Jane, The Fox, and Me

This is a wonderful graphic novel that I have often seen on the shelves of my local library, but until recently I had no inclination to pick up. But in the end, I am so pleased that I did.

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Jane, The Fox and Me, by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, is a beautiful book that should be read by a broad audience of youth and adults alike, lovers of literature and metaphor, lovers of art, and lovers of introspective fiction. It is a tale of a young girl, Helen, who struggles to accept herself as she is and to fit in to an often cruel and isolating world; is as ordinary as the tools with which she was drawn, pen and ink, colourless and fine. Finding comfort in the pages of Jane Eyre, young Helen begins to see herself as promising a person as the often overlooked Jane herself.

The illustrations are stunning, I was particularly enamoured with those of the tired mother seeing to all the chores and responsibilities for her children, when late at night, as they sleep, she is mending hems. A subtle and poignant reminder of the burden and love of parenthood.

There were two lovely contrasts that I cannot go unnoticed. The first, the mirroring of Helene’s life with that of Jane Eyre’s. Jane is a character who overcomes many odds, not least that of being perceived as exceptionally plain and an outcast, but is one who ultimately  lives a life of happiness, and I think that is what Helene is looking for. The subtleties of color and shading let the reader understand Helen’s moods and circumstances. Helen, for example, is drawn with lots of shading and I think this represents how alone she feels and the way she lives in shadows, much like Jane Eyre did. She too was dark and plain, and the ability to showcase this through the artwork without having to use words to describe it and her feelings highlights Helen’s loneliness and longing to fit in.I was pleased to see that the author did not focus too heavily on the love story, but rather Jane’s personal strength and growth, so that the Helene’s growth could be for herself and not to please others, particularly romantic interests (which I think is a tad overdone in kids books). I especially like the portraits Helene drew of herself in contrast to Jane as a coping mechanism to remind her not to spend too much time on wishful thinking. She drew herself much more plain than she is, and I think many young girls would be inclined to see themselves in a similar way. jane1

The second contrast was the nature. Helene spent many of the panels and pages outside and there was a focus on the potted plants throughout the very urbanized city. Like Helene, they are not natural to the environment, but they persist and grow beautifully, much like Helene herself. The contrast of pencil and watercolour was quite beautiful and a stark contrast to the pen and ink that Helen was rendered in. The use of splash pages showcase Jane’s own feelings, and the subtext of the plants, both potted and natural, growing beautifully amidst the concrete of the world around them, mirror Helene’s own struggle to grow and accept beauty.

Social discourse is apparent through the book. Bullying is the main theme. There was a nice dichotomy between the way peers perceived Helene and the way she classified and labelled others. She, though the victim, was still prone to dole out verbal accusations and bullying, even if she kept it to herself. The addition of her friend at the end was nice and a happy resolution to the story, but I was a little concerned that the end message could be interpreted as “self worth can be found in having even just one friend” when, and this is just my opinion, a stronger message would be in the notion that self worth comes from making peace with yourself and in so doing friends will follow…. But that is the beauty of literature, interpretations are many!!

Overall, I would love to use this book with my students. I will read it again. It was quite lovely.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

 

 

 

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I have a crush on Archie Andrews.

That’s not a sentence I thought I would ever say. But there it is, for the world to see.

I have a crush on Archie Andrews. Archieandrwcmc

And yes, I mean that Archie Andrews.

Archie. The redheaded, commitment-phobe, serial dater and jalopy driver. The kid who was always blundering about Riverdale like he owned the world, despite his penchant for being perpetually in debt.

Growing up I was a huge fan of Archie comics. I liked the stock characters, the predictability, the wholesome town, the fashion pin-ups. I could never decide if I identified more with the loveable and reliable friend Betty, or the selfish and conniving (yet good hearted) Veronica. I always wondered what the appeal was for these striking girls who were so in love with the humdrummery that is Archie Andrews. And more than that, I was perpetually flabbergasted by his ineptitude for healthy relationships. I mean, Dude, pick a girl already!

As I matured, the comics did too. The last decade saw a tremendous shift from the cartoonish short stories about Riverdale shenanigans, to sophisticated and contemplative narratives. My generation of Archie fans was consumed by the Archiesoap opera that was Archie: The Married Life, where a walk down Memory Lane gave readers a glimpse into the life he woALWAmag#1uld lead should he choose either Betty or Veronica. This culminated with the tender and retrospective Death of Archie. Later,  Afterlife With Archie would rock my post apocalyptic sensibilities with a zombie takeover. But the real deal, the really great reading and visual experience of my life with Archie Andrews is only just beginning.

The first Archie #1 issue in 75 years has hit the shelves this past week. Written by the incomparable Mark Waid (Daredevil) and illustrated by the game changing Fiona Staples (Saga),  Archie is no longer just a fun, cartoonish blip in a larger reading experience. Archie is finally a guy I can relate to. A guy I can admire. A guy I want to get to know. I guy I could totally crush on if I was a comic character, too.

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Waid brings us to Riverdale in the middle of high school. Archie greets his readers and invites us into his world with an intimacy never before experienced in an Archie comic. Archie looks cool, too. The bowties are gone and he looks just like an ordinary North American teenager, thanks to Staples’ realism.

Also, he’s been dating Betty Cooper since the fifth grade.

That’s right ladies, Archie learned to commit and Betty Cooper was his first true love. It’s on the record, it’s part of canon now, and it’s ABOUT TIME!

But don’t worry, Veronica fans, the series begins with Archie and Betty’s mysterious breakup; which is handled with such maturity that it is my hope that young people reading this new series will glean some insight into healthy break-ups. (Please deliver, Mark!)

Jughead, Dilton, Kevin Keller, and Reggie make appearances, satiating the reader’s hunger for the old Riverdale crew we grew up with, but the cast is much more ethnically diverse, a long overdue necessity underserved in the Archie canon. But perhaps the most interesting plot twist is that Veronica Lodge hasn’t been introduced yet. Instead of picking up a comic long in the midst of a love triangle, this first issue gives Betty a chance to be missed, to be longed for, before the buxom brunette enters the scene.

Archie, at long last, is the character we have been waiting for. The guy next door we can relate to- and want to relate to. Mark Waid and Fiona Staples are giving Archie lovers an icon to admire and a story to sink our collective teeth into.

Archie1That’s why I have a crush on Archie Andrews. He is finally the guy he was supposed to be all along. Considerate, humble, devoted and mature. He not only commits, but he loves fully in the process. He handles losing love with reflection and introspection. His friends see it too. And maybe Ronnie will throw us all for a loop, but the damage has been done. Archie is a good guy, better than I have ever known him to be. I won’t unsee that now. And if readers can have literary crushes, than Archie Andrews is mine. And I am crushing hard.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

 

Northwest Passage is the Book All Canadians Need to Read

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Every Canadian history teacher should share a copy of Matt James’ Northwest Passage with their class. An interpretation of the Canadian ballad of the same name, Northwest Passage is a history picture book, written for kids, but meant for everyone.

A polyphonic scrapbook, James combines Stan Rogers’ exceptional lyrics with a myriad of visuals to accentuate the ferocity of Canada’s northern landscape, and to juxtapose the profound knowledge of the Inuit with the eager and underprepared ideals of the European settlers who would seek to conquer it.

From the first splash page, a swirling vortex of history behind James, the author and interpretive protagonist of the tale, the reader is submitting to a voyage back in time where they can bare witness to the beauty and horrors of the Canadian North.

Most striking is James’ perception of the power of nature. Each time the chorus of the song is repeated, a painting of the barren landscape captivates the reader, whose eye is drawn to theNorthwestPassage_sspread_img4 single animal in the frame, larger than any human or human technology sharing the page. This is a testament to the power of nature, but it is also a critique of the overzealous and egoist nature of man who were subdued by the very land they sought to conquer.

Another point of profound artistry is the present day paintings where James is the central figure. Each is presented from an almost childlike point of view, eager and blossoming, yet underdeveloped. However, closer inspection reminds the reader that everyone, in their search for meaning, has a land to cross and adventure to endure. As Stan Rogers contemplated the voyage of past explorers, James contemplates the passage we all cross. The constant presence of mirrors on these pages remind us, also, that the past is never far behind.

NorthwestPassage_sspread_img6The inclusion of song lyrics, historical timelines, explorer biographies, scientific achievements, maps, and photographs, which counter the more artistic representations, are what make this book so engaging. Northwest Passage is less of a song book and more of an anthology of Canada’s North set to Stan Rogers’ rhythm and meter.

Every Canadian history teacher should include this book in their lesson plans, but every teacher in Canada should have this book on their shelves.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

I (kind of) Object! The Partial Truth of Kit Pearson’s Novel, “The Whole Truth”

When I was twelve I happened upon a dusty novel that had been sitting un-read for months on my best friend’s book shelf. On the cover was a girl, about my age, holding a timepiece. (She looked so much like my best friend that I half wondered if that was the reason she was given the book in the first place.) So I asked my dear friend if I could borrow the book, and she gladly gave it to me. I took it home, devoured it, and (twenty years later) I have still not given it back. Today it sits on my own bookshelf, a little warn from many re-readings, but placed as canon on my shelves along with other personal favourites (I have since apologized for my thievery). The novel, A Handful of Time, was handful-of-timewritten by Kit Pearson.

Kit Pearson quickly became a national favourite for me, and over the years I bought and read many of her other books such as,  Awake and Dreaming, The Guests of War Trilogy, and The Daring Game. So when a novel of hers appeared on a course syllabus as a required reading I was elated. Finally, I could catch up and read the book I had not yet read!

But was this book fulfilling to me as a reader?

The jury, on that, is still out.

Before we begin I should qualify that children’s literature is my favourite genre. Even in my thirties I am moved by the stories and trials of the genre’s protagonists. I think there is, inherently, a part of me that identifies with characters on a journey of self-discovery who are in the midst of their own coming of age. As an adult I am not sure when that moment comes, the one that tells us we are grown! we are mature! we have made it through!. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to youth fiction.

thewholetruthThe Whole Truth is children’s literature. It is a coming of age story: a bildungsroman.  The setting is Canada in the 1930’s amidst the Great Depression.The story follows the life of Polly, a young girl who has, in her short ten years, lost her mother, her dear grandmother, and recently her father (or so we are led to believe). She, along with her older sister, Maud, are sent from their familiar life in Manitoba to live with a grandmother they have never met on the small Kingfisher Island in British Columbia. Maud is also about to leave Polly so that she can attend a prestigious boarding school on the mainland. Polly is forced to lead a new life among strangers. She does not want to talk to anyone, finds solace only in painting, and longs to talk with her father. Change abounds, and change is terrifying for the young Polly.

Fortunately, a bevy of charming, positive, and endearing secondary characters await the young sisters upon their arrival. 🙂

Polly’s transition from timid newcomer to islander is almost seamless, thanks to the well developed secondary characters Pearson has created. She is liked by everyone, excels at school, makes a pair of best friends in the quiet Biddy and antagonistic Vivian. She confronts Alice, a bully who is only cruel to deflect the pain and suffering she endures at the abusive hands of her mother at home. She connects with Uncle Rand, who shares wisdom from both the pulpit and the dinner table. And she bonds with cousin Gregor, who always looks out for the young “Pollywog”.

I believe that Kit Pearson writes lovely secondary characters, and I have always surmised that she seems to favour strong, independent, aged women best. In The Whole Truth, Noni is the matriarch of the family who is riddled with secrets. She bears a grudge against Polly and Maud’s father, she quarrelled with her daughter before her death, and though she is a pillar of the community, she is “quietly” racist. Noni is an interesting character, but somewhat underdeveloped. Her positive traits (that she is giving, patient, wise) are clear on every page, but it is the secrets that she harbours that intrigue me, and these secrets are, unfortunately, not addressed in this novel. When I realized that I would not get the “Noni” closure I needed  by the end of the book I was deeply disappointed and felt that the “whole truth” of the story had not been properly addressed. I learned, soon after finishing the novel, that it is the first of two. The second, And Nothing But the Truth, no doubt sews up the loose ends of the first, but I was not prepared for a series at the onset and I am wondering if  I relate enough to either the story or its characters to read a second instalment.

There was another nagging feeling as I read the novel, that I had heard this story before. Not this one, exactly, but one just like it. Another Canadian classic, actually: Kevin Sullivan’s television series, Road to Avonlea. images (3)Road to Avonlea was a series based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s short story, The Story Girl, and follows the life of Sarah, who goes to live with her Aunt Hetty in the small town of Avonlea. Supported by a colourful cast of secondary characters, the show follows Sarah’s coming of age as the newcomer in a small community. As in The Whole Truth, there is a wise uncle (Jasper), a best friend and bully (Felicity), and a protective cousin (Felix). The two stories reminded me so much of one another that I was almost picturing Avonlea instead of Kingfisher Island as I read. Pearson drew inspiration for her novel by the true accounts of a friend who was sent (with her sister) to live with her grandmother when she was very young; however, those who are familiar with Avonlea will find a kindred tale in The Whole Truth. 

Perhaps one of the most intriguing plot points of the novel is the uncertainty of Polly and Maud’s father’s whereabouts. From the beginning, the reader suspects he is not dead as the girls, and their grandmother, say. There is a mystery that needs solving, and bit by bit it is revealed, particularly through the letters Polly writes to him.

Pearson’s dynamic shift from third person point of view writing to epistolary chapters shakes up the reading experience, briefly, but becomes a welcoming change of pace for the story. The letters are representative of Polly’s maturing voice, at first crying out for her father and later reconciling that she no longer needs him or the act of letter writing, to make sense of her world. She struggles, constantly, to believe in something; whether it be in her inability to commit to vegetarianism or in her father’s innocence. In the end, Polly learns to believe in herself and the love of the people around her, and that is enough.

Unlike Polly’s maturity, which is intrinsic and reflective, Maud undergoes a development  from eager school girl to devout christian; however, as a christian dependant not on self-reflection, but misguided anger. I found myself turned off from her character as her piousness grew, and I wondered what its purpose was in relation to Polly’s own growth. I suspect it is Maud’s attempt to make sense of the uncertainty surrounding her father’s disappearance, and her own unwillingness to bestow forgiveness upon him. When he makes an appearance toward the end of the novel, Polly, who has been, in my mind, made the bigger fool for her constant devotion to him and his innocence, is quicker to forgive than her angry sister. In this moment it strikes me that the progression of her maturity is natural, whereas Maud, who had maturity thrust upon her, retreats in an almost childish anger, and the younger sister suddenly becomes the voice of reason.

Pearson has always been able to capture the heart and the growth of a child’s soul, but she also displays a mastery in describing the country she calls home. Though I have never been to B.C., I could see, vividly, the sun dancing on the ocean and the foam caressing the rolling waves. I could hear the Orcas’ songs. Taste the pollen of spring on my lips. Pearson beautifully captures the Canadian landscape, and even though I have yet to venture to that side of the country, I am at home in her stories.

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Much is to be further uncovered for the cast of characters in The Whole Truth. The dichotomy between Polly and Maud is the very fabric of the book. They are growing up in difficult times, surrounded by personal mystery, family secrets, and insecurities. As their story progresses, I find myself eager to finalize my relationship with them both by learning everything I can, but Pearson leaves me hanging. The Whole Truth is simply a half truth, and I will have to read And Nothing But the Truth if I want to learn more about Polly’s penchant for art, Maud’s pious descent, Noni’s racial schisms, and whether the family is able to reunite for a happily ever after, after all.

The Whole Truth is widely enjoyed, its praises sung. A thoughtful thirteen year old girl wrote, in the National Post Book Review, that this novel made her laugh and want to cry. She felt, deeply, its value in showcasing the trials and tribulations of youth, of pain, of loss. I agree with her, but I also felt a tremendous disappointment that I had travelled so far with Polly, only to have just as many questions at the end as I did at the beginning. I suppose I will have to read on in And Nothing But the Truth to receive the closure I crave. nothingbutthetruth

Maybe if I had found this book when I was young, like the young reviewer, it would have sat well with me that the end was uncertain; so is life after all. But I suppose, at this stage, at this much older age, I will have to concede that I had hoped for finality.

Now I find myself looking toward another chapter instead.

And who am I kidding, the verdict is in: it is a chapter I want to read!

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke    @ldchiasson17

Loneliness, Poignancy, and Brilliance in This One Summer

This is a brilliant novel and a worthy example of how powerfully sequential art can convey a narrative.

The story begins with the cover. In tones of blue, accented by a purple hue, it is evident that this is a tale about change. Two young girls, jumping feet first into rolling waves, are leaping into the downloadunknown. One has her arms outstretched, body open in welcome; the other is rigid, her body closed, face omitted conveying reluctance. This One Summer, the title, occupying the vast space between the girls and their rolling future; this is the summer when everything changes.

Rose, the protagonist, is struggling through the transition from child to teenager. Her summer friend, Windy, is still clinging to that innocence. Together they contemplate boys, puberty, horror films, and adult life; conventions of a bildungsroman that we have all seen before. What sets this book apart, however, is the delicate illustrations that accentuate the movement of the tale. The story as it is written, colloquially, and the elaborative illustrations that accentuate it, are a perfect marriage.

Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations are exceptional. The reader watches a freighting movie scene from under the comfort of a thin blanket with the young girls.  As Rose begins a one-sided love affair images (5)with Dunc, the older store clerk, Tamaki encapsulates his romantic dalliance with Jenny in the frame of a chewy foot candy; sweet, youthful, and hazily understood by Rose. Later, an aerial view of the beach is gently sexualized as it is drawn like the contour if a man’s body. Tamaki envisions nature as a character as much as Rose or Windy.

Character development is rich and poignant. Rose struggles to understand the adults around her: her mother dealing with a secret, personal loss; her over-compensating father; Dunc and Jenny’s badly dealt with pregnancy; even Windy’s subtle, yet profound, contemplation of adoption.  The illustrations further convey the dichotomy of youth and maturity when Rose and Windy frolic through the waves of the lake  on a splash page, as Dunc sits in an state of nervous agony in the following panel. But perhaps the most lovely figurative element of the book is the duality between the mother’s story of having miscarried in the lake, only to be redeemed by having saved Jenny from drowning in the same spot, and in so doing, saved her baby’s life.

This is a book that appeals to the senses.The feel of the rough paper asks for a degree of respect that a glossy page would not garner. Sounds, more than figurative onomatopoeia, drive the story. The ground crumbles beneath the feet of a man carrying a sleeping child; embarrassment is accentuated when Rose’s uncalled for name calling follows her walk home, “slut”, “slut”, “slut” crunching beneath her feet; and the soft ticking of the clock and the woods fills the empty home as Rose leaves her cabin and youth behind her at the end. IMG_1758

This One Summer is a story about growing up, and how adulthood and age, regardless of the physical company one keeps, is a lonesome road.  This novel is a prodigious example of the beauty, intricacy and the splendour of sequential art. It is a beautiful union of words and pictures, worthy of every award for which it was nominated and has won.

This book is a quintessential example of how reading can shape our perceptions of the world, and how comics can shape and enlighten our perceptions of reading.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

 

 

 

 

 

High Literature – the comics addition: Fun Home

James Joyce’s seminal post-modernist masterpiece, Ulysses, has been collecting dust on my bedside table for five years. Occasionally it changes location from under the lamp to the top of the pile, but there it remains, spine un-cracked, pages pristine, metaphors and ambiguities unearthed- unread.

I can hear the guffaws of my peers in the literary community as I type this. That strange comic book reader calls herself an English graduate?! Blasphemy!

I am a fraud.

My entire degree in English literature is a lie because, not only have I not read Ulysses, I don’t really want to.

imageAt least I didn’t, until a comic book changed my mind.

I was late getting around to Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical, Fun Home. In fact, I was late getting around to autobiographical comics, in general. When I did, Fun Home didn’t pull at my inner historian’s curiosity like Maus, nor did it make me want to self-evaluate my own anxieties like Marbles. Like UlyssesFun Home was a book I knew I should read, a contemporary classic (a game-changer in the world of comics), but I was in no hurry to pick it up, and it took me years, collecting dust on the shelf below Joyce.

Now, I guffaw at myself.

 Fun Home just may be the most important comic I have ever read, but not for the connections I made with the characters. I have very little in common with Alison, the young protagonist who comes of age in a home devoid of outwardly affection, who watches her parent’s marriage deteriorate behind a velvet facade, brought up in a house that is both staged for beauty and death. Sure, I cheered for her as she reached her milestones and personal enlightenment, I joined her on her quest for identity, but the connection to the character was not what kept me up reading all night. I was connected, instead, to what sustained her.

Bechdel’s intimate relationship with English literature is enviable and, I would argue,  the crux of her book. This is where she got me. Hook, line and sinker; the way to a literature junkie’s heart (even one that hasn’t read Ulysses) is through reference and allusion. I could not relate to Alison’s plights and conflicts, but I could relate to the way she engaged with books to get her through each major event in her life. Like her, I lost myself to works such as The Importance of Being EarnestThe Taming of the ShrewAn Ideal HusbandThe Wind in the Willows, The Great Gatsby, and poetry by Wallace Stevens. Here was a protagonist, an author, pulled between her love of great literature and her desire to live in a world of comics- such is my plight!!!

I could’t put Fun Home down. In the panels of a graphic memoir I saw my own reflection- someone filled to the brim with literary passion, but someone who did not quite belong. A poet and a comic. An essayist and artist. I may not have seen myself in her story, but there I was front and centre in the medium.

Fun Home has broken barriers across genres, has incited discussion for gender identification and sexual orientation. It has shed light on the secrets between family and the darkness of both life and death. But for me, much more simply, it has validated my love of reading, most especially my love of reading comics.

As my foray with Fun Home came to an end I realized Bechdel likened herself and her father to the two main characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses. For the first time, ever, I had the urge to read Ulysses, not because it belongs in the pantheon of books I am supposed to read, but because the characters suddenly became real to me. Joyce didn’t do this. Alison Bechdel did. Not a seminal novel, a graphic one. But hey, no matter the medium that is what a good book does; it encourages a reader to read on, read more, and read unabashedly. It is time to dust off Ulysses. Fun Home, on the other hand, will never collect dust again.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke    @ldchiasson17