The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, was published in 2003 by Candlewick.
I must not like Kate DiCamillo as an author (though I remember liking Because of Winn-Dixie). I didn’t like Flora and Ulysses, and I didn’t like The Tale of Despereaux, despite the latter’s place as a beloved children’s novel and one of the few that have had a film adaptation.
I really don’t know what it is about DiCamillo that I struggle with. Flora and Ulysses and The Tale of Despereaux are very dissimilar to each other. So, perhaps it is just the books and not the author herself.
What didn’t I like about Despereaux? Pretty much everything. The grating narrator “address the reader” asides, the simplistic themes, the annoying protagonist (yes, I found Despereaux annoying), the villain, the unwitting sidekick…all of it combined created an unpalatable mess that I could only barely tolerate. It was the type of book where, if I had my way, I would take forever to finish reading it because I dreaded it so much, but I forced myself to finish it so I could move on to a more exciting book.
However, Despereaux is still not bad enough for a 1/5 rating, and that’s because I acknowledge that this read had a lot more to do with me than it had to do with the book. I don’t like magical realism, I don’t like breaking-the-4th-wall narrators, and I don’t like simplistically obvious messages about light and dark and courage. Plus, the ending was extremely anticlimactic. However, I did like the introduction of complicated words and ideas that the narrator explained, and parts of the novel were, if not enjoyable, at least tolerable—so long as the narrator stayed out of things.
I’ve described lots of Newbery Medals as mediocre, and The Tale of Despereaux is one of the few that I’ve actively disliked, though I wouldn’t call it mediocre. I suppose it’s just an acknowledgement that tastes can vary among readers—even with award-winning books. The Tale of Despereaux is well-written and far from average, but, simply put, I just didn’t care for it.
Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, by Kate DiCamillo, was published in 2013 by Candlewick.
Magical realism is a genre that I struggle with. To be honest, I can’t even think of one book title, beyond this one, that I’ve read in magical realism that I’ve liked (there probably are some, but at the moment, nothing comes to mind). I prefer my fantasy world separate from my reality, and I always have, really. I’m more drawn to other-world fantasies than fantasies set in this world and mingling with it.
I didn’t know going in that Flora & Ulysses was magical realism. From the cover, it simply looks like a girl with a pet squirrel. Slightly strange, but it won a Newbery Medal, so there must be something special about it, right?
Then the squirrel picked up a vacuum cleaner, and that’s where the book lost me. I stuck it out, of course, through the whole book. It’s a fairly short and quick read, and to be honest, not all that much happens. Flora finds Ulysses, shenanigans happen, Flora leaves with her father, more shenanigans happen, Flora goes back to her mother’s with her father, more shenanigans happen, Flora and her mother connect, and the ending is happy. While there’s a little bit in there with Flora and her mother in terms of message and power, most of the book is light and fluffy stuff about a superhero squirrel, a cynical girl, and a temporarily blind (or is he?), philosophical boy.
It’s strange, and I’m not a huge fan of strange, especially in realism. I’ve never liked “odd” books, and this one is so quirky, and is so obviously the type of book that will really appeal to certain people, but leave the rest scratching their heads. I was scratching my head as I finished this one. I like that a work of magical realism won the Newbery Medal, but Flora & Ulysses and its superhero squirrel story just made no sense to me.