Dasha’s Year Without Her Mom: A Review

A Year Without Mom

Dasha Tolstikova

Groundwood Books, 2015

The Story: Dasha is twelve years old, and lives in Moscow with her mom and her grandparents. Dasha’s mother gets into graduate school in America, which results in Dasha being left behind in Russia with her grandparents for a year. The graphic novel follows the highs and lows of Dasha’s year without her mom, in which she largely takes care of herself and must learn to live with the constant sadness of being separated from her mother.

What Wallace and I Think: This is illustrator Tolstikova’s first book, and is a memoir of a year in Tolstikova’s childhood. The graphic novel does not follow a standard narrative structure, but instead reads somewhat like Dasha’s journal detailing the significant incidents that happened the year her mother was away. There is a child-like quality to the style of Tolstikova’s illustrations, which lends to the feel that it is twelve-year-old Dasha describing this year to the reader.

I found the character of Dasha extremely appealing. She is strong in her sadness, self-reliant, and creative. Apart from her mother leaving, there are several events which are emotionally taxing for Dasha: she develops her first crush on an older boy who is already dating an impossibly sophisticated and cool girl (she wears black nail polish AND smokes in the school hallways! How is Dasha supposed to compete with that?!); she is ignored by her two best friends due to their jealousy over Dasha being placed in an advanced math class; she decides to apply to a better school, and undertakes the application process (studying for the exams, taking the exams, developing her extracurricular resume) without any help from her grandparents (indeed she doesn’t even think to tell her grandparents what she is undertaking); and she must navigate a visit from her absentee father. Dasha traverses these landmines largely all on her own, not because there is no one to help her, but because she is so self-reliant she doesn’t think to ask for help (both her strength and weakness). She is a strong character, and though there are blacked out pages with the words “Dark Days,” and sometimes Dasha only has the energy and strength to hide in her bed, she is never defeated and shows her strength in being able to continue on in the midst of sadness.

Dasha’s family is equally as engaging, and presents strong female characters. I found it inspiring to have a mother character who follows her dreams. Though Dasha is sad to be separated from her mother for a year, she does not begrudge her mom’s attempt to pursue her passions. Likewise, her mother does all she can to stay present in Dasha’s life when away, and after her year away, decides she cannot be separated from her daughter any longer and takes Dasha back to American with her. Dasha’s grandmother is another interesting character: she’s a writer who takes Dasha to writers’ retreats; she has cool journalist, writer, artist and intellectual friends that live all over the world; and she encourages Dasha’s creativity by putting her in art classes. When Dasha finally opens up to her grandmother about her impossible first-love, her grandmother does not belittle her feelings (by saying something like, oh it’s just puppy love, you’ll get over it) but takes Dasha’s experience seriously and offers comfort.

Though this book is marketed as young adult, I think the graphic novel would be enjoyed by readers in elementary school as well. The graphic novel is beautiful and offers a narrative style and story that is refreshing so that, like so many good children’s and YA books, I believe it could be read and enjoyed by a vast age range.

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We Are the Foxes

Jane, the Fox and Me

Written by Fanny Britt, Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ourious

Published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi 2012

17214302

 The Story:

  1. Hélène (the “Me” of Jane, the Fox and Me) is bullied by a group of girls at her middle school. She tries to be invisible, but the bully’s insults are everywhere: in the halls, school yard, stairways, on the bus and written on bathroom stalls. “Hélène weighs 216!” “Don’t talk to Hélène, she has no friends now,” “Hélène weighs 316.” With every insult “The same thing happens . . . another hole opens up in my rib cage. Hearing everything. Hearing nothing” (18). Cue tears.To make matters worse, Hélène’s school is going to nature camp, and there’s no getting out of it. All her bullies will be there, and there will be no home to escape to at night. Hélène’s being an outcast will be obvious to everyone. But the unexpected happens! Hélène meets Géraldine, who laughs at her jokes, listens to her stories, tells her stories, and suddenly the world isn’t full of insults, but “full to the brim with Géraldine’s words” (87).
  1. The Fox: I’ll leave the fox as a surprise for the reader! Although the metaphorical use of the fox reminds me of the Taylor Swift lyric “They are the hunters,/ We are the foxes.” Yes, I unabashedly listen to Swift.
  2. Hélène reads Jane Eyre as bullies taunt her on the bus, and on her bunk bed at nature camp to appear “busy.” Hélène compares herself to Jane, and finds her own story follows the emotional turmoil Jane experiences. Just when Hélène is at her lowest, Jane learns “the boy [Mr. Rochester] already has a wife as crazy as kite, shut up in the manor tower . . . the moral of the story . . . ‘never forget that you’re nothing but a sad sausage’” (83). And just like Hélène’s own story, Jane Eyre “ends well” (98).

What Wallace and I think:

Britt and Arsenault’s graphic novel is powerful and heartbreakingly beautiful on multiple levels. Hélène’s story is uncomfortably relatable. Nothing out of the ordinary happens in the novel, and it could be ripped out of any current middle or high schooler’s experience. Both the author and illustrator work seamlessly together, and are extraordinary at communicating feelings of isolation born out of bullying.

  • Fanny Britt’s writing is beautiful. Some credit has to be given to the translators, obviously, as I’m reading this in English, not French. Britt is able to weave a narrative that it is painstakingly realistic. Being a graphic novel, Britt uses her sparse words wisely. They are truly the most perfect words in the most perfect spaces. The incorporation of Jane Eyre, the fox, the mother-daughter relationship, issues of female body-image, bullying in the narrative adds intricacy. I would love to read this and discuss this book with my undergraduate students (maybe next year!) because there is so much to discuss, uncover, and explore. When I’m asked how books for young readers can be considered literature, because they aren’t as sophiscated as adult literature (cue me hyperventilating and turning red), this is the type of book I would hold up in response.
  • I am a huge fan of Isabella Arsenault. Her pencil illustrations are whimsical yet gritty, have a childish aspect to them that add to the child protagonists’ voices, and are full of detail. What I am most impressed by here is Arsensault’s ability to illustrate silence. For example, after Hélène reads some of the insults written about her in the bathroom stall, there are five images absent of words which show Hélène walking to her locker with her head hung held low and shoulders slumped. She puts on her jacket to go home, as if trying to put on a protective shield, while out of the corner of her eye she watches the girls behind her silently making fun of her. Most powerful to me was Hélène standing in front of a mirror admiring a dress her mother had slaved over. We have already learned that the girls make fun of this dress Hélène was so proud of. After this image there is a double page illustration of Hélène standing in a forest in the beautiful crinoline dress head lowered, hair falling over her face, defeated slouched shoulders. This image makes my heart ache! Even though Hélène is a pencil drawing, I want to reach out and hug her! There are several moments like this in which Arsenault is able to illustrate silence and melancholy in such a way that it gives me chills. Aresenault’s use of color and type add to the complexities of the narrative. Color is only used in specific places, the insults of the bullies are handwritten in a sloppy childish hand, and the voices of adults are written in cursive. Again, its details like these I would love to explore with a class.

I give this brilliant graphic novel 5/5

While all young readers are at different levels, I would generally recommend this book for grade four readers onwards. It could also be a good book for parents to read with their younger children.