Review of Dark Companion

Dark Companion

Marta Acosta

Published by Tor Teen in 2012

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Disclaimer: this novel involves sexual content, as well as drug use. Please consult with your parents before reading

I’ve been working on a project about the intertextuality of Jane Eyre in 21st Century children’s and YA lit, and yesterday I finally finished reading my primary sources (hurray). The last book I read for this project was Dark Companion by Marta Acosta. This YA book started as an online novel, and was so popular with readers that it was picked up by Tor Teen and published “officially” in print and ebook format. I spent yesterday reading all 350 pages, one because I had too, and two because it was a real page turner.

The Story: Jane was orphaned at eight, and has been hopping from foster home to foster home until finally landing in a group home run by the horrid Mrs. Prichard in the rough neighbourhood of Helmsdale (called Hellsdale by the residents). After working hard in school, Jane is accepted to the prestigious Birch Grove Academy on a full scholarship. Here Jane finds a new group of friends, enjoys her classes, loves her beautiful little cottage nestled in the woods, and even develops a serious crush on the headmistress’s son, Lucien. However, Birch Wood is too good to be true, and Jane begins to question the seemingly sinister activities taking place at the school: why did the school nurse, Mrs. Mason, kill herself? Why did the former scholarship student, whose place Jane has filled, abruptly leave? Why is Lucien so obsessed with Jane’s blood? As the back cover write-up states “As Jane begins to piece together the answers to the puzzle, she must find out why she was brought to Birch Grove—and what she would risk to stay there.”

What Wallace and I think: Since the promotional quote from the Kirkus Review on the front cover says that this book “gives vampires and their victims a long-overdue makeover” (really, is it long-overdue?! Has this reviewer been living under a rock?) I am not ruining the surprise by saying the book does deal with vampires. Because of this I immediately started making comparisons to Twilight, as I’m sure anyone reading a YA book about vampires would do. Because I feel this trend is overused, I wasn’t overtly hopeful. As well, though Twilight is somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me, and I can understand why it has been so popular, I find the abusive undertones and Bella’s passive acceptance of her treatment and utter devotion to both boys highly disturbing. There is nothing about Bella’s relationship with Edward or Jacob that young readers should wish for in their own romantic lives.

So though I was cautious when starting Dark Companion I was quickly won over, and was convinced by the end that THIS is the vampire book I could get behind.

  1. I found the “modern” update of vampires in Twilight very cheesy (ie. They sparkle…what?!). Acosta’s reimaging of the vampire myth I think does a better job of bringing the legend into the modern world. Acosta’s “vampires” are not the undead, they don’t have fangs, they don’t hunt people, and they are not immortal. Instead they are humans who have an enzyme deficiency caused by a recessive genetic disorder that causes a biological desire to replace their damage DNA by drinking blood. They drink animal blood, will eat red foods and drinks to trick the cravings, and will drink human blood when available.
  2. Jane is a strong and realistic flawed character who says no. She is often confused by her feelings for Lucien (of course she is, otherwise there wouldn’t be any drama), and it at times boarders into dangerous Bella and Edward like territory. But Jane ultimately is in control of her body and decides what she wants. Jane understands pain is not love, and says no. Jane saying no, and whoever she says no too stopping whatever they are doing when she says it, is important.
  3. I remember feeling uncomfortable and sad when watching the third Twilight The night before Bella’s wedding she is alone in her room, with only a quick goodnight from her dad, and Edward is out for a “stag” with his friends. It made me think back to my own “night-before-the-wedding” surrounded by my family and my best girlfriends. I felt supported and loved. My wedding day didn’t feel like just a celebration of mine and my husband’s love for one another, but of the love we shared with our whole community of family and friends. Bella didn’t have that because she isolated herself from her family and friends through her complete obsession with Edward. Jane connects with three girls in the novel, and grows close to them, leans on them, and is still standing with them at the end. Along with Jane’s saying no, Jane’s having true friends and not letting herself become completely sidetracked by a boy, I found refreshing.
  4. Acosta’s novel patriciates in Victorian gothic conventions, which I think she does well. I love that she opens each chapter with a quote from the very best gothic writers and works of the Victorian era like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray; Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Bram Stokers’ Dracula (obviously); Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”; and John William Polidor “The Vampyre”. I appreciated this because it set the tone throughout the novel, and, as I always hope, could peak the interest of young readers to check out these texts for themselves. As well the novel is a reimagining of Jane Eyre in an imaginative and surprising way that I greatly enjoyed.

I give this novel a 4/5

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.

Introducing Baby to Literature

Babylit Primers boast they are “a fashionable way to introduce your child to the world of classic literature.” This book line includes a Frankenstein anatomy primer, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Dracula counting primers, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland color primers, Jungle Book animal primer, Anna Karenina fashion primer, and Moby-Dick ocean primer. I’m currently working on a project that is looking specifically at the Jane Eyre a Counting Primer, and have been researching the benefits of reading picturebooks, like the Babylit primers, to children.

  1. Reading to children builds their vocabulary. Many studies show that reading to children “contributes to children’s language development . . . and research suggests that book reading contributes significantly to children’s vocabulary and concept development” (Anderson, Anderson and Shapiro 6). This point is largely self-explanatory: the more words read to a child equals a greater potential for these words to be incorporated into the child’s speech. Babylit primers offer an even more enriching possibility, for they have vocabulary not found in typical infant primers. Babylit primers borrow words from the classics they are parodying. For example, in the Jane Eyre primer words such as governess, trunk, insect, towers and soul appear. How adorable would it be if your three year old asked for help packing his “trunk”?? Or said, “mom, look at this insect” instead of “mom, look at this bug”?? It would be amazing.
  2. Engaging with literature, even at a young age, enables us to go beyond our own lived experience. Perhaps the best and most fun part of reading picturebooks with children are the questions they ask you while reading. Education scholar Mary Roche argues that these types of conversations allow children to go “beyond their lived experience” (52). For example, coming across an unfamiliar word and concept like “governess” opens up opportunities for conversations between reader and child such as: what is a governess? Why would someone have a governess? Are there still governesses? Who were governesses? Were only girls governesses? How does a governess fit into Jane Eyre? My example is probably the most basic, but this is why reading to children in general is so important: it opens their eyes to the lives of others.
  3. Picturebooks can help develop aesthetic sense. This may seem too elevated a concept for infants and toddlers, but through the beautiful art in Babylit primers children “are exposed to feelings and language and experiences that words alone could not offer” (Roche 53). The primers, ALL THE PRIMERS, are illustrated by Alison Oliver, and they are simply attractive to look at. The color, the illustrations, the type sets are all aesthetically appealing. Children, like older human beings, like to look at beautiful things, things that are aesthetically pleasing. The books young children like the most are the ones they are aesthetically drawn to, in other words, the ones with pictures they like. Part of reading picturebooks to children is discovering what their aesthetic sense is. So it doesn’t hurt that the Babylit primers are gorgeous. Likewise, the color and fashion primers link a developing aesthetic sense to building vocabulary.
  4. Develops spatial and mathematical knowledge. Numerous studies show that picturebooks are beneficial for learning. When looking specifically at counting primers like Babylit’s Jane Eyre, psychologists such as Lovitt and Clarke argue that there is a framework offered “with cognitive stimuli which may initiate the children’s exploration of mathematical concepts and development of mathematical skills” (278). This is less complicated than it sounds. When the Jane Eyre Counting Primer says “1 Governess” and shows one woman on the opposite page, this stimulates mathematical thinking. A young child can begin to link “1” to the single figure. Likewise when the text reads “3 candles” and the opposite page shows three candles, a conversation can be encourage: “how many candles do you see, can you point to each candle ect.” However, in the experiments I read, this depended greatly on who was reading the book to the child. Often it is up to the reader to encourage counting.
  5. Develops a love and interest in literature. This argument is my own. I have no evidence, other than my own life, so it’s more a hunch. If someone was read Jane Eyre a Counting Primer as a child, and loved it, then perhaps they would be drawn to read the actual Jane Eyre later in life. The primer introduces a skeleton version of the novel, as do the other primers, and this can facilitate an interest in the stories. When someone is old enough to read the works of literature for themselves, they may be more inclined to do so because they have already been introduced to it. Jane Eyre is not some foreign character, but an old childhood friend. I obviously did not have the Babylit primers growing up. But I did have a mother who loved all things Jane Austen. I first watched the Pride and Prejudice six hour BBC miniseries, staring Colin Firth, when I was in grade two. I did not understand everything that was going on, but I loved it. I loved the dresses, I loved the balls, I loved the gardens, and I loved the polite men. I really attribute this early introduction to my own love of Jane Austen (and my then expanding obsession with any “good” book). When I was old enough to read and actually understand Pride and Prejudice it was like meeting my old childhood friends. So I can’t make any promises, and I don’t have the data to prove it, only my own experience, but maybe if you read your children Babylit Primers you could be creating for your child a lifelong love affair with literature.

Click here to check out the Babylit Website.

References

Anderson, Ann., Jim Anderson, and Jon Shapiro. “Supporting Multiple Literacies: Parents’ and Children’s Mathematical Talk within Storybook Reading.” Mathematics Education Research Journal 16.3 (2005): 5-26. Web. JStor. 15 Jan 2015.

Elia, Iliada., Marja van den Heuvel-Panhuizen, and Alexia Georgiou. “The Role of Pictures in Picture Books on Children’s Cognitive Engagement with Mathematics.” European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 18.3 (2010): 275-97. Web. Informaworld. 15 Jan 2015.

Roche, Mary. Developing Children’s Critical Thinking through Picturebooks. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

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