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2014 Newbery Award Winner: Flora & Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures

Flora & Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures
Written by Kate DiCamillo and Illustrated by K.G. Campbell
Published in 2013 by Candlewick Press
ISBN #:978-0763660406 

Grades 4-8

Book Review
In Flora & Ulysses, the 2014 Newbery Award Winner, Kate DiCamillo brings us into the world of Flora Belle Buckman, a young self-proclaimed cynic and comic-book lover, who finds happiness and belief through her unlikely friendship with a squirrel-turned-superhero who she names Ulysses after the vacuum that nearly took his life.  DiCamillo previously won the Newbery in 2004 for Tale of Desperaux and won the Newbery Honor in 2001 for Because of Winn-Dixie. True to form, DiCamillo reminds readers of the beauty and wonder of everyday things, of “holy unanticipated occurences”, of eggs sunny-side up, giant donuts, sprinkles, quarks, and the ever-expanding universe. Through the adventures of Flora and Ulysses, we are brought along a literary journey as characters transform, as hearts widen, and as friendships are built. We begin to believe, along with the characters, that the writing of poetry could be a superhero power and that words may be the strongest force to fight villains and change lives. DiCamillo’s narrative is complimented by Campbell’s interspersed illuminated comic strip that invites us to closely read for details that unlock our superhero’s adventures. The illustrations alternate between comic frames and close-ups of the characters that are integral to the telling of the story. Throughout the story, we are positioned to consider the challenges the characters and those around us may face especially those who are misunderstood—be it loneliness, homesickness for our own kind, temporary blindness, or personal and family trauma.  We are reminded that acts of heroism are often found in unassuming people…or squirrels. Sure to be a new favorite read-aloud in upper elementary and middle school classrooms, Flora & Ulysses, encourages young people to think about the importance of conquering their own villains, defending the defenseless, protecting the weak, and having a “capacious” heart. Readers will be compelled to wonder, what superpowers are hidden in me? 
Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Grades 4 – 8
The Whole World on Fire. When Ulysses, the squirrel, wakes from his brush with death via the Ulysses Super Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X he asks, “When did the world become so beautiful?” Ulysses looks at the world with new eyes and sees “the whole world on fire”. He marvels at the setting sun illuminating each blade of grass and he feels nothing but happiness. Support your students to look at the world with new eyes. Consider going on a neighborhood walk or field trip around the school jotting, sketching, or photographing things they see that are beautiful. Encourage them to look for beauty in unlikely places. Consider having students craft digital stories of what they find to share their versions of the “Whole World on Fire” with the school community.
Heroism in the Unassuming.  The story begins with Flora sharing her love of the comic series about Incandesto, a janitor turned superhero. We then meet Ulysses, the superhero squirrel who once again invites us to reconsider where we find acts of heroism. Have students think of a time they found heroism in others when they least expected it. You may also consider having students craft unassuming heroes of their own. What acts of heroism will their characters do for others when we least expect it?
Acts of Kindness. Flora & Ulysses is full of the superhero moments but it is also full of small acts of kindness that have a big impact on someone else’s life. We see this when Flora holds William Spiver’s hand.  We see this when Dr. Meescham offers sardines and crackers to Ulysses and when she invites others to sit on her horse hair couch. Initiate a conversation about the power of small acts of kindness. Consider pairing the close reading of these moments in the novel with the viewing of videos that demonstrate the power of small acts of kindness (Free Hugs Campaign, Helping Other People, Night on the Streets: Kids Helping Homeless Kids). Look for local campaigns that encourage acts of kindness such as INSPIRE Media’s Student Challenge

The Power of Names. Incandesto means glowing from the inside or shedding light, an apt name for a superhero who does good for others. Ulysses, the squirrel, is named after the vacuum that sucked him up in the Tickham’s yard. But, of course, Ulysses, is also the name of the hero from Homer’s tale. Flora is the name of our main character and also the Greek goddess of plants and flowers. Her middle name, Belle, means beauty. Have students consider the power of names in this book and what the characters’ names may represent about their personalities. Also discuss with students why DiCamillo may have chosen the name Ulysses instead of Odysseus. Why Roman and not Greek mythology? Support students to notice how other authors name their characters and what their names may represent. Consider using the Harry Potter series for this exploration as many of the characters names have cultural significance and Latin or Greek origins. 
Where Poetry Hides. Ulysses flies and he saves people from “malfeasance” of all kinds, but perhaps his greatest gift is the power of his poetry. We learn from Ulysses that he begins the process of writing poems first by looking and listening to the world around him. He then jots down a list of things he sees and hears and feels. From that list, he begins to craft lines of poetry. Reread with students how Ulysses crafts his poetry beginning with keen observation followed by listmaking. Encourage students to generate their own list poems as fuel for more tailored poems. You may even support students to write tribute poems based on Ulysses’s poem at the end of the novel by writing their own, “Ever Expanding Universe” poems dedicated to people in their own lives.
Pascal’s Wager. In the novel, Dr. Meescham, introduces Flora to Pascal’s Wager and the power of belief over disbelief. Research with students the philosophical history of Pascal’s Wager and encourage them to consider the power of belief in their own lives. Where do they find sources of belief? Is belief something that can support happiness?
Inference Building Through Comic Study. K. G. Campbell’s illustrations illuminate the story using a comic-book style of drawing. The illustrations are integral to the telling of the story and are a great way to reinforce inference building with students. As with most comics, we must read between the frames to consider what’s happening and what characters are thinking. Have students select a favorite comic frame page to closely analyze the ways the illustrations enhance the narrative and fill in gaps in the story. Then, have students transform the comic into a page of written narrative that describes how the characters think, what they say, and what actions they take.

Illuminated Adventures. To illuminate means to make something brighter, more clear or more enlightened with knowledge. K. G. Campbell’s comic-book style of illustration illuminates DiCamillo’s narrative by shedding more light on the superhero powers within Ulysses. Have students either illuminate a story that they have previously written or have them generate a new comic using paper or any of the online comic tools listed in Online Resources. 

Author’s Craft: Word Choice. Throughout the novel, DiCamillo is highly selective in her word choice exposing readers to words such as “capacious”, “incandesto”, and “malfeasance”. Draw students attention to these deliberate choices DiCamillo has made as part of her writing style and craft. Compare and contrast her word choice across novels by choosing excerpts from the beginnings of her past award winners or support students to read the first chapter across books.  Support students to notice how and consider why she makes deliberate word choices to expand readers’ vocabulary. 

The John Newbery Award and the National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. Discuss the fact that Flora & Ulysses is the 2014 Newbery Award winner. Research with students the significance of this award and discuss past winners that they may be familiar with. Have students construct a list of qualities of the book that they believe led to the novel being chosen as the award winner. In addition, share with students that the author, Kate DiCamillo, has been chosen as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Read DiCamillo’s thoughts on this honor and discuss with students the roles DiCamillo may play under this new title. 

Critical Literacy
Understanding Family. The family stories in Flora & Ulysses are complex and compel us to think about the positions of both children and parents in families. Support students to consider the perspectives and positions of Flora, her mother, and her father following their divorce. How do the characters display love to one another? How do they at times display annoyance and dismissal? What do we learn about William’s family to better understand him as a character and his temporary blindness? Support students to share in what ways they may have found these complexities to be reflective or unreflective of their own lives and their family narratives.
Identity Construction. Flora describes herself as a cynic but a “helpful cynic”. Her identity is not singular but rather complex and rooted in her roles as daughter, superhero fan, hater of romance, and rival of Mary Ann, the shepherdess lamp. Everyone has multiple identities that we display in different ways in different contexts. Support students to create identity maps that describe the different roles they have in school, at home, and in their communities. Encourage conversation about how their identities are rooted in their relationships and that identities are always evolving and changing. Support students to consider how they misrepresent or misunderstood people in their own lives, particularly in school, by framing people into single narratives or single identities. 
Online Resources

Author’s Website

Kate DiCamillo’s Author Talk About Flora & Ulysses

Illustrator’s Website

ALA Awards Announcement

Newberry Award Criteria

YouTube Book Trailer for Flora & Ulysses

Read-Write-Think’s Create Your Own Comic Site

Pixton Comic Site

Bitstrips Comic Site

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”


Campbell, K. G (2012). Lester’s dreadful sweaters. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press. 

DiCamillo, K. (2003). The tale of desperaux. New York, NY: Candlewick Press.

DiCamillo, K. (2000). Because of winn-dixie. New York, NY: Candlewick Press.

Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.