Middle-school roundup: Kate DiCamillo, Neil Gaiman, and more

  • Article by: ANN KLEFSTAD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2013 - 4:57 PM

CHILDREN’S BOOKS From super squirrels to super dads, these Minnesota reads for middle school and beyond find the line between the ordinary and the extraordinary.


Photo: Donna Grethen, Tribune News Service

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“Flora and Ulysses,” by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell. (Candlewick Press, $17.99, ages 8-12, pub date Sept. 24.)


‘Flora and Ulysses” involves a wised-up comics-loving girl named Flora Belle Buckman and the squirrel Ulysses, lifted from his ordinary squirrelly state into supersquirrel abilities by his terrible journey through Flora’s neighbor’s vacuum cleaner. Ulysses, revived by Flora, awakens with the ability to write poetry, fly and lift amazing weights (although he retains the true squirrel-mind food obsession). Together, girl and squirrel battle the hostility of Flora’s distracted romance-writing mom, the attack of a nasty orange cat, the defeatedness of Flora’s estranged dad, and much else that’s cold, fearful, and mean in a kid’s world. In the end, through both ordinary and extraordinary heroism, people can once again come together — and the squirrel is included.

Animals and young girls are powerful in the worlds created by Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo, worlds that sometimes seem like the one we live in (but with better casting) and sometimes seem like different planets entirely.

“Because of Winn Dixie,” for instance, evoked with great solidity its small Florida town, and the girl and dog who are the book’s protagonists. “Flora and Ulysses,” by contrast, plays out in a surreal world that Daniel Pinkwater could perhaps invent, where transformation and magic, science and mysticism, give rise to many more possibilities than exist in the world of everyday childhood. The book is illustrated in comic-book style by K.G. Campbell, who draws a great squirrel.

Kate DiCamillo will be in conversation with Cathy Wurzer at 7 p.m. Sept. 24 at the Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul. Tickets $8 children, $15 adults.


“Fortunately, the Milk,” by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Skottie Young. (Harper, $15, ages 8-12, pub date Sept. 17)


The king of whimsy writes here a sort of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” for young readers. The copiously illustrated tale (great line drawings by Skottie Young) features a bold father who adventures through the space-time continuum to fetch milk for his children’s breakfast.

Though dragged off course by alien battles over a plan to entirely redecorate the Earth (they wish to, among other things, replace all the mountains with throw cushions) and delayed by running off with pirates, Dad retains a firm grip on his milk bottle … and by its means saves the world. Before breakfast. Though he also comes very close to blowing it all up.

A thoroughly charming romp marked by Gaiman’s trademark manipulations of scale for comic effect.


“Grasshopper Magic,” by Lynne Jonell, illustrated by Brandon Dorman. (Stepping Stone / Random House, $12.99, ages 6-9.)


In this third tale of the Willow family children and their run-ins with the magic that seeps up from under their old house, some cross-cultural information and some helpful ideas on how to grow braver are stirred into the story.

The kids are catching the grasshoppers that eat their father’s garden when their neighbor, Mrs. Delgado, tells them that the grasshoppers are a favorite treat in her home country. The kids give her the hoppers, she bakes them up, and oldest son Abner eats some as “courage practice.” The other kids follow suit. These grasshoppers, though, grew in the magic-saturated soil under their house, and so soon the kids are leaping over the roof. Their attempts to contain the problem (Mrs. Delgado has headed home with a jar of the treats for her infant son) and Abner’s rescue of baby Delgado at a horse show fill out the plot.

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