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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Jane, the fox & me, written by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Outiou. Groundwood Books, 2012. $19.95 ages 10 and up

"All black and sad, the swimsuit version of a heavy cape. She pushes me almost apologetically into a fitting room. In the Monaco suit, I'm a ballerina sausage. In the black suit, I'm an undertaker sausage. I'm a sausage. Jane Eyre may be an orphan, homely, battered, alone and abandoned, but she is not, never has been and never will be a big fat sausage."

I was in Winnipeg last month to spend a day with members of the Winnipeg Children's Literature Roundtable. It was their Amelia Read-In, where participants discussed the 10 shortlisted nominees for the 2014 Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award from the Canadian Library Association. 

Jane, the fox and me was a much-discussed nominee. In a graphic novel format it tells a compelling story of how cruel young adolescents can be. Helene is ousted from her group of former friends, and becomes the object of their censure. Apparently the bullies have chosen Helene's weight as their target. If you know adolescents, you know how even a suggestion of a weight problem can cause stress and anxiety. To temper the emotions that she is feeling, she seeks comfort in reading Bronte's Jane Eyre daily on her bus ride to school.

When her mother forces her to go on a school camping trip, she is humiliated and loses any confidence she has about being with her former friends. A quick encounter with a wild fox soothes her heart until one of the 'mean girls' chases it away, assuring Helene that she can't even find a friend in nature. Returning to school she meets Geraldine, another girl who is treated poorly by the 'mean girls'. Geraldine is totally unconcerned with their ostracism, spending time with those she likes and who like her back. She and Helene become fast friends.

Helene is an interesting and sympathetic main character. Most of her thoughts are internal, allowing us to see her humorous, edgy take on the world around her. She is clever and aware. In the end, she finds friendship, confidence and peace within herself.

One of the most interesting things about 'reading' this book through its illustrations, as we did at the read-in, is to discover the importance of visual literacy in storytelling. Isabelle Arsenault does a magnificent job of creating two worlds. Helene's world is black-and-white, her sadness expressed through dull greys and indistinct edges. The scenes from Jane Eyre are rendered in warm watercolor
artwork. There is so much to see on every page; not all of the images created are established clearly in the text.  She is able to fully capture the emotional timbre of the story, while also showing her audience the Montreal setting that will be so familiar to those who live there, or have visited.

Emotional and honest, beautifully illustrated and designed, this is a book that invites careful consideration of its themes of body image, acceptance, friendship, bullying and character. Please share it with your children, and your students.

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