Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

I've put off my review of this title several times because I'm so worried that I won't do it justice. It's always harder to write good reviews than negative (or critical, or bad, or whatever) reviews. It's easy to point at something and say "hey, this text is clunky, this artwork is pedestrian, and there's a TYPO!" but it's much harder (at least for me) to say exactly why something works, especially when it's a book as unique and beautiful as Virginia Wolf.

Virginia wakes up in a bad mood one day. She feels - and looks - quite wolfish. Nothing Vanessa does makes her feel better, until she coaxes her to tell her what would make the doldrums go away "If I were flying, I would travel to a perfect place. A place with frosted cakes and beautiful flowers and excellent trees to climb and absolutely no doldrums."

So Vanessa creates Bloomsberry, a magical garden that looks "just the way it sounded" and slowly Virginia is happy again.

There is, of course, inspiration here from the life of Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. Not being much of a fan of Woolf, this aspect kind of passed over my head (most children won't pick it up either). But what did completely capture me about this story is that Maclear totally gets the doldrums, when everything is bleak and the mere presence of other humans is unbelievably annoying "Do not wear that cheerful yellow dress. Do not brush your teeth so loudly. Stop that racket!" and people trying to cheer you up just makes it worse. Any kid who's felt grumpy "just because" will sympathize.

Added to this is Arsenault's fascinating art, and here I wish I was really good about dissecting and talking about art so I could explain exactly what it is that makes me want to stare at this book for hours. There are so many ways this art is cool. The way Virginia is completely a wolf, but you can still see her girl-ness underneath. The shifts in color. The gray swashy bits that creep up and then are washed away by the most marvelous garden that Vanessa draws (and I will just add here that I looked up the art of the real Vanessa Bell and I much prefer Arsenault's pictures). Fortunately, Jules at Seven Impossible Things has done several features there and at Kirkus so you can read all about how amazing the art is from someone much art-articulate than I.

Verdict: This isn't one of those books that's going to instantly fly off the shelf - it's a little quirky, a little different. But once a few people discover it, Virginia Wolf will be one of those books that's passed from person to person and remembered and beloved by a few children. We need those special books in our libraries, as well as the super-popular and super-commercial titles. Squeeze it into your budget and watch children's faces bloom with delight as they are transported to Bloomsberry.

ISBN: 9781554536498; Published March 2012 by Kids Can Press; Review copy provided by the publisher through Raab Associates; Purchased for the library

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