March 15, 2012
Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault
Kyo Maclear is author of the beloved 2007 novel The Letter Opener and is, with illustrator Isabelle Arsenault, the force behind the acclaimed Spork. Her latest picture book with Arsenault is Virginia Wolf, a story loosely based on the Woolfian one of the similar name and her relationship with her sister Vanessa.
There is precedent for a literary rendering of the child Virginia– those of us steeped in Woolf lore know well the stories of Virginia, Vanessa and their brother Thoby of 22 Hyde Park, and their childhood family newspaper was published in book form in 2006. And it is those of us steeped in Woolf lore who will seize to these connections, though Maclear herself emphasizes the looseness of her basis. So what is its point then? The Woolf connection is not a necessary element of the text, but it provides the book with additional texture, literary and otherwise.
In this story of two sisters, one of them, Virginia, overcome by the doldrums, is captured by a wolfish mood. This mood has an effect on the whole household: “Up became down. Bright became dim. Glad became gloom.” The other sister, Vanessa, tries to cheer Virginia up, but nothing works. Finally, Vanessa lies in bed with her sad sister and listens to her describe the world she longs to escape to, called “Bloomsberry”. Virginia is freed from her wolfish mood after Vanessa creates a version of Bloomsberry on the bedroom walls, and by the story’s end, she’s well enough to go back into the world. Down is up again.
(Must point out connections between this and another wonderful book from KidsCanPress about painted gardens and their restorative effects– Andrew Larsen’s The Imaginary Garden is much adored at our house.)
Very young children (and their parents) will be delighted by the book’s illustrations– Harriet is particularly taken with Virginia’s transformation from wolf to girl on the book’s final pages. They will also come to understand the plot at its most basic level– that there are times when we all feel a bit wolfish. It’s a name to put to what happens on those tantrum-filled days, or when Mommy’s patience is particularly limited. Wolfish moods happen, there’s no real reason for them, and they pass. We feel better.
For older readers who’ve had family members suffering from depression, I imagine this book would be particularly valuable. Yes, it is a simplified depiction of the disease but that simplification is essential for a child to obtain any real understanding what’s going on around them. The reader will understand that nothing they have done has caused their loved one’s suffering, and also that there is little they can do to relieve it.What Vanessa does to help her sister is be near her, to listen to her talk, to lie in bed beside her and look out the window to see the world through her eyes.
Of everything Vanessa paints in Bloomsberry though, most essential is the ladder, “so what was down could climb up”– a recognition that the journey will be Virginia’s alone to make. To her painting she adds also room for Virginia to wander, because wandering is what wolves like to do. And while Maclear has Virginia feeling much better the next morning, the ladder and the wandering space function on a metaphoric level to acknowledge the true complexity of her character’s experience.
The elephant in the room of course is Woolf’s own suicide, and that any child who comes to know the author through Virginia Wolf will discover a very different end to the story. Though I would argue this point by resisting the notion of reducing Woolf’s life and her legacy to her mental illness and the circumstances of her death. Yes, she suffered substantially through her life, but anyone who knows her work well will understand that she had a capacity for joy as great as she had for sorrow. There is so much more to Woolf than the stones in her pockets, and I love that this book celebrates that. She survived her bouts in the doldrums over and over again, and that she finally didn’t in no way undermines the achievement of her life, all 59 years of it. Further, rather than overlooking the circumstances of Woolf’s death, I think that Maclear is using it externally as a fitting counter to her book’s sunny ending. It doesn’t belong in the book, but the connection is there for the reader to make, and I think it is an important one.