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Inside Heavy Medal

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (or, The Pictures Question)

If any book this year passes the first-page test with flying colors, it might be this National Book Award Finalist from Kate DiCamillo. (And, at this point, I’m talking about the first page of text.)  Not only are character and setting immediately called into action, the tone and spirit of the book come on so brightly that the reader knows exactly what they’re in for… and if it is not for them, that is ok, and they know to move on to something else.

“Chapter One: A Natural-Born Cynic  [first indication of characterization, and clue to reader to prepare themselves.]

“Flora Belle Buckman [say it aloud. We know immediately to expect a heightened or exaggerated mood, expressed directly  through the language.  A protagonist must rise to her name. If any reader wasn’t familiar with Kate DiCamillo yet (as many young readers of this title won’t be,) “Flora Belle Buckman” is like the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth: get ready.  Ok, let’s start again.]

“Chapter One: A Natural-Born Cynic

“Flora Belle Buckman was in her room at her desk. She was very busy. She was doing two things at once.  She was ignoring her mother, and she was also reading a comic book entitled The Illuminated Adventues of the Amazing Incandesto!

‘Flora,’ her mother shouted, ‘what are you doing up there?’

‘I’m reading!’ Flora shouted back.

‘Remember the contract!’ her mother shouted. ‘Do not forget the contract!’

At the beginning of summer, in a moment of weakness, Flora had made the mistake of signing a contract that said she would ‘work to turn her face away from the idiotic high jinks of comics and toward the bright light of true literature.'”

In the first half page, we know our protagonist and our villain.  And we suspect that, since mother’s aren’t usually TRULY evil villains in books that look and sound like this, that we will have a dramatic story with a villainous arc (since comic books have been introduced, on several levels, as an element) but of a comfortable degree and scope, and probably with a happy ending.   Everything about the book from the very beginning declares its audience; and for young, transitional readers, this is so wonderful, to open a book that says “I’m talking to you.”

I start with the audience question, because that always seems to be the most important point when discussing a Kate DiCamillo book. Adults tend to approach them with either strong favoritism or strong ambivalence, usually having to do with their own reactions to the tone.   Setting aside our own reactions (whether positive or negative), and imagining that of the intended reader, is the first step in considering this book.

So then, we have the story of a comic-obsessed girl of separated parents, the strange kid next door, and an even stranger squirrel, who works as a device for the two kids to test the adults around them, and the rules of the adult world.  Adults-not-believing-kids is a tried-and-true plot device, and DiCamillo uses is to wonderful effect here, and within a pretty unique plot.  The plot is  tightly projected and deployed in this under-200-pages, heavily illustrated novel, further showing respect to its audience. Some of the plot arc and tension is carried, between text sections, through the illustrations, so here’s a good moment to ask The Pictures Question.

In the Newbery Criteria:

2. Each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.

Jonathan and I, over the years, have made the argument that this means that the discussion of the book must be about the text, while not ignoring that the pictures may be a part of the story’s development.   The Newbery committee awards a book that is the most distinguished in its text; but that text, I would argue, might depend upon accompanying illustrations.   With some books (Dark Emperor and other Poems of the Night might be one example) one could actually fully separate the text from the illustrations;  but, like the sequel question: do the criteria really compel us to consider whether the text “stands alone?”  It may be easier to find it to be distinguished if it does, but I don’t think anything in the criteria suggest that it must or should.

Then: this clause, that other components “may be considered when they make the book less effective.”  I always have trouble with this: if we are bound to make our decisions only on the text, why should anything else matter?  I sense that it is there to compel the committee to award books that aren’t “bad” in their other components; in any case I always use that “may” literally, and have never found the discussion that really hinged on this clause. (Interestingly, the Caldecott criteria have a similar point, but with different wording [emphases mine]:  “other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective.)

So, even though we might not consider the illustrations in our discussion, let’s talk about them so that we have a sense of how they work with the text…and thus, how well the text works.   I’m looking at the ARC (this title releases next week: my apologies to those who don’t have their hands on it yet, but place your hold NOW with your library if you haven’t yet, and you will have it very soon!)…  even in low-res and draft form, I think the style of art supports the text nicely, and I like the strong sense of line, shape, and composition.   Even though they rarely move in comic framing style, each frame has an internal energy that works with the tension in the story…  and then when there IS comic-book-style movement, it heightens the drama.   It’s an interesting and unique style, moving between classic book illustration and graphic novel; sometimes the pictures illustrate the text, and sometimes the illustrations move the narrative (this second variation similar to Brian Selznick’s form in THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET and WONDERSTRUCK).   My only quibble is that because they serve different purposes at different times, I wasn’t always sure, as a reader, which way I was supposed to be reading them.  That is: on each occasion, are the illustrations interrupting the text and carrying the narrative to the next point? Or are they intended to be read visually as an illustration that can be eyed at whatever point the reader chooses?  I stumbled a few times with this, and …low and behold… I actually find a reason for the very first time to consider that clause above.  Is it possible, that this perceived weakness in the formatting might make the text less effective?  And if so, how much?  And, does that in any way make the text less distinguished?

I think there are incredible strengths here, so this doesn’t necessarily knock the book down in estimation for me…and I’m not yet sure how significant my stumbling is, and whether it is only symptomatic of being over the age of 11.   I’m waiting for the final library copy (placing my hold now) for a re-read.


Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Like Spinelli, I applaud DiCamillo for writing something outside the box, but it came off as a poor man’s version of, say, Polly Horvath, and it ranks dead last for me among DiCamillo’s novels (and for those of you who are counting that means WINN-DIXIE, TIGER RISING, DESPEREAUX, EDWARD TULANE, and MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT). I know that’s an illegal comparison, but it’s a huge mental handicap for me. Sorry. 🙁

  2. Eric Carpenter says:

    I’ve tried to get through this one a number of times since picking up the ARC in Chicago but each time another book on the pile seems more compelling by comparison. I’m a huge DiCamillo so I was really bummed when it didn’t work for me. I hope to try this one again now that we’ll be discussing it.

  3. If you hear a weird noise it is me wailing and gnashing my teeth because the book doesn’t come out until next week. It’s really frustrating when you guys talk about ARC books, not just on a personal level because I can’t participate right away, but also doing a disservice to the book. Theoretically next week everyone will get their hands on the book (which might take awhile, even if we are first on the hold list) and then take some time to read it (which, life being life, we might not be capable of dropping everything to read) and then come back to comment in this thread – best case scenario by this time next week, but possibly several weeks later. But by then we’ll already have discussed several other books and the momentum on this particular thread will be decreased. Instead of one relatively synchronous discussion followed by a series of thoughtful followups as latecomers finish the book, it’ll be a discussion created out of dribs and drabs as one by one people finally get ahold of the book.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Alys; we know. Sometimes Jonathan posts on something I haven’t read yet, and have to wait for weeks on hold for, etc. We are going to, sometimes, post about books that are still in ARC, but like I said the first time you said it: we hear you, and we try to work around it. This was the right time to have a first post about this book, and I don’t think it will do it a disservice. I’m sure we’ll talk about it throughout the season. We never achieve synchronous discussions on this blog about anything.

  4. I read the ARC aloud to my 4th graders (in the spring so around 10 years old then) last year and, while they were interested in seeing the sketches (especially for some of the more dramatic moments), the kids were much more focused on the story and language. That said, I do think they were important to keep the story grounded in the reality of that …er…story. That is, readers need to know that Ulysses exists and is not just something in Flora’s mind. I need to reread to see if that is absolutely certain without the illustrations.

    Somewhere, I believe it was you Nina, wrote that perhaps it was this year’s Mr and Mrs Bunny. While I sort of get that in that both are very quirky, to me there is a difference (not something we could say if we were on the Committee) and that, for me, too many of the jokes in the Horvath were built on stuff adults not children would know. I don’t feel that here in the same way. Having read it a while back I may be wrong, but it seemed to me anything more adultish was explained.

    Another thought re the illustrations — the story has the very abrupt quality of a comic so it may be that the illustrations are necessary to reinforce that sensiibility?

    • Just read this yesterday, and I thought it was terrific. Agree with you that the jokes here were based on things children would know, so that was no barrier.

      It is completely clear from the text itself that Ulysses exists — the narrator shows him outside of Flora’s view and knowledge (as when he’s typing his poem for her and her mother comes along to capture him), and other adults see him and react to him.

      I was highly impressed (and captivated, really) by the language, the plot, and the theme. Setting probably not so much, though it depends on what constitutes setting — I liked the specificity of the Giant Donut restaurant, the apartment building where Flora’s father lives with the landlord’s vicious cat, her father’s neighbor with the horsehair sofa that they kept sliding down (with the great detail of a tear pooling up on it and rolling off, rather than being absorbed). Character was shaded towards the comic (which worked with Flora and her father’s love of adventure comics), but with some depth added. Ulysses’ poems were really marvelous — appropriate to his character, and lovely, particularly the final one.

      • Just to put my own biases/leanings upfront: I am a big fan of Winn-Dixie, but not a fan of Desperaux or Edward Tulane. Not a fan of animal books in general, though I loved Ivan (surprising myself). And I have been convinced in previous years by Jonathan’s, Mark’s, and other’s arguments in favor of giving serious consideration to books on the lower end of the Newbery range, to the point where I voted for I Broke My Trunk! and rooted for it strongly. Flora & Ulysses, to me, feels a little younger than most of the books that Newbery honors, though not as young as a book like Billy Miller. I could see giving this book to 8 to 11 year olds who like humorous adventure (Adam Rex fans, whether his picture books or novels), who like animals and their inner lives, and/or who like thoughtful stories (I feel like Ulysses’ poetry elevates this book in that respect), and it seems to me distinguished for that child audience.

  5. Leonard Kim says:

    Bill James once wrote to the effect that in a given era, the one or few dominant, head-and-shoulders-above players in baseball are the ones producing the best individual seasons year after year. That makes sense. However, the Most Valuable Player award tends not to be given to the same person year after year. The voters find a way to spread the wealth.

    Kate DiCamillo’s books have limitations, no doubt. But I don’t think those limitations are obviously so much worse than other authors’. On the other hand, where she is strong, I think she is an outlier, in a class of her own (well, except for maybe Gary Schmidt.) I hope those who may agree with me know what I’m talking about, because it’s hard for me to explain. It’s pure writing style. In the best possible sense, she’s like the Stephen King of children’s literature, except Stephen King wishes he could write so well. I didn’t find Ulysses and Flora really at all like Mr. and Mrs. Bunny because it’s written by Kate DiCamillo. If you judge books a certain way, it’d be hard not to just give her a prize every time she puts out a new book.

    However, I personally think it’s important not to deliberately blind oneself to the past despite the stricture not to consider an author’s body of work. I’d like it if that rule were interpreted to guard against a “lifetime achievement” award being given for a less-than-worthy individual book. The Newbery is never self-described as going to the “best book of the year” but the “most distinguished contribution to American literature” and that “each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature” — in effect, adding to the canon. Right now, our canon already includes Winn-Dixie and Despereaux and Edward Tulane. Forget their awards; they are part of American literature. We put them there when, among other things, they were polled to be among the top 100 children’s books ever. So even if I thought Flora and Ulysses was the best book of the year (which I don’t necessarily), would it “contribute” to a literature that already has Winn-Dixie and Despereaux and Edward in it?

    I actually think Flora and Ulysses does represent a development for Kate DiCamillo (unlike Magician’s Elephant.) But it’s still so inimitably her that as much it blew me away, I don’t think it represents enough of a departure to be “the most distinguished contribution to American literature.” Part of the Newbery definition of “distinguished” after all is not only excellence but that the book be “individually distinct.” While I was being blown away, I was still struck by DiCamillo’s almost seemingly deliberate lack of range. (Another giant donut? Really?) But in the end, her books are what they are, and she is a singularly great writer.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Leonard, thanks for these really interesting thoughts. (I don’t actually think that Flora & Ulysses is like Mr. and Mrs. Bunny…but I think our critical reactions to the two might be similar.)

      You are taking an interesting angle on the word “contribution,” and one that intrigues me. I think that most committees consider their year in a silo… only considering other eligible books of that year for comparison, although the canon certainly is the background landscape against which we’re considering how high, and in what ways, a book rises to “distinguished.”

      Susan Cooper’s Grey King won the Newbery not long after The Dark is Rising won an Honor. Peck’s A Year Down Yonder after A Long Way to Chicago. Did these books *extend* the canon? Were they “individually distinct” from their predecessors, or just from other books that year?

      I don’t mind a lack of range if that range is so remarkable, and remarkably different, than anything else out there. I hear you saying the same.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Well my comment is really just wishful thinking. And I forgot that you had actually written recently, in the P.S. Be Eleven post, “Uniqueness to the canon? Comparison to books of other years? Doesn’t, doesn’t, doesn’t matter.” I haven’t re-read Grey King since I was a kid, so I’m going to invoke The High King, which won the medal after The Black Cauldron won an honor. As a series finale, the High King isn’t “unique” or “individual.” In the blog, Laura’s Life, The High King is given the lowest possible rating. Laura, not having read the previous books, wrote, “What a confusing book!” Think about how Lloyd Alexander, in a now-common device, brings back almost every minor character from previous books. This makes diehard fans happy, but anybody else?
        Nevertheless, it is arguably a distinguished, canon-extending contribution to American literature (though like most, it isn’t my favorite Prydain book). Without it, would the Prydain series be one of the all-time great and beloved series? Would the characters and setting have the richness they do without it? And if you’d read the others, isn’t it by itself a satisfying and indispensable book? (In contrast, though I don’t dislike it, one could probably pull The Last Battle without damaging Narnia. Thank goodness Narnia and Harry Potter aren’t American.) It’s hard to defend The High King’s Newbery except on these terms and I think this seems technically allowable by The Criteria. I guess I feel it’s better when The Criteria are interpreted in the loosest rather than most restrictive allowed sense and that a Newbery medal book doesn’t have to contribute something completely new, but it needs to contribute something to the literature more than the books it’s being considered against, and that contribution should not be evaluated with willful blinders on. I think Flora and Ulysses, for all its awesomeness, doesn’t necessarily do that.

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think it’s completely natural when we are reading books to compare them to any previous book that we have read, and it’s completely natural for that to shape our perception of whether or not the book is distinguished. But for the Newbery discussion around the table the only books that we can guarantee that the entire committee has read are the nominated books under consideration. Think everybody’s read CHARLOTTE’S WEB or CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTOR or THE WESTING GAME? Think again. So if you start trying to build arguments that reference non-eligible books then you run the risk of completely running off the rails.


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