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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 4: Far Far Away vs Flora and Ulysses


Far Far Away
by Tom McNeal
Knopf/Random House
Flora & Ulysses
by Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick Press

Once upon a time, on a couch in my apartment, there were two books, Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo and Far Far Away by Tom McNeal. One book I liked. The other I loved. One I can’t wait to read to my daughters. The other I’m planning on hiding from my daughters until they’re at least twenty-seven.

Let’s start with Flora & Ulysses. The novel begins with a truly inventive and hilarious premise: A squirrel is sucked up by a fancy vacuum cleaner and turned into a superhero. I love a good superhero story—and this superhero doesn’t just fly or set things on fire. He can type and write poetry. He’s a literary superhero. Sigh. My hero.

Ten-year-old Flora is a comic book lover and according to her mother “a natural-born cynic.” Her cynicism is partly due to the recent divorce of her father, who Flora refers to as “the world’s loneliest man,” and her romance-writer mother. After witnessing the squirrel’s transformation, Flora names him Ulysses and befriends him. Life is looking up. Or it would be if Flora’s mother wasn’t trying to kill Ulysses and stuff him in a garbage bag.

Flora & Ulysses is undeniably adorable. Sprinkled throughout the book are delightful illustrations and comic book strips by K.G. Campbell. Ulysses is sweet and funny and exuberant. And I related to Flora. Make that, I really related to Flora. Her mother writes romance novels. My mother wrote romance novels! Her parents got divorced when she was a kid. My parents got divorced when I was a kid! In the divorce’s aftermath, Flora is drowning in anger/resentment/sadness/confusion/hopelessness/doom. Ditto. Also, my pet turtle “disappeared” one day and the details are still murky (although I suspect my dad). I’ve read a lot of books about how kids deal with divorce, and this one nailed it. It felt emotionally raw and completely authentic.

But as charming as Ulysses is, and as much as I related to so many things about Flora, I wished I hadn’t anticipated exactly what was going to happen and what piece of furniture would have to break for it to take place. And while the book’s subject matter hit my sweet spot, the precociousness of the kids (they use words like “sepulchral” and “treacle”) and the quirkiness of all the characters did not. At times the book felt like the adaptation of a Wes Anderson movie, which, for most writers I know, would be the greatest of compliments. But I’ve always found Anderson’s heightened artificiality distracting—all that precocity and quirk throw me out of the story. In Flora & Ulysses, quirk is omnipresent. The boy next door constantly refers to himself by his full name, William Spiver. The dad introduces himself every time he walks through a door. Dr. Meescham is from Blundermeecen and has a horsehair sofa. I feel the same way about quirk as I do about salt: A little goes a long way. And this book is an ocean.

That said, Flora & Ulysses is well-crafted, fast-paced and full of heart. And I love the message that anything is possible. My oldest daughter is five and I can’t wait to share it with her in a few years. I have no doubt that she’ll find the idea of a flying, typing, poetry-writing squirrel hysterical.

Far Far Away has what at first seems like its own hearty helping of quirk. In the very beginning, we discover that the story is being narrated by the ghost of Jacob Grimm. Yes, that Jacob Grimm. I was skeptical. While imaginative, it seemed like a gimmicky and possibly unnecessary choice. I was also confused about the tone and the setting. On the one hand, the world felt fantastical and old-fashioned. The “village” where the story takes place has a town baker who makes magical pastries and is so tough to find, it “can only be seen from the corner of the eye.” Yet the world also felt oddly contemporary. Characters call things “freaking fabulous” and watch game shows. But as I turned the pages, the setting and narrator choice began to feel right to me. Many of the original fairy tales have one foot in the real world and one in fantasy, so why shouldn’t this? And the original tales were collected and recounted by the Grimms. Wasn’t a ghostly Grimm narrator the perfect way to let a modern tale be recounted by one, too? As I got deeper into the story, the unusual narrator—and the unique tone and setting that came along with it—felt less like a gimmick and more like a stroke of genius.

The book’s pace was slower than that of Flora & Ulysses, and the writing denser. Things happen, but gradually, and are often interrupted with tangents and backstories. Luckily, there is a ton of foreshadowing to keep the tension tight. On the very first page we’re told that one character has “tendencies so tortured and malignant” that Grimm can barely talk about them. “I will though,” he says. “It is a promise. I will.” About halfway through the book I started to worry: Where was this evil that kept being hinted at but had yet to appear? Jacob Grimm was narrating this story! When Jacob Grimm—he of the chopped off heads (“Twelve Dancing Princesses”), red-hot iron shoes (“Snow White”) and pigeon-pecked out eyes (“Cinderella”) —tells me things are about to get scary, I believe him. But maybe they wouldn’t? This was a book for young readers after all…

Oh, boy.

I shouldn’t have worried. Or maybe I should have—all the foreshadowing paid off. Without giving anything away, I will say that by the time I finished the book, I was shocked, amazed and officially creeped out.

Far Far Away is a page-turning mystery. It’s a classic ghost story. It’s a sweeping epic. It’s also a bromance and a romance. Definitely a PG romance, but the banter is fun and the attraction believable. Flora & Ulysses is a love story, too. While I wasn’t sold on the connection between Flora and William Spiver (maybe I was too distracted by the quirk?), the love between Flora and Ulysses felt tender and true.

It’s hard to avoid the audience question. Flora & Ulysses is squarely middle grade, for 8-12-year-olds, but who is the ideal reader for Far Far Away? It’s pitched as 12 and up, but are teens interested in the fairy-tale tone and chaste romance? On the other hand, the themes seem way too dark for middle grade. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll be sharing Far Far Away with my daughter for at least a decade. In fact part of me doesn’t want her to read it ever. As a parent I can’t help but want to protect her from the grim (couldn’t resist) fact that evil can, and does, lurk everywhere.

So who’s the ideal reader for this daringly original combination of fairy tales, innovative narration, gruesome plot twists, first love and shocking endings? Me. I couldn’t put Far Far Away down. It was brilliant. It was thrilling. It held me captive, and still hasn’t let go.

The bottom line? Flora & Ulysses might be an easy sell to kids, but Far Far Away blew me away. Winner: Far Far Away.

— Sarah Mlynowski

The Newbery Curse strikes once again – deservedly? I love “quirk.” And I also love haunting fairy tales. Pretty much at a loss with this one…two of the best books against each other in the first round…In fact, I’d really like it if Ulysses managed to pull off some theatrics right now, and display some of the book’s great quirk. Flora & Ulysses is, like Hokey Pokey and True Blue Scouts, a hilarious burst of childhood optimism on the verge of collapse. Powerful stuff for a nostalgic 14-year-old. Not to degrade Far Far Away, which also had wonderful imagination, characters, and humor and was a very well done book indeed – maybe, for me, just not quite as fantastical. But I’d still pick the Brothers Grimm over Eleanor and Park to battle with Little Bao (or The Animal Book) for the finals.

– Kid Commentator RGN




  1. Even though I thought Far, Far Away had a really slow start, I think it’s the better book. I agree with Ms. Mlynowsky — Flora and Ulysses was a little too cute, too quirky. I think I’m 3 out of 4 at this point which isn’t too bad for me.

  2. What a well-written analysis! Wes Anderson comparison is perfect. I too found Flora & Ulysses too twee, and found Far, Far Away spectacular and creepy and (deliberately, I’m sure) tonally weird as all get out — what a terrific slow build. And I too am utterly unsure of the audience (there’s, uh, ME, a grownup person who majored in folklore & mythology and loves fairy tales…and Sarah, a grownup person who writes books for teenagers) — I’m not sure how much crossover there can be in a book in which romance takes a back seat to creepy mood and wild tonal shifts. Now I can’t remember if Midwinterblood is in the Battle of the Books, because it’s the other book this year I’m all BUH? about audience for. But I guess between the game shows and humor (hello, When You Reach Me) there’s enough real-world touchstones to make this appealing for teenagers, and kids who once loved fairy tales and now enjoy the Saw movies. 🙂 Anyway, great battle!

  3. NOOOOOOO!!!! Every year, at least one book that I love gets ousted by a book I did not love. Hypothetically I understand about too much quirk, but in practice, I thought the quirk was perfect. Whereas Far Far Away was not something I enjoyed at all, even though the Brother’s Grimm are about my favorite thing ever.

  4. In my predictions yesterday (on my blog) I neglected one of the prime rules of BoB. Consider carefully the judge.

  5. My comment about considering carefully the judge is NOT meant to denigrate the painstaking choice that Sarah made. Her commentary almost convinces me. It’s the squirrel thing. I’m a sucker for squirrels.

  6. At last! A decision I’m *totally* happy with! And in *complete* agreement with her analysis! YES!

    Not to denigrate Flora & Ulysses — she liked it, too. But, yes, I loved Far Far Away and thought it was brilliant — for so many of the reasons she mentioned.

  7. This was the first time in the 2014 BOB that I jumped up and cheered after reading the verdict. I liked Flora and Ulysses, but I loved Far Far Away. After finishing the book, I immediately missed Jacob’s voice. Great decision today!

  8. “In Flora & Ulysses, quirk is omnipresent. The boy next door constantly refers to himself by his full name, William Spiver. The dad introduces himself every time he walks through a door. Dr. Meescham is from Blundermeecen and has a horsehair sofa. I feel the same way about quirk as I do about salt: A little goes a long way. And this book is an ocean.”

    *Applauds* What a perfect way to word that. My thoughts exactly.

    Unfortunately, Far Far Away didn’t work for me in any way so I am disappointed with the final decision. This was a choice between a book I thought was alright but not great, and a book that I didn’t even like a little bit. I’m sad to see the latter moving on.

    Also I just really want to see a MG book move on.

  9. “But as I turned the pages, the setting and narrator choice began to feel right to me. Many of the original fairy tales have one foot in the real world and one in fantasy, so why shouldn’t this? ”

    Yes yes yes!

    Some of the people who dislike that disorienting quality of setting seem to see it as a bug, but I’m pretty sure it’s a feature.

  10. HOORAY! and AMEN!!!

  11. Becky Nelson says

    I agree with this choice. When I first began listening to Flora & Ulysses on audiobook, I gritted my teeth and thought, “Oh NO! Another quirky, middle grade humor boy book. I can’t bear it!” But because I LOVE Kate DiCamillo and because I was reading it with my Mock Newbery Club, I plunged on. By the second disc, I was really getting into it and by the end, I loved it. I’m currently reading this book to a group of 5th graders who adore it. One girl told me it was the highlight of her day! That being said, Far, Far Away held me in thrall. I still can’t get over it. This book reminds me of Splendor & Glooms, one of my top favorites, with its tone, suspense, and scary elements. Far, Far Away is wonderfully written. It’s audience? ME! Maybe mature 5th grade readers and up too.


  1. […] rather uninterested in which book won (though I did let out a “Noooo” when I saw that Far Far Away beat out Flora & Ulysses), but I’m intensely interested in the judges’ idiosyncratic perspectives on these […]

  2. […] & Saints a two-volume work); Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses succumbing to the “Newbery Curse,” in a contest judged by Sara Mlynowski; and Mac Barnett’s frank deliberation over Marcus […]

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