Same for Witch of Blackbird Pond and Jacob Have I Loved.

          • says

            Louis Sachar is on my must read list. Holes is required reading for the 6th graders, so I need to catch up!

            Witch of Blackbird Pond I read as a kid and LOVED. I remember nothing about it, so I plan to reread it. Jacob Have I Loved I read and reviewed this spring, and I LOVED it. Another great one: Island of the Blue Dolphins. Those are stories that stand the test of time.

  6. Kathy says

    Oh, my! I’m glad I resisted the lure of the cover!
    Maybe I’ll finally read that other book wih a squirrel on the cover, by David Sedaris.

  7. Shannon says

    You just confirmed my suspicion of this one, Jules. I picked it up at the book fair, so excited to buy my girls the LATEST WINNER and couldn’t do it after reading the description. Maybe its because I’ve been reading the earlier winners and the format felt cheesy in comparison. . . . .

  8. Laura says

    Yep. Finished it yesterday and barely choked it down. I love Kate DiCamillo but this one only came with a sense of relief that it was over. I’m reading a cute book now that would be great for 2nd-4th grade readers called The Trouble With Chickens. Much lighter but an easy enjoyable read that clearly isn’t trying as hard.

  9. Phaedra says

    Whew! I was worried that I was going to be the only one that thought ‘WTF?!’ after reading this. I found it incredibly annoying and I was so happy I didn’t BUY it (library. Again, sigh of relief). The whole time I felt like the book was an example of ‘trying too hard’ and it lost me. I didn’t find it appealing. At all. Zero. Deeply disappointing for an award winner. Oh well. Plenty of other books in the library…
    LOL LOL about the, ‘please God, let it hit Pinterest’ RIGHT??!!

  10. Alicia says

    hahaha I love your review! I haven’t heard of this book before, but now I know to definitely skip it! Without having read it, I totally understand what you mean about trendy writing, ugh!

  11. Lisa says

    I felt exactly the same way about Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches. So many great reviews on Amazon, but I couldn’t even finish the overfluffed thing. I couldn’t help but wonder if I got the wrong book when I bought it, because what I read in no way matched what they were reviewing.

    I’ll at least know to keep this book away from my kids. Thanks for the review!

    • says

      People are obsessed with that book, especially now that the final is out. You know, I wasn’t crazy about it until I went to her book signing. She is so nice and gave such a great explanation about the book and where the idea came from that I liked it more. Maybe DiCamillo should do the same.

  12. says

    Bummed to hear this! I like some of her other books and thought this would be cute. In fact, I was planning on buying a copy for our school library when I return to work next week. Maybe not. (We’ll still end up getting a copy or two through the district, b/c it won the Newbery, but it takes a while to work through the system.)

  13. Torey says

    If you are looking for graphic novels (comic style) for kids that are fun and well written, check out the Zita the Spacegirl series by Ben Hatke. Really fun books and not posing as SAT prep books@

  14. Phaedra says

    Whew! I thought I was going to be the only one that thought ‘WTF?!’ at the end of this book. It lost me. It was trying too hard and it became incredibly annoying. I’m not sure how this was a winner, but I agree with you on not standing the test of time. Ava had zero interest in it and she’s the target age there it is.

    • Phaedra says

      Okay so I thought my earlier comment wasn’t there (my computer is finicky today), but now I see it. I am blonde. LOL.

  15. says

    I started this book and didn’t finish it. Felt guilty/strange because: Newbery. DiCamillo. Really enjoyed Because of Winn Dixie, and this didn’t feel like the same author to me. Thought maybe it was just me. Glad to know that, while I might still be wrong about this book, it’s not just me who’s wrong. :-)

    • says

      Hahaha! Do you think everyone secretly thinks the book is crap? 😉

      DiCamillo! Newbery! It had the makings of a no-brainer. I didn’t realize that would become a literal assessment.

  16. J.Lee says

    I blame the popularity of the Gilmore Girls. Rambling endlessly in three syllable words does not make you clever or cute- It’s just plain annoying.

  17. Kim says

    I love to read your observations. Usually I find myself smiling and nodding my head. In this case, your comment about smashing pretentious authors over the head with the hardcover edition of Strunk & White made me laugh out loud. My college copy from 1990 sits proudly on my bookcase. One of my favorite sections is Misused Words and Expressions. I think the authors in question here could use the phrase “I feel nauseous” as I think they have that effect on you. 😉

  18. Nicole says

    Thank you for your honesty about the quality of this Newbery winner. I am a librarian and I have to admit that some of the more recent award winners are awful. I don’t know what the committee is thinking when they bestow these honors, but it sure isn’t about the content of the books that they are recommending for kids. A lot of people go along with the winners because hey, they won an award. But that doesn’t mean it’s actually a good book. Let me steer you away from one Newbery winner that I was required to read for a children’s lit class while getting my MLS. Do not read The Higher Power of Lucky. My classmates raved about this book, but I found that is had no plot and the only reason I can see that it won was because there was a bad word on the first page. It pushed a liberal button. Some of the medal winners and honor books are very good, but some of them are awful. After your review, I think I’ll skip this book and I definitely won’t recommend it to any of the students looking for a book.

    By the way, I loved your reference to Strunk & White. That book was the bane of my senior year of high school. It has stayed with me, however, and I cringe when I see published writing that breaks the rules.

    • says

      My classmates raved about this book, but I found that is had no plot and the only reason I can see that it won was because there was a bad word on the first page. It pushed a liberal button.

      Hahahahaha!!! Love it. That made me laugh out loud. So true. Scandal sells, even when it really isn’t all that scandalous. You can damage a person for life without ever having to say a bad word.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>