I’m not sure what it is, but there is something about the graphic novel format that allows for such an honest baring of one’s (literary) soul. Graphic memoirs like Smile by Raina Telgemeier, The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley and I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached have become more and more popular, and something like author Fanny Britt and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault’s Jane, the fox & me, which not strictly autobiographical, has to come from some place of truth.
Hélène, a young student with body and self-esteem issues, navigates the now treacherous landscape of school, with the help of Jane Eyre, which she is reading for the first time. Girls who used to be friends now write hurtful things about Hélène on the bathroom walls and no one rises to her defense. On an end-of-school camp trip, Hélène gets grouped with the “Outcasts”, a Latin girl who does not yet speak French and a girl whose only peculiarity seems to be a preoccupation with brushing her hair. A chance encounter with a wild fox and finally reaching the end of Jane Eyre help give Hélène confidence, enough to recognize a new friend when one arrives.
Hélène’s story could easily stand in for any number of children, of all genders, ethnicities, nationalities and orientation. Having self-doubt is not just a trait of the picked-on, but all adolescents (and adults, for that matter) of all kinds, everywhere, amen. This is a story that transcends culture. At the same time, however, Jane, the fox & me is littered with cultural references, like pins on a digital map. Fashion is often up for discussion, including the passing trend of old-fashioned crinoline dresses and nautical-themed bathing suits. The inclusion of the character of Lucia Muniz, a recent transfer who only speaks Spanish, is interesting in that she is labeled an outcast (by the narrator, no less) merely for her language barrier, which is later breached by a new friend with a little bit of Spanish in her back pocket. The addition of this new friend, Géraldine, removes the last names from the other girls’ descriptions, changing them from outcasts to fellow friendlies.
Originally published in French, in Montreal, Canada in 2012, Jane, the fox & me was translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou and published in English in 2013. It appeared on the United States Board on Books for Young People’s (USBBY) list of Outstanding International Books in 2014. In 2013, it was named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Illustrated Children’s Books. The book received at least three starred reviews, and overwhelmingly favorable reviews across the board. Francisca Goldsmith of Booklist called it “An elegant and accessible approach to an important topic” and stated that “Britt's well-constructed narrative is achieved sensitively through Arsenault's impressionistic artwork” (Oct. 15th, 2013). Karen Coats from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books highlighted Arsenault’s artwork:
“Helene's emotional tangle is given poignant expression through Arsenault's pitch-perfect mixed-media art; thin pencil-lined figures picked out against smudgy neutral grays and muted sepia tones highlight both the sharp-edged sources and limned echoes of Helene's everyday sadness, while the depictions of her imagined scenes from Jane Eyre are cleaner and more colorful, bringing in reds and greens, and even on occasion exploding into luminous watercolor landscapes. The contrast is striking and sets up the almost mystical tone of the encounter with the fox, who stands out in the red previously reserved for Helene's imaginary connection with Jane.” (Nov. 2013)
Jane, the fox & me is a wonderful book to give to fans of Jane Eyre, but also to readers who have not yet experienced the classic. Britt’s narrative does give away details of Jane’s story, but the pleasure Hélène takes in reading it could easily inspire others to take up the tale. Britt even mirrors Jane Eyre’s beginning with her opening line, “There was no possibility of hiding anywhere today.”
Readers inspired by Arsenault’s artwork could explore her previous works, including the picture books Migrant, written by Maxine Trotter and Spork and Virginia, Wolf, written by Kyo Maclear.
The exploratory nature of Hélène’s narrative would offer a good segue into graphic memoirs, such as those listed above (especially Smile, which tackles some of the same feelings of self-doubt), but also such graphics as Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez and The Color Trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa, all of which touch on issues of identity and adolescence in a way that is tied into the characters’/memoirists’ cultural background.
Britt, Fanny. Jane, the fox & me. Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2013. ISBN: 9781554983605