We continue our conversation about the portrayal of emotional and behavioral disabilities in picturebooks, specifically characters who wrestle with childhood depression, anxiety, and outbursts. Last week, we looked at The Red Tree. This week, we offer our take on Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault.
SUSAN: Virginia is a little girl who struggles with depression that impacts the entire household. She describes her emotions as feeling “wolfish.” Arsenault draws her as a dark silhouette with pointy ears. Her sister Vanessa tries to help her feel better without great success. One day Vanessa paints a colorful mural on the bedroom wall complete with a ladder so that Virginia will be cheered by the flowers and have a way of climbing out of her wolfish mood. Virginia is cheered when she wakes from a nap and morphs from a wolfish silhouette into a girl interested in life. Readers discover that the wolf ears are the silhouette of a giant hair bow. The girls go out to play.
I find this book fascinating because of the parallels between the character Virginia and real-life British author, Virginia Woolf. The connections are apparent: Woolf had a sister named Vanessa who was an artist; both Virginia and Vanessa were members of the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals; Virginia suffered from severe bouts of depression. I also find the choice of childhood depression fascinating. Maclear is a Canadian author, born in Britain. In her Quill and Quire interview she talks about the trepidation with which she viewed the book after it was written. Yet she moved forward with the project, guessing that adult readers would make the connections between her characters and the real-life sisters and knowing that child-readers would see the book as two sisters–one in a “wolfish” mood and the other trying to help. In light of our discussions of childism (the critical theory about how adults view children), Maclear’s comments about children strike a cord. Children are resilient, living with the drama that plays out on the playground everyday: bullying, romance, hierarchies, conflicts, collaborative play. She feels strongly that children can handle the darker drama of this book. They need books that reflect the struggles of dealing with overwhelming moods.
MARIA: There are many aspects about this book that I enjoy and appreciate. Reading the book along with Maclear’s interview made my experience even more memorable. The relationship between both sisters sounds and looks very real as they work hard to figure out how to cheer up Virginia. Many children make endless attempts to care for older or younger siblings through the day, until it is “past midnight.” Although the story seems to be told as a one-time event, Vanessa’s question toward the end, “Do you really feel better?”, and her list of multiple strategies to cheer up her sister could suggest that it is not the first time that Virginia wakes up wolfish.
Arsenault’s illustrations walk the reader through a tense and, at times, hopeless journey: broken clocks, black shades and silhouettes flying across the pages, and fuzzy happy memories, followed by the text, “We sank deep among the pillows.” But Vanessa’s persistence initiated an interaction from which colorful flowers, animals, and even a “ladder that reached up to the window, so that what was down could climb up” emerged. This creates a portrayal of the real-life emotions that children often encounter on the playground and also at home. Your comments around childism and children as resilient are important especially when thinking about books that depict emotional or behavioral disabilities. Often social views of children and childhood result in prioritizing simplistic versions of life that many times fall short compared to what young children and readers face on a daily basis.
SUSAN: I am glad you like the book! I was mesmerized from the start. The more I explore the book, the more I am convinced that it is great. You and I both feel that children’s books about emotions can be didactic, imitating the voice of an adult presenting coping mechanisms to the child for whatever problem the book is addressing. I appreciate this book because Vanessa’s care for her sister and efforts to bring her out of her depression are framed as a story, not as an excuse to give kids instructions. The STORY is front and center.
This indicates one aspect of a quality book. In my exploration of books about emotional disabilities, I struggle to find ones in which the story is not framed as a “how-to” book. This one works better, because the narrative is more captivating. The incapacity of Virginia to function comes through in both words and images, and the strategies Vanessa tries involve color and shape, giving both Virginia and readers a visual feast.
You brought up the relationship of sisters, and I think that is another way this book differs from others where adults have the main role in helping a child discover coping mechanisms. In this book a sister discovers how to help and takes action. It is a sister’s love and desire to help that prompts the action, and Vanessa uses her own artistic gifts to give Virginia a way out of her wolfish mood. I also appreciate the historical references that invite children to explore the lives of Vanessa and Virginia Woolf. Why not throw in a little history to make a 32-page picture book a bit more complex?
MARIA: That’s right, books like Mrs. Gorski, I Think I Have the Wiggle Fidgets, by Barbara Esham, tend to be heavily didactic, which makes it hard for the readers to develop a strong connection with the characters or with the storyline. There is little space for using your interpretations to create meaning and to wonder off the book. These “how-to” books could also discourage conversations since they are telling the reader what to do, and how to think and feel. But Virginia Wolf is different. The story could happen to many siblings and within families around the world. The book highlights processes and persistence.
This book does not explicitly label any emotional disability. Instead it highlights characteristics strongly related to depression, such as deep sadness, darkness, isolation, and hopelessness, among others. Also rather than universalizing the experience by suggesting that everyone faces strong emotions or blue days, the book portrays the difficulties that a child struggling with depression might experience. It also demonstrates how depression affects, although differently, other family members. Books that specifically portray the experiences of children with depression are important. These types of books create awareness of the experiences of children and families who navigate life with an emotional disability. An author’s note with references to the real Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell could spark additional avenues of inquiries.
Maclear, K. (2012, March). Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Quill and Quire.
Title: Virginia Wolf
Author: Kyo Maclear
Illustrator: Isabelle Arsenault
Publisher: Kids Can Press
Date Published: March 1, 2012