Flora and Ulysses by Kate diCamillo

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Oh, I wanted to love this book.  I really, really did.  I really enjoyed the majority of diCamillo books I’ve read, so when I saw a friend’s son reading this one, I asked to borrow it.  (He’s in second grade and quite a reader, but I waited to ask his opinion until after I had finished reading it.)  Turns out, the second grader and I had the same response to the story! To be perfectly honest with you, I had completely forgotten that I read this book until I saw it in a bookstore the other day…and I just read it last month.

Overall, it was okay.  “Meh” is my preferred statement here.  The story starts out fanciful enough…the squirrel, Ulysses, is sucked into a vacuum cleaner and then rescued by Flora.  Flora is obsessed with comic books, which annoys her romance-novel writing mother.  Flora’s parents are divorced and it is a strained relationship, so her escape into comic books is understandable.  Her father shares her love of comic books, although he seems to have some major issues dealing with the difficulties in his life, too, so it makes sense that he shares Flora’s escapism.

Ulysses develops all sorts of super powers after his vacuum incident-He can fly! He can type! He can understand human speech! He’s a poet!  But, by the end of the book, I still wasn’t really sure what the point of the whole relationship was for Flora.  Perhaps it was more escapism??  There are other periphery characters, but I honestly can’t remember their names or much about them.  When I asked my second grade friend what he thought, his response was pretty much the same: “It was okay.  I think the book was supposed to be funny, but I didn’t really like it.”  (Now, to be clear, this kid READS, and we’ve chatted about books before, so I’m fairly confident in his opinion.)

If you have a comic book obsessed child, this may be right up his/her alley.  Know that the mother says some rather unkind things to her daughter on more than one occasion, although in the end it is more or less resolved.  If you want a richer, more interesting diCamillo book, I would steer towards something like Because of Winn Dixie or Tale of Despereauxinstead.

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

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I picked this book up for several reasons: 1) I needed a quick read-something that wasn’t gloomy and depressing, no major dystopian wars, no oppressive government that needed overthrowing-something I could pick up on a summer morning and finish easily by the afternoon. 2) It has a similar set-up to Wonder in that every chapter is written from a different character’s perspective. 3) It is a book about the power of a good teacher.  What teacher doesn’t like to read a story that highlights the idea that their career really does matter?

The premise of the story is simple, but leaves room for great impact.  There are six children telling the story.  They are all students in Mr. Terupt’s fifth grade class and have distinctive personalities and storytelling styles from the beginning.  The story follows the students for the duration of the school year, but there are months that are glossed over a bit and the chapters are short.  This makes for a quick, easy read and even with the lapses in time, the reader does not feel like they have missed out on anything.

The plot is fairly predictable-in fact, there is a mention of an accident on the cover of the book-but the storytelling style is delightful.  Many upper elementary students could probably find one of the storytellers to relate to, and seeing the same event through different eyes may be fascinating to them.  Seeing a student misbehave through the eyes of the culprit in one chapter, then seeing the same event through the eyes of the mean girl or shy new kid the next is a nice twist on the typical classroom-based novel.

Parents should be aware that there is a major plot point around a girl and her mother who are ostracized for the fact that the mother was 16 when her daughter was born.  Eventually, people learn that they really are kind people and that her “mistake” when she was a teenager should not define how they see her (and her daughter) now.  Additionally, the accident is caused by a student and there is a significant amount of time spent on hospital visits and tension over whether or not Mr. Terupt will survive.  However, the revelations by students in the hospital are touching and help break down walls between the social groups in the classroom.

I would recommend this as a good novel for upper elementary/lower middle school.  It is a fast read due to the chapter lengths and switching perspectives.  I intend to pick up the follow-up novel soon and will review as soon as possible.