CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I have a weakness for the work of Kate DiCamillo and, DiCamillo, I think it is fair to say, has a weakness for words, for the power and glory of them.
What she also has is respect for the intelligence of her readers and nowhere is this more evident than in her most recent book, "The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses."
The book is about a 10-year-old girl named Flora Belle Buckman who is a "natural-born cynic" and a lover of comics, especially her favorites, "The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!" and its bonus feature, "Terrible Things Can Happen to You!"
The story begins when Flora's neighbor Tootie Tickham accidentally vacuums up a squirrel in her ULYSSES SUPER-SUCTION, MULTI-TERRAIN 2000X. The squirrel appears dead, at first, until Flora administers mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. After a few seconds, the squirrel opens his eyes and, to everyone's amazement, lifts the vacuum high above his head with a single paw. Holy Bagumba!
What follows is a series of wacky adventures involving giant donuts, poetry and a lamp shaped like a shepherdess, as Ulysses (the squirrel) displays superpowers. He can fly. He types poetry on Flora's mother's typewriter. Meanwhile, Flora's mother has little time for her daughter or her ex-husband. What's more, she believes the squirrel is diseased and, when Flora's father comes to pick Flora up for their visit, Flora's mother tells him to put the squirrel in a sack and hit him over the head with a shovel.
It is up to Flora to save the squirrel from his arch-nemesis, aka Phyllis Buckman. Other characters are drawn into the fray, including Tootie Tickham's great-nephew William Spiver and Dr. Meescham, the older woman from Blundermeecen. If sounding out these words is bringing a smile to your lips, you understand already there is much humor in this book.
"Do not hope; instead, observe," Flora tells herself. But, how long can a "natural-born cynic" hold out before a squirrel superhero, a lonely father, a misguided mother and a temporarily blind boy next door, all engaged, knowingly or not, in a search for love, melt her heart?
The book is illustrated with pencil-drawn spot art and comic panels by K.G. Campbell, who was the winner of an Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator honor for his picture book, "Lester's Dreadful Sweater." While the text ably stands by itself, Campbell's droll and madcap illustrations amplify the story into something even more surprising.
This is a book for word lovers and lovers of comics. DiCamillo has said that Peanuts was a huge influence on her as a child and acknowledges that Schultz's worldview no doubt helped shape her own.
At its core, the story is about the need for love and connection. As always, DiCamillo does not talk down to her readers. The dialogue is filled with vocabulary that one might not expect to find in a book for readers aged 8 to 12, and it is one of the few books I know of, where part of the story is told from the point of view of a squirrel.
With her signature wit and wisdom, DiCamillo captures readers' hearts in this slightly outrageous and thoroughly enjoyable tale.
Sarah Sullivan, of Charleston, is the author of "Passing The Music Down" and "All That's Missing." She holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College and can be reached through her website at www.sarahsullivanbooks.com