Some people have shoe habits, others purses. For me, it’s children’s books. I own enough picture books to constitute a small (ok, good-sized) library. In fact, as my 4 ½ and nearly-6 year olds’ interests have transitioned to chapter books, I’ve begun to worry that I’ll no longer be able to justify my excessive purchases of picture books. Enter Flora, the crutch for my addiction.
Flora arrived on September 13, 2013, our third daughter and (shhh….don’t tell the older girls) our best baby by far. Flora’s older sisters’ names were inspired by my love of children’s literature: Eloise Olivia, for the infamous resident of the Plaza Hotel and for Ian Falconer’s spunky pig (in 2008, Olivia’s purity had not yet been tainted by Nickelodeon’s branding); and Charlotte Faye, named for Wilbur’s wise friend, the wordsmith spider Charlotte A. Cavatica (and this selection was prior to the recent, horrific Charlotte name boom).
Flora’s literary reference initially came in the form of her middle name: Alice. She was given this name both in honor of my late grandmother, Alice Burke, as well as my most beloved children’s book character, a great role-model for little girls, Miss Alice Rumphius. Barbara Cooney’s illustrations are works of art, and her missive to little girls is admirable: travel to far away places, spend time by the sea and make the world a better place (things we should ALL hope to accomplish in our lifetimes).
Flora’s first name, on the other hand, was inspired by our favorite wine: Trilogy, a blend of three red grape varietals made by the vineyard Flora Springs. Flora Komes and her husband, Jerry, established the vineyard in the ’70s, and the wine has carried the matriarch’s name ever since. Especially fascinating is how perfectly Komes lived up to her name. With its roots in Roman mythology, Flora was the goddess of flowers and springtime who enjoyed eternal youth. Komes helped raise a “ghost vineyard” from its ashes and died just shy of her 101st birthday in 2012. I could hope for nothing better than a long and happy life for my own Flora, and her birth also represented the completion of our “trilogy” of girls.
But in the year of our Flora’s birth, two outstanding “Flora” books were published, and each took the field of children’s literature by storm. This week, the American Library Association named Molly Idle’s “Flora and the Flamingo” as one of three Caldecott Honor Books. Meanwhile, Kate DiCamillo’s “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures” was bestowed the coveted Newbery Medal. As The Horn Book pointed out, Flora is the new darling of children’s books.
“Flora and the Flamingo” is a visually stunning, wordless, lift-the-flap book, depicting a stoic flamingo whose many balletic poses are mimicked by Flora, a playful young girl donning a pink swimsuit, black flippers and an irresistible yellow swim cap. The flamingo finds Flora’s game of copycat irksome at first:
…but amends are made.
The flamingo patiently teaches its pupil to dance and soon the friends are dancing an elegant pas de deux that ends in a not-so-elegant but child-pleasing cannon ball.
Idle’s attractive, mostly-pink palette is eye catching. I adore the font used for Flora’s name in the title. I enjoy the attitude and expression she’s captured in both the flamingo and Flora. I’m impressed with the simple but effective way in which the lifted flaps allow the narrative to progress.
That said, I’m not generally a fan of wordless books. I’m a bit too much of a control freak to feel comfortable with this open-ended storytelling format. I suppose these books give me a form of stage fright, leaving me paralyzed as to how to address each page. But my daughters’ fascination with “Flora and the Flamingo” has shown me how inviting the wordless format is to young children, especially the pre-reader.
Charlotte, my middle daughter, is particularly fond of “Flora and the Flamingo.” Like most middle children, she lives in the shadow of her older sibling, Eloise. With just 15 ½ months between them, Charlotte seems to believe she should be able to do everything Eloise can and, thus, found it discouraging when Eloise learned to read in kindergarten this year while she was left behind. I think wordless books, as well early readers composed in the graphic-novel style, are attractive to Charlotte because she’s able to “read” the book without the intimidation of traditional text she finds indecipherable.
Which leads me to “Flora & Ulysses” and the amazingly talented Kate DiCamillo. My girls were gifted a collection of DiCamillo books for Christmas, and I’ve become an obsessed fan overnight. (Did you know she lives in Minneapolis! For a girl who lives in Iowa, that’s CLOSE! I MUST track down a book signing!)
All of DiCamillo’s gems are new discoveries for me. Our family is just entering this amazing stage of early chapter books and young adult fiction. Sure, I have my favorites from my own childhood; I recently dug out a box containing “The Egypt Game,” “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Ballet Shoes,” among others. But DiCamillo came on the scene with “Because of Winn-Dixie” in 2000, just before I graduated high school.
Eloise and I read that breakout novel together in the weeks after Christmas. Normally, I have a general rule against dog books. Despite my friends’ enthusiastic recommendations, I’ve never touched “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” and you can bet I’ve never cracked open “Marley and Me.” I already know firsthand the real-life, heartbreaking loss of a dog’s love and companionship; I don’t need fiction to rub it in. Besides, “Where the Red Fern Grows” was scarring enough.
And so, I approached “Winn-Dixie” with apprehension. We’d read a few chapters every couple of days, and I began to dread what I feared was the inevitable loss of that human-of-a-dog. When we weren’t reading together, Eloise appeared to be working her way through the book on her own. I have yet to fully grasp just how much she comprehends in higher-level chapter books, but she insisted she read the book in its entirety twice.
“I hope it ends well,” I told her with trepidation.
“Don’t worry, you’re really going to like it,” Eloise assured me. “It’s really happy.”
And so it was, and DiCamillo earned my highest praises. I can’t wait to delve into “The Tale of Despereaux,” for which DiCamillo earned the 2004 Newbery Medal, as well as “Tiger Rising,” “The Magician’s Elephant” and “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.” I’m certain her Bink and Gollie series will be fantastic for Charlotte’s proclivity for graphic novels, and the “Mercy Watson” series seems perfect for building confidence in early reading. Like I said, I’m OBSESSED, somewhere on the same level as my love of Dahl.
DiCamillo appears to have rolled all of her diverse talents and writing styles into one book with the publication of “Flora & Ulysses.” The novel stars 10-year-old Flora Belle Buckman, who resuscitates a squirrel who was run over by the neighbor’s super-vacuum, the Ulysses2000X. The squirrel returns to life with superpowers and a new name (Ulysses) inspired by his would-be assassin.
The book is the account of Flora and Ulysses’ adventures and is peppered with comic illustrations of their unfolding story (Flora is apparently a comic book fan). Reviews indicate that the novel deals with the larger life issues of loss, abandonment, acceptance of differences, loneliness, love, fears and complex relationships.
We’re only a couple chapters in, but Charlotte likes to think she knows what’s going to happen because she’s peaked ahead at most of the illustrations. I’m excited to discover more about this fictional Flora, just as I can’t wait to see what my own little Flora becomes.