Introducing a New Canadian Picture Book Dream Team: Virginia Wolf Review

I have a rather impressive collection of picture books; some people buy art for their walls, I buy art for my shelves. Picture books serve a variety of purposes and can be many different things, but when text, image and package come together perfectly there is nothing more magical than a picture book. I don’t often review picture books, not because I don’t love them, but because they aren’t my specialty, but this one is so achingly beautiful I wanted to share it with the great wide world.

One day Vanessa’s sister Virginia wakes up in a terrible mood. She shouts at everyone, shies away from bright colours, and wants to be left alone. She is so wolfish that she has in fact turned INTO a wolf! Vanessa does everything she can to cheer her sister up- bringing her the cat, playing the violin, offering sweet treats- but nothing works. Eventually Virginia admits to wanting to fly away to a perfect place- Bloomsbury. Vanessa has never heard of Bloomsbury, but while Virginia sleeps, she paints a garden full of flowers and animals on the walls of the room, imagining what this perfect place must look like. When Virginia wakes up, she joins her sister in creating their own Bloomsbury and the two sisters go outside to play. Virginia’s mood has lifted, and she is back to being a girl again.

Virginia Wolf is not a typical subject for the picture book crowd. Virginia Wolf isn’t really a picture book biography, either. These books, though illustrated, tend be be text heavy and full of facts, aimed at a slighter older audience. Virginia Wolf will resonate with the 4-7  year old set in a way that traditional picture book biographies generally do not. Instead of a biography, it is a re-imagining of a moment in Wolf’s childhood, creating a portrait of the artist as a young child. You don’t need to know anything about the Wolf sisters to love the book, but fans will appreciate the subtle nods to their childhoods. On the most basic level, this is a story about a girl who has a bad day and how her sister brings her out of it. You don’t need to know Wolf’s stormy history of depression to appreciate the story. Children will delight at how Virginia’s mood actually turns her into a wolf, and the colourful and imaginative resolution.

This is a gorgeous and imaginative take on sisters, moods, and artistic expression. There are lots of books about children who throw fits, but this is far more imaginative and sensitive than a simple moral story about learning to control your temper. This is about bad moods or depression from a child’s perspective, and Vanessa’s solution is appropriately child-like and speaks to Virginia’s inner conflict, as well. Throughout the book Vanessa takes Virginia’s feelings seriously, never telling her to get over it or cheer up. What a lovely story about recognizing the feelings of others. There are other examples of books where children turn into animals, sometimes as a result of behaviour or a lesson they need to learn, but somehow the combination of these two skilled artists makes the book feel fresh.

Kyo Maclear must thank her lucky stars every day that she was paired with Isabelle Arsenault. Her text, though very clean and spare, has a touch of whimsy, and Arsenault is able to draw that out in her illustrations. During the doldrums phase of Wolf’s bad day, there are smudged charcoal drawings, long dark shadows with little colour and lots of white space on the page. As Vanessa begins to create Bloomsbury, her palette explodes with yellows, greens, and reds. The white space disappears almost completely, replaced by wild floral scenes that extend to the end of the page.

This is the second collaboration for Maclear and Arsenault,who made waves with Spork, about a little utensil who was not quite spoon, not quite fork (if you’ve read Maclear’s adult novel Stray Love– and you should, I reviewed it here– you know that the themes of belonging and being of mixed heritage come up frequently in her writing). Spork was cute and well-rendered, but Virgina Wolf takes their collaboration to a whole other level. Maclear & Arsenault* are a Canadian dream team producing dreamy picture books. If this book is not nominated for a Governor-General’s award I will be feeling rather wolfish myself.

Virginia Wolf is available now in hardcover from Kids Can Press.

*Has there ever been a more Canadian pairing of names? ‘Maclear & Arsenault’ sounds like it could have been the subtitle for the film Bon Cop, Bad Cop.

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4 thoughts on “Introducing a New Canadian Picture Book Dream Team: Virginia Wolf Review

  1. Jen says:

    So true, especially about the very Canadian names.
    I love this book so hard, as do my kids. It’s amazing what these two can pack into so few pages.

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