Illustrator Isabelle Arsenault recently won the illustrious Canadian Governor’s General Award for her illustrations for the original French publication of this title. Set in Quebec of the mid 1970s, with Fanny Britt’s exceptional text superbly translated into English by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ourliou, the book is a definite winner in all aspects. It is a thing of beauty with evocative black illustrations on mostly grey toned pages punctuated with the infrequent inclusion of colour that blooms gloriously to a satisfying conclusion. It is ironic, perhaps, that the beauty is wrapped around the very heavy theme of bullying and body image among teenage girls. Hélène has not always been ostracised, but now the loneliness, the hurtful actions of former friends, and her negative self-image is only managed through her absorption into books, currently Jane Eyre. Hélène’s interpretation of the novel is highly reflective of her own voice and thoughts as an individual, highlighted by those infrequent bursts of colour mentioned previously with the full page panel spreads cloaked in soft pastels and introspection. Her focus on Jane’s slenderness and wisdom is offset by Hélène’s respect for her own family and her mother’s unconditional support, although she is not aware of the bullying that her daughter is experiencing.
Everything is magnified when the entire class is treated to a nature camping adventure. Hélène needs a new bathing suit which makes her look, in her own eyes, like a sausage. She ends up being in the outcast tent at the camp, silently ignoring everyone else as they ignore her until the appearance of a fox changes everything. “With the fox out front, the outcasts’ tent is transformed into a tent of miracles” (79). The expressive and allusive fox is portrayed in full colour and represents, ultimately, hope, friendship and contentment.
Hélène is illustrated with an average build that is disconcerting when contrasted with the negative jibes against her and her acceptance of their truth. She is an appealing character who needs to be coddled and cuddled instead of having to face the attacks on her own. Her resolve, bolstered with her identification with the Jane of her reading, if not necessarily of the original novel, is courageous and engaging. Her quirky character is vividly expressed through the facial expressions, body language, and colour of the illustrations, while her voice is equally lucidly articulated through the hand-lettered font and exquisite translation from the French text. The universality and timelessness of the story is balanced with references to streets and other markers of the city of Montreal and the record player and recordings of several decades past. The historical aspect of the tale, accompanied by the large picture book format of the graphic novel, aids in anchoring the age-old problems of the past securely in the present. Cruelty of classmates, negative body images, lack of friendships, and feelings of powerlessness and inevitability flourished before, are with us still, and quite possibly will be in the future. Recognizing the power of literature, friendship, and self-awareness triumphs and trumps this negativity and is the essence of the gift of this engaging graphic novel.