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janefoxmecoverJane, the Fox & Me

by Fanny Britt, and artist Isabelle Arsenault

translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou

Groundwood Books, 2013.

orig. Jane, le renard & moi (Les Éditions de La Pastèque, 2012)

Hélène has been inexplicably ostracized by the girls who were once her friends. Her school life is full of whispers and lies — Hélène weighs 216; she smells like BO. Her loving mother is too tired to be any help. Fortunately, Hélène has one consolation, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Hélène identifies strongly with Jane’s tribulations, and when she is lost in the pages of this wonderful book, she is able to ignore her tormentors. But when Hélène is humiliated on a class trip in front of her entire grade, she needs more than a fictional character to allow her to see herself as a person deserving of laughter and friendship.–publisher’s comments.

Jane, the Fox & Me is simply stunning. I spent a long quiet moment after closing the book and muttering a ‘damn.’ Naturally, I think we should all now experience this graphic novel.

janefox1Isabelle Arsenault illustrates Hélène’s life in pencil; black and white overlay a depressing tonal grey. Hélène has not only been isolated but she is being brutally tormented. The insults written on walls, like her weighing 216, increase in her mind to 316 and more as the story progresses. However, contrary to what she tells her mother near the end, that she exaggerates, is dramatic, the story disallows us to believe all of what Hélène is confronted with is a figment of her imagination.

Her obesity is imagined. Arsenault does not depict even a mildly overweight girl. A problem that accompanies what seems real versus imagined is trying to negotiate what is normal–and how to negotiate conflict. It is horribly tense, anticipating Hélène’s school trip away for a couple of days, but there is the lovely reference to Jane Eyre just then…and the opportunity to see other students implement Hélène’s strategy for dealing with inevitable awkward moments like tent assignments.

Jane-the-fox-and-me-jane-eyre

The inclusions of Jane Eyre are beautifully done, in both the narrative Fanny Britt creates and the illustrations by Arsenault. Like Hélène, I, too, found myself preferring to linger in Brontë’s world where the aesthetic allows for lush color-work (gouache, watercolor), brushwork and a shift in a gentler drawing style. The foliage, vibrant with life, does begin to seep into Hélène’s world, though yet to find color. As with the book she is reading, she hides here in the foliage, too, aggrieved. Hélène figures that if Jane can overcome the tribulations of her youth to “grow up to be clever, slender and wise anyway” (16), surely she can as well. Even once she is grown, Jane has difficulties and Hélène wisely observes that “everyone needs a strategy, even Jane Eyre” (53). It is a subtle realization of the book that the reader needn’t be left imagining that Hélène will eventually become ‘clever, slender, and wise’ herself. She begins to demonstrate these future moments here and there as the book makes its way.

JaneFoxMe5“Its eyes are so kind I just about burst./That same look in another human’s eyes, and my soul would be theirs for sure.” note, how much this close up of Hélène looks like the young Jane.

jane-the-fox-and-me-bus

For all the angst of shifting relationships with others and self, there are amusements to be found. Britt and Arsenault shift from of harsher lights into the lyrical; tempering, too, the lyrical with the serious study of their Hélène, her Jane, and her fox.  The fox…wow–the ways in which we internalize the metaphor, and not just other people’s ways of seeing us! Jane, the Fox & Me has some amazing narrative texture. Note how Britt incorporates the quotes of what was written on the walls into the sentence of the speaker. When we often label a narrator such as Hélène unreliable, rarely do we question what causes her to be so. Britt forces the question of what creates the narrative presented to us in Hélène’s voice. What words and ideas begin to compete and crowd-out (both literally in the visual text and figuratively) the negative commentary at the beginning?

jane83

Literati’s will appreciate Hélène’s refuge in books, finding their empathic nature well-depicted in Jane, the Fox & Me. It is nice how the mother looks to music. Neither is the conversation on clothing frivolous; that effort to find expression/identity.

Jane, the Fox & Me is neither heavy in text nor incomprehensible in its visual sequences. I cannot attest for the text in its original language, but the translations create a successful telling of Hélène’s story. As the seasons change and Hélène grows (again both literally and figuratively), things get better for our protagonist, and the reader perceives new lessons on the horizon for our growing-up girl. Though Jane Eyre is finished by the reader, Jane’s return to Mr. Rochester have yet the opportunity to make sense to the young Hélène.

janefoxend

Britt and Arsenault achieve so much in 101 pages. Jane, the Fox & Me is a richly textured and engrossing story that tells all too familiar stories of the relationships so many of us find in the world, our home, our selves…and our books. I only touched on a few things. I restrained from going on about the urban and nature, of fantasy and reality…or fox lore. It is something to experience for yourself.

Jane, the Fox & Me is absolutely beautiful… and to be gifted simply. Please, do not assault a young reader with “the edification of this read” or in the company of a lesson plan on bullying or eating disorders or alienation or poverty, etc.  Jane, the Fox & Me is why artful storytelling matters. It can stand on its own and in conversations. If anything, pair it with a meaningful piece of classic literature or a trip to a nature preserve…

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recommendations: if not already noted: girls, boys, grade-school upwards. for those who love the color orange. it’s great to be read by each if not together, though probably not too close to bathing-suit purchases. there are strategies you know.

of note: we’ll be visiting Arsenault’s work again during picture book month–which I think will happen more Summer than Fall.

{images belong to Isabelle Arsenault}

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Brain Pickings‘ Maria Popova’s excellent review which includes more pictures (if you don’t mind being a bit spoiled) and this gorgeous summation: “Jane, the Fox & Me is an absolute treasure that blends the realities of children’s capacity to be cruel, the possibilities of transcending our own psychological traps, and literature’s power to nourish, comfort, and transform.”

 

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