Ulysses’ Odyssey in Flora and Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures

This week, my students have been discussing Flora and Ulysses, by bestselling American children’s writer, Kate DiCamillo. It’s the tale of a lonely girl named Flora, who looks out of her bedroom window one day to see a squirrel being sucked into a rogue vacuum cleaner, along with a book of poetry and some crackers.

Racing to the rescue, Flora gives the squirrel CPR and mouth-to-mouth, and brings him back to life. As they look into one another’s eyes, it is a case of instant love and recognition, and she names the squirrel Ulysses, after the vacuum cleaner (its brand is the Ulysses2000).

What has happened inside that vacuum cleaner? We don’t know for sure, but Ulysses awakes from his experience transformed into a poet. When Flora takes him home, he sneaks downstairs at night, lured by the smell of cheese crackers in the kitchen, and spends a little time at her mother’s typewriter composing poetry.

And so it goes. Flora’s mother, a romance writer, does not take kindly to her grumpy daughter’s new pet, and begins a plot to remove Ulysses from the scene (a sack and a shovel feature). Flora’s father, a sad accountant, introduces Flora to his neighbour, Dr Meescham, a philosopher from another country who advises Flora to believe in the squirrel, and to believe in whatever the world throws at her. Flora’s neighbour (the owner of the vacuum cleaner) shows up with another book of poetry, and her scientific nephew, William, who complicates the plot by befriending Flora’s mother and advising her on her latest romance novel. Ulysses saves Flora’s father’s bald head from the claws of his landlord’s cat, a wicked creature named Mr Klaus. In the local diner, Ulysses is nearly killed by a knife-wielding chef, who does not take kindly to hungry squirrels looking for donuts, and Flora saves him by sticking out her foot and tripping said chef. Ulysses writes poetry. Flora, who hasn’t been sure, learns that her parents love her. The novel closes with Flora, lonely no longer, sitting on the horsehair couch of Dr Meescham, surrounded by her friends and family, and Ulysses, who provides an epilogue which sums up the novel’s deeper meanings.

Words for Flora

Nothing

would be

easier without

you,

because you

are

everything

all of it–

sprinkles, quarks, giant

donuts, eggs sunny-side up–

you are the ever-expanding

universe

to me.

(Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses)

Flare up like flame–reading Rilke to Ulysses

It’s a very strange book: sometimes so wacky that you think it’s overreaching; sometimes very touching, sometimes (often) very funny, sometimes (often) thoughtful and profound. And it’s highly literate and highly literary. The novel abounds with different kinds of writing and thinking. Flora and her father enjoy reading comic books–The Great Incandesto, Terrible things can happen, The Criminal Mind are Flora’s go-to books when she encounters challenges. Flora’s mother writes romances. Ulysses writes poetry. Tootie Tickham reads Yeats and Rilke and James Joyce. William and Dr Meescham think about science and philosophy. Dr Meescham quotes Pascal. Tootie Tickham quotes Rilke:

‘I was moved by your poetry,’ said Tootie to the squirrel.

Ulysses puffed out his chest.

‘And I have some poetry that I would like to recite to you in honour of the recent, um, transformations in your life.’ Tootie put a hand on her chest. ‘This is Rilke,’ she said.

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like flame

and make big shadows I can move in.’

Ulysses stared up at Tootie, his eyes bright.

(Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses)

In reading Rilke to Ulysses, Tootie gives the squirrel a model for his poetry, at least that’s what I think is going on. It’s a lovely moment, sending Ulysses on a quest, a poetic journey to chase the truth. His poems are interspersed through the novel, often summing up preceding plot points, and providing much-needed moments of rest in a novel that is full of antics. We should all be so lucky to read the poetry of our animal companions.

Ulysses’ Odyssey

Ulysses’ odyssey offers a nice counterpoint to Flora’s journey of discovery. Hers is a journey from isolation to integration, from reading comics alone in her room to being surrounded by friend on Dr Meescham’s magical couch, reassured that both her parents love her, despite their divorce (the novel delicately doesn’t promise that they will reunite, but shows them united in their love for their daughter). Flora begins the novel a self-professed ‘cynic,’ guarding her heart from disappointment. Her motto is ‘Do not hope. Instead, observe,’ and is taken from the advice comic she likes to read, TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU.

It’s hard to imagine a children’s book that could leave Flora in this state–of cynical despair. Optimism is children’s literature’s stock in trade. Flora’s mother, who seems hard-bitten and bossy to her daughter, confesses her worries, to Ulysses (before forcing him to write a fake farewell note to Flora):

‘It really has nothing to do with you. It’s about Flora. Flora Belle. She is a strange child. And the world is not kind to the strange. She was strange before, and she’s stranger now. Now she is walking around with a squirrel on her shoulder. Talking to a squirrel. Talking to a typing, flying squirrel. Not good. Not good at all.’

Was Flora strange?

He supposed so.

But what was wrong with that?

She was strange in a good way. She was strange in a lovable way. Her heart was so big. It was capacious.

(Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses)

Of course, Flora’s mother misses the point. The world may not be kind to the strange, but where would good stories be without them? And Ulysses proves himself to be a better, truer, kinder writer than she is, and a good friend. To paraphrase E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (which is the next novel we discuss in my class), ‘It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Ulysses was both.’ Ulysses sees Flora as she truly is, and not in terms of externals or social judgements.

This all might seem rather minute, a small domestic drama, and the novel is set in an ordinary American suburb (home, apartment, neighbourhood diner). But in its very smallness, Flora and Ulysses dreams big dreams, which Ulysses sums up in his poems. Almost all of them are about roundness, and about the world. When Ulysses awakes in Flora’s arms following his incident with the vacuum cleaner, he looks into her eyes, and sees a whole world there, and his poetry throughout the novel is about the roundness and completeness of the world.

So, whether we see the novel as a mock epic (and Flora continually imposes this idea on Ulysses’ actions, viewing them as snippets from the superhero comics she loves), or a suburban odyssey, what is definitely going on is that DiCamillo takes seriously the needs of child protagonists and child readers, finding in the smallest of them, big ideas, hopes, and dreams.

Miraculous Ladybug: Mashing up myth and melodrama

Miriam Riverlea writes about a French animation for tweens that explores how to handle negative emotions, with the help of superheroes, mythology and more . . .

Miraculous Ladybug . . .

Recently my children have become quite obsessed with an animated cartoon, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir.  Currently being shown on ABC3, a children’s channel in Australia, the show first screened in South Korea in 2015, and has since been distributed in several western countries including the United States, Britain and Ireland.  It is a cross-cultural production by French animation companies Zagtoon and Method Animation, collaborating with studios in Japan, Italy and South Korea. 

Set in Paris, the story revolves around teenager Marinette Dupain-Cheng.  She is artistic, pretty, and a kind and loyal friend, yet gets comically awkward in the company of her classmate, Adrien Agreste.  Marinette has a secret crush on Adrien, and has another secret besides.  With the help of her ‘kwami’ Tiki, a tiny, magic creature who lives inside her handbag, Marinette can transform into the superhero Ladybug.  Resplendent in red and black, she is lithe and vivacious, and has a steadfast sense of justice.  In stark contrast to Marinette, Ladybug is confident and self-assured.  In addition to superb fighting skills, her special yoyo allows her to soar between roof tops, and she can call upon a magic lucky charm to supply her with a special object to counter her enemies’ powers. 

Ladybug is supported by another superhero, Cat Noir.  As his name suggests, he cuts a svelte figure in his sleek black cat costume, and is able to summon the earthshattering force of a cataclysm.  He is devoted to Ladybug, but she spurns his affections, which seems a bit foolish, given that Cat Noir is actually Adrien in disguise.  The characters remain ignorant of what is patently obvious to viewers, and much of the fun of the show derives from the comedy of errors of unfulfilled romance and hidden identities.  I’ve been enjoying watching my children cringe and giggle as they witness sexual tension for the first time. 

Mythological mashups. . .

But there is another reason I am enamoured with this cartoon.  Amid the melodrama, Miraculous borrows from the world of mythology, folktale, and popular culture, particularly in the formulation of the supervillains whom Ladybug and Cat Noir must combat each episode.   The show’s villain is Hawk Moth, a sinister masked figure who preys on people experiencing negative emotions. 

Watching over Paris from his stark lair, he transforms a white butterfly into a dark purple ‘akuma’, and releases it into the city to find its vulnerable target.  This person becomes ‘evilised’ or ‘akumatised’, a process which exaggerates an element of what they are feeling into special powers.  Using telepathy, Hawk Moth endows them with a new name, and charges them with the task of stealing Ladybug and Cat Noir’s miraculous, the special talisman that gives them their magic powers.  (In another twist, Hawk Moth is actually Adrien’s father, the successful but reclusive fashion designer Gabriel Agreste).

Each episode runs to the same formula.  Someone in Marinette’s life, a classmate, family member, or member of the local community, is transformed into a villain bent on causing destruction as they seek to achieving their goals.  A number of these characters draw on mythology.  In Dark Cupid, a boy becomes a malevolent version of Eros, shooting arrows that transform positive feelings of love and friendship into hate.  In the episode Syren, Ondine a talented swimmer becomes an evil mermaid who wants to build an exclusive underwater kingdom with the boy she likes.  One villain takes the form of a huge spider, drawing upon the African folktale figure Anansi, in another, an ancient historian becomes the Pharoah, using the powers of the Egyptian gods to resurrect Queen Nefertiti.  And from what I’ve read, previous holders of the Ladybug miraculous apparently include Hippolyta the Amazon and Joan of Arc.  In this way, the show’s creators have developed their own kind of Miraculous universe that simultaneously celebrates French culture (Paris’ food, iconic architecture and landmarks play a big part in the setting), Oriental traditions (Marinette is guided by Master Wang Fu, the immortal guardian of the miraculouses, which resemble the animals of the Chinese zodiac), as well as ancient mythology from the classical and other traditions. 

It’s not necessary to be familiar with particular mythic figures to appreciate these storylines, in fact, subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny isn’t particularly constructive.  Rather, what this kind of wholesale borrowing from the world of mythology or folktales highlights is that it these characters have come to function in our contemporary world as a kind of treasure trove of material for telling new stories.  In the episode Heroes’ Day, Hawk Moth simultaneously akumatises lots of his supervillains, who come together to fight Ladybug and Cat Noir at the spiritual centre of Paris, the Eifel Tower.  It is a mash up not only of all the evil characters from previous episodes, but also one which brings together diverse figures from myth, folktale and popular culture. 

Handling negative emotions

Central to this show is the power of emotions, and the destructive impact of negative feelings.  It is revealed that Marinette’s optimistic personality renders her less susceptible to being evilised.  There are other times when the series seems to engage with psychoanalytic themes of desire, projection, and self-perception.  In Weredad, Marinette’s father, the baker, becomes akumatised.  He is determined to protect his beloved daughter from being heartbroken, and like a fairy tale giant, seeks to trap her within a thorny prison that resembles Jack’s beanstalk and like Sleeping Beauty’s enchanted castle.  Helping children to manage their emotions is a key aspect of children’s texts, and these stories, with their predictable, repetitive formula, play out scenarios that are both familiar and fantastical. 

Once Ladybug has captured the akuma transformed it to its original white colour, she uses her special power to return everything to the way it was.  There’s something very comforting about this resolution.  A swarm of red and black creatures flurries across the city, repairing the damage of the fighting and returning the person who was evilised back to their normal self.  They often seem a bit sheepish about what they have done, and Ladybug offers them absolution for their crimes.  Ladybug and Cat Noir transform back into their everyday teenage selves, with their secret identities safe for another day, another episode. 

Miriam Riverlea