2014: Flora & Ulysses, the Illuminated Adventures (featuring poetry slammin’ squirrels)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo is a humorous story of a girl and her escapades with her superhero companion – a squirrel.

Flora Belle Buckman is a natural born cynic and reader of comic books, a hobby that does not impress her mother. After a questionable incident with a vacuum cleaner, Flora finds a squirrel in her backyard and discovers that he has superpowers – he can now write poetry on the typewriter and fly through the air. Unfortunately, her mother only sees the squirrel as a pest and spends the rest of the novel trying to get rid of it.

This novel was a delightful read with its quirky characters and fluffy plot. Flora’s cynicism works well with the squirrel’s simple animalistic thoughts. The characters are both colorful and likeable. Most of the conflict centers around Flora’s insecurities with her mother and how she feels like she doesn’t really understand her. Centering the novel around family gives the characters’ interactions a bit more substance and background, since most of the characters lack seriousness and depth.

The best part of the novel was the author’s inclusion of comic strip illustrations in each chapter. If anything, I wish these would have been utilized more as they give the novel a comic book-like feeling since, after all, the book is about a flying superhero squirrel.

Flora & Ulysses is a light read that focuses on what it means to be family. Kid readers would most likely enjoy Flora’s exploits and her cute interactions with her heroic pet squirrel.


2014: The Illuminated Adventures of Flora and Ulysses (Squirrel Superhero Saves the Day)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 2014 Newbery Medal Winner, The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses by Kate diCamillo, is an entertaining romp with a quirky main character and a highly unconventional superhero. Flora Belle is a slightly misanthropic 12-year-old who is obsessed with comic books. One day, an unlikely accident occurs: the neighbour woman vacuums up a squirrel. That squirrel survives and, Flora is convinced, gains superpowers. She names him Ulysses. The two become partners on many further adventures.

Flora’s mother becomes the villain in the story when she instructs her ex-husband to kill Ulysses. Instead, he helps Flora keep Ulysses safe, as does Flora’s next door neighbour and her great-nephew. Eventually, a detente is reached in which everyone acknowledges Ulysses’s superpowers (how many other squirrels can type poetry, after all?) and Flora reconciles with her mother.

Although the titular adventures are silly things like Ulysses flying in the doughnut shop, the narrative includes a more serious layer in which it confronts common adolescent issues like finding friends, coping with divorced parents at an age when parents are inherently annoying, and having your interests invalidated. It addresses all in a fresh, non-cliched manner.

While this book didn’t have the “Wow!” factor for me that some of the other recent entries did, it’s a solid Newbery entry featuring a unique narrative and amusing illustrations. I particularly recommend it for middle grade readers who struggle with any of the issues discussed above, as well as those who love animals.


2012: Dead End in Norvelt (Writing for the Dead)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos is a semi-autobiographical tale about a young boy who helps his elderly neighbor write obituaries for the town newspaper.

Dead End in Norvelt will definitely appeal more to lovers of small town humor and the coming of age struggles that plague boyhood. I felt like half the book was about Jack’s battle with constant nosebleeds, obsession with Japanese sniper rifles, and love for airplanes – which is not exactly compelling stuff to read about. I found it hard to relate to Jack and the trouble he brought upon himself and only really enjoyed his visits with Miss Volker – the resident obituary writer.

The strongest scenes were when Jack was learning about the town’s history and realizing how history is often lost when people die. The main character’s obsession with world history is a fun trait for a protagonist, and it’s great to see how he continues to gain a greater appreciation for it as he learns other people’s stories.

The writing was quite humorous at times, especially when depicting his struggle to appease both his mother and father when the two disagreed on how things should proceed. Their trite family problems felt true to life and easily capture the sentiment of a boy growing up in the rural countryside.

This Newbery winner was definitely more of a miss than a hit for me. The plot is stretched a bit too thin, but its humorous, easy-going style may appeal to readers who love quirky small town stories.

2015: The Crossover (Love & Basketball)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover mixes poetry and basketball in a tale about twin brothers who begin to drift apart when one falls in love with a girl and the other puts basketball above everything else.

The author’s clever use of language and spacing on the page made this into an enjoyable read. There is a upbeat hip-hop rhythm to the prose that helps move the plot along at a quick pace. The cadence of the poetry is easily suited to the sounds of a dribbling basketball and the swoosh of the net.

Much of the plot focuses more on familial issues than the tension of individual basketball games. For a sports book, I found this refreshing as I didn’t have any personal stakes in the games being played and much prefer character driven drama. Much of the book follows the two twins when they have a falling out over their priorities changing while also addressing their father’s health problems that keep cropping up.

The plots and subplots, though, are very predictable and bring nothing new to the table. The teen angst that sets the tone of the book has been done in countless young adult books that have preceded this. The ending is a bit over-the-top, but its acknowledgment of real world issues may appeal to younger readers that may sympathize with the main character’s drama.

Overall, The Crossover brought a fun twist to the typical sports story through its utilization of poetry and interesting dynamic character relationships. It only misses the mark with its emphasis on coming of age angst and predictable ending.

2013: The One and Only Ivan (Art Activism)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

The 2013 Newbery Medal Winner, The One and Only Ivan, is the touching story of Ivan, a gorilla held in a tawdry “circus”. The entire narrative is from Ivan’s perspective. Ivan was born in the wild but grew up in captivity; only the stories Stella the elephant told and the art which Julia (human) helped him produce kept him sane. Once Ivan is fully grown, he stops attracting circus visitors. Mack, the owner, decides to bring in Ruby, a baby elephant. Shortly thereafter, Stella dies from an untreated foot infection. Ivan promises Stella that he won’t let Ruby grow up in their circus.

To that end, he uses the paint and paper Julia bring him to create a message which she convinces her dad to put on the billboard. This eventually leads to inspections and the seizure of Ivan, Ruby, and all the other animals. They are moved to a proper zoo, where Ivan relearns how to be an ape and Ruby has the company of other elephants.

The words are pretty simple, but the message is profound. Every animal has feelings and small actions can make a big difference. Creativity matters. Ivan, for example, frets over how to keep his promise to Stella before figuring out how to “write” on multiple sheets of paper, creating a message for the billboard. Julia understands Ivan’s message, and her father George puts it up on the billboard, despite knowing that it will likely cost him his job. The One and Only Ivan is a moving story of inter-species cooperation.

This would be perfect for people who enjoy animal stories. It is designed for kids from 3rd through 7th grade, but there is much for adults to appreciate.

2011: Moon Over Manifest (Remember When…)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest explores the past when Abilene Tucker moves to the town of Manifest for the summer and inadvertently comes across some odd clues about her father’s mysterious past.

Abilene is a fun protagonist to follow on her journey of self-discovery. As a curious, adventurous and mildly optimistic girl, it’s easy to get wrapped up in what she is doing because she feels like such a normal person who is having some interesting adventures during her summer vacation during the Great Depression. Her reluctant friendships with Ruthanne and Lettie lead to a fun adventure wherein the trio of girls tries to solve the mystery of an unknown spy – the Rattler. They also get into some hijinks with Miss Sadie, the mysterious fortune teller, and Hattie Mae, the local news reporter.

The book alternates between the mystery in the present and the town’s past history – halting any forward momentum in the story. Abilene’s adventures of spy hunting with her two best friends are entertaining to read about, but the stories about her father’s friends felt shoehorned in and were hard to care about because many of the characters were no longer in the current narrative. The part of the story that takes place in the past takes place during World War I, covering events such as the influenza outbreak, enlisting in the army, and bootlegging during the Prohibition. Overall, this book could have used a good edit in some places to help propel the reader through the boring parts.

As far as historical fiction goes, Moon Over Manifest provides an interesting viewpoint into this particular point in the past with some fun characters and adventures. Despite some decent writing, it was a bit of a slog to get through and might be challenging for reluctant readers to get involved in the somewhat mundane mystery.

2013: The One and Only Ivan (the crayon is mightier than the roar)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan addresses the issue of animal rights through the lifelong journey of a gorilla who ends up living in captivity at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Mixing both humor and heartbreak, this simple tale touches on how all animals just want a place they can call home.

This was an easy read. The paragraphs are short and sweet, emulating the somewhat dense thoughts of an easy-going gorilla. Throughout the novel, Ivan slowly changes from a gorilla who has accepted his fate and only thinks of how he wants to play with paints and crayons to a fleshed out character who must think up an escape plan to help the young elephant who is being abused in the cage next to him. His slow realization of how trapped he truly is builds up throughout the novel as he interacts with a variety of human and animal characters.

The wise old elephant Stella gives Ivan some sage advice as Bob, the stray dog, acts as his eyes in the real world. Yet the most interesting relationship in the novel is the one between the up-and-coming artistic gorilla and the young daughter of the janitor, Julia, who draws pictures of all the animals she sees at Big Top Mall. Neither character can communicate verbally with the other, but their connection over their love of art creates a caring relationship that any person with a loveable pet can sympathize with.

The One and Only Ivan can be quite dark at times, addressing animal abuse and Ivan’s own memories of the poachers who had captured him in the wild. Yet the animal characters’ situation showcases both the worst and the best of humanity with the book arriving at a suitable but bittersweet ending.

There is nothing too unpredictable that happens throughout Ivan’s adventure. It ends how one would expect, but the author is able to infuse the depressing tone with some much needed charm, humor and sweetness. I would heartily recommend The One and Only Ivan to animal lovers everywhere, regardless of age, who want a brief, touching story of the compassion, hope and love that transcends both the human and animal world.