One of my Hollins classes, taught by author Nancy Ruth Patterson, covered Newbery Award winning books. We had to critique each book based on the criteria the panels use to select the winners. The class taught me a great deal about the process of the selection and what it takes to create an award-winning book.
One of my all-time favorite authors is Kate DiCamillo. I enjoyed reading and critiquing her Newbery Award winning book Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. Here I will give you a condensed review.
Summary: When Flora’s life turns into a comic with a super-hero squirrel, her focus is to “fight the forces of darkness and evil” as Ulysses’ side-kick. She struggles with her parents’ divorce, a mother who loves her romance novels and lamp more than Flora, and her distant and sad father. As she searches for evil to vanquish, she realizes the happy Ulysses who loves poetry has already begun to save the most valuable, beautiful thing in the world to him: her.
Characters: Every character has some sort of oddity or description that brings life and uniqueness to the story. Flora’s “round head” and “natural-born cynicism” is sometimes hilarious and sometimes helps her through a serious situation. Ulysses’ constant hunger, love for poetry, love for Flora, love for everything has everyone smiling by the end! William’s literal physical way of dealing with a traumatic event is realistic and sad. George’s sadness and obsessive nature makes his smile shine all the more brightly when Ulysses saves his heart. Phyllis could not be described any better! She is every bit the romance-novel-writing-evil-villain Flora knows her to be. Tootie seems weak at first, but I enjoyed her full-on enthusiasm over Ulysses and her willingness to help save him in the end. Dr. Meescham may be surrounded by questions marks, but boy would I love to meet her! DiCamillo’s ability to create such vivid, distinct characters with incredible, well-written arcs makes me think the story holds its own without any illustrations!
Theme: “Flare up like a flame.”
How perfect for Tootie to quote from Rilke’s “Go To The Limits Of Your Longing.” The very title defines Ulysses and his love for all things. The book also carries elements from the poem. Incandesto “becomes a pillar of light” and Tootie encourages Ulysses to “Flare up like a flame” and become the super-hero Flora believes him to be. Dr. Meescham embodies the phrase, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror” (Rilke). Flora’s constant action exemplifies, “Just keep going” and her mother’s harsh words are healed with “No feeling is final” (Rilke). William Spiver, believing he is blind, constantly is afraid of being lost or apart from Flora, “Don’t let yourself lose me” (Rilke). Rilke ends his poem with “Give me your hand.” Flora dreams of holding William’s hand, and then does in the woods, and her parents are holding hands on Dr. Meescham’s couch in the end. The poem is beautiful, and the book encompasses it perfectly. It also reminds me of “it is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us” (Marianne Williamson).
Plot: The plot is character driven. While I do agree there are some elements that can be hard for a younger audience to hear, I have learned to accept that some poor unfortunate children live these circumstances every day; and these stories are for them. William Spiver’s tragedy had me crying, and I literally stopped breathing when Phyllis responded with “it would certainly make my life easier” to Flora’s leaving. These are the kinds of things I want to shelter children from, but the real world is just not that kind, so thank you DiCamillo for giving them Flora. The tragedy is wrapped in a fun story of a “Squirtel […] I am. Ulysses. Born anew” with comic panels to help break the sadness.