It took a while to get a bead on what this story is about. DiCamillo is not shy about offering complicated plots for younger readers. (Nor is she shy about offering those of us who read these books out loud ridiculous names to pronounce and a general overuse of the word ‘stupid.’) I think, in the end, it’s about people trying to create stories that make sense of their lives. Flora invents the superhero squirrel Ulysses (who, in truth, really loves to write poetry) because she wants to put her family back together. William Spiver (don’t call him Billy) becomes, in his version of his story, temporarily blind to deal with the fact that his own mother has sent him away. Even the wise Dr. Meescham has created a city and its traditions in order to cope with what seemed to me like her experience in the Holocaust. I may be reaching on this one, but the syntax of her speech, her talk of the old country, and the way the antagonistic cat named Mr. Klaus stalks her hallways all screamed ‘survivor’ to me.
I get why DiCamillo wanted to illuminate this story with K.G. Campbell’s illustrations. Most immediately, Flora’s father (who has an hysterical habit of introducing himself to everyone, including people he already knows) and Flora read comics together, the kind of superhero comics that Campbell created for this book. As lovely as they are, I don’t they work. They simply don’t add much to the story.