Review of Migrant

Migrant (2011)

Written by Maxine Trottier, Art by Isabelle Arsenault

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The Story: Anna feels like a bird because her family moves north in the spring and south in the fall. Her Mennonite family lives in Mexico during the winter, and travels all the way up to Canada in the summer to work on farms harvesting fruit and vegetables. Anna often wonders what it would be like to stay in one place.

Maxine Trottier explains that people like Anna’s family helped to build Canada and the United States (and continue to), and that they live difficult lives. Often, because their first language is Low German, they cannot understand English or Spanish. The houses that are available for rent are shabby and expensive. There is no union to protect these migrant workers, and they are often not well received by employers or communities. Trottier argues that “We all need to remember just how our country was built,” (npg) and it can only be assumed that Trottier hopes to remind us of this history through the picturebook Migrant.

What Wallace and I Think: Migrant is an ideal example of how important paratext often is with picturebooks. Without the write-up on the hardcover flaps, and the short history lesson on the endpapers, few children or adult readers would know what the book is actually historically addressing. The picturebook’s text and images are filled with Anna comparing her life to various animals: she feels like a jack rabbit who live in abandoned burrows; she feels like a bee during the day; at night she is like a kitten snuggled under a single blanket with her sisters (For any teachers out there, this book could be a perfect tool in teaching simile, metaphor, and/or illustrated metaphor to students). In the main text there is no mention of her family being Mennonite, though they do wear traditional Mennonite clothing. Though Anna briefly explains her family moves from the south to north and back again (through the metaphor of her family being like geese), we are not told the south is Mexico and the north is Canada. The book could have perhaps benefited from more context being worked into the main text, or, the explanation that ends the book may have been better utilized opening the book.

However, taking the paratext into context, Migrant tells a unique story opening readers and listeners to a different way of life, clearly not linked to just specifically Mennonite migrant workers, but migrant or seasonal workers in general. Trottier makes it clear in her explanation that she wanted to write this story to bring issues of social justice to the surface: “Migrants deserve safe working and living conditions. They deserve recognition for an honest day’s labour. They should be treated with the same respect that is extended to citizens and visitors alike” (npg). Hopefully reading this book to children can spark some interesting discussion surrounding social justice, and the life of migrant workers.

As with so many picturebooks Isabelle Arsenault has illustrated, in the case of Migrant, it is Arsenault’s art which both cements the message to the history, as well as allows the text to transcend the historical background. Arsensault’s illustrations are complex and whimsical, making the reading of this book largely appealing to younger children. Patterns and shapes are repeated throughout the book, linking Anna’s dream world to reality. For example, after imagining her family as geese (geese are drawn wearing hats and head scarfs), the silhouette of the geese is repeated on the following page in the shadows of Anna’s actual family. Collaged triangles that decorate the front and back matter are repeated in the quilts Anna’s brothers and sisters sleep under. Such repetitions visually connect the textual metaphors and similes to one another, blurring the boundaries between literary language and reality. And, personally, I find the red, orange and blue color scheme and the combination of paper collage and crayon drawings visually appealing. Whether or not a child can yet grasp the call for social justice, the art will be appealing.

While I feel the art could engage younger readers, I think the book’s message makes Migrant best suited to children 5 and older. I could see the picturebook being a great discussion and teaching tool in any elementary grade. I give the book a 4/5

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Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Wolf

Virginia Wolf

Kyo Maclear (Author) and Isabelle Arsenault (illustrator)

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The Story: Vanessa and Virginia are sisters. Sometimes Virginia is in a “wolfish” mood: she growls and howls and acts very strange. Vanessa does everything she can think of to cure Virginia’s mood, but nothing works. One day Virginia tells Vanessa about an imaginary, happy place called Bloomsberry, which gives Vanessa a wonderful idea! With her paint brush in hand, Vanessa brings Bloomsberry to life by painting on the walls and transforming them into a beautiful garden. Virginia soon picks up her own paint brush and undergoes a transformation of her own.

What Wallace and I Think: I got to hear Kyo Maclear talk about this picturebook last year. She was kind enough to give a talk to my supervisor’s picturebook class. She was even kinder to talk to me one on one, and we had a great discussion about my research, and how she wants to start a PhD on a similar topic. She was soft-spoken, intelligent, and just, well, as I said, KIND. So, as you can tell, I’m now a Kyo fan for life.

She told us the picture book was born out of her desire to talk about mental health with children. There is still such a stigma attached to issues of mental health, and Maclear expressed that maybe a way to fight the stigma is to get people talking about mental health issues as early as possible. The result is a beautiful picture book that tells three profound stories:

  1. A story of friendship between siblings.

At the most basic level, this story is about the importance of family support, and the love shared between siblings. The images are beautiful, the text is lovely. It is simply a delight to read.

  1. A story loosely based on the real life sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

The picture book also provides the opportunity to introduce children to important cultural figures: author Virginia Woolf, her sister and artist Vanessa Bell, and The Bloomsbury group. As I have said in other posts, intextuality is important in early children’s literature, for it can spark later curiosity. Maybe when your little one is a teenager they’ll be more inclined to pick up Mrs. Dalloway because they’ve already been introduced to Woolf. And hey, if you’re a parent that finds Virginia’s name familiar, but haven’t heard of Vanessa or the Bloomsbury group, maybe your own curiosity will be piqued

I had someone say to me: “this not a great way to talk about depression with children, because they can find out that Virginia Woolf committed suicide, and that could spark the idea to do the same if they’re depressed.” This kind of comment infuriates me. First, it depicts children as sponges that passively receive information. Children are not passive. Don’t make them passive! They have brains. Encourage them to use their brains! When they can talk, they want to talk to you about things that matter, like depression. This comment does an injustice to children. Second, as someone who has struggled with depression her whole life, I can tell you from personal experience that learning about people like Virginia Woolf (who I learned about when I was a young teenager and she meant a lot to me), who were brilliant and created beautiful things, made me stop believing that I was weak, and that I was alone. And I’m still here because I was inspired by Woolf’s life, not her death. Your child, hopefully when they’re much older, are going to learn about suicide. Don’t you want to give them a foundation, the mental fortitude to talk about such things, so they aren’t overwhelmed later?

  1. A story that can begin conversations with children about feeling “wolfish”

I’ve spoken to a few teachers about their experiences of reading this picture book to their classes, and they were blown away with the types of conversations the reading provoked. The students shared stories of when their own siblings, and parents, and friends have felt “wolfish.” They discussed things they did to help their loved ones, and how it felt to have a loved one struggle in this way. Others talked about feeling wolfish themselves, what helps them when they’re feeling this way, and what they wished their loved ones would do for them when they’re feeling this way. This is powerful! The picturebook gave these children the tools to talk about a subject that is insanely hard to talk about.

I would recommend reading this picturebook to even the youngest of children, as even if they’re too young to talk to you about feeling wolfish, the pictures are beautiful. It is a picturebook that children will understanding more deeply the older they get. And like I said, why not give children the tools to talk about something like depression as early as possible?

I give this picturebook a 5/5

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

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 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.