Jane, the Fox, and Me

This is a bit of a rare occasion. I’m writing a post about a book without the book immediately beside me.

You see, I saw it at my beloved local library, and recognized Isabelle Arsenault’s stunning art, so I read it while my daughter browsed. Then we rushed home for Yom Kippur, leaving it behind for someone else to enjoy.

It was on my mind all Yom Kippur. I slightly regret not borrowing it, but it was right to leave it for others. (Still, I need my own copy!)

Which book is this? Jane, the Fox, and Me, by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. It’s sort of a graphic novel– more on that below. The advantage of being late to the game is I can point you to Maria Popova‘s excellent summary and account of the book, already there on the internet for you.

jane the fox and me.jpg

I’m going to suggest you read Popova’s piece first, and I’ll simply highlight a few aspects here: it’s a book about cruelty and bullying, about adolescence and growing up, and about learning friendship and kindness in the face of that cruelty.

Why did it linger in my mind over Yom Kippur? Well, partly because it was a deeply moving read that caught me right in my adolescent insecurities, and it was going to dwell with me whenever I read it. But it felt appropriate to read it over the days of repentance for several reasons:

a) As a parent, I worry for my girl. What if someone else makes her feel insecure or scared? (What if, I catch myself in worse horror, she does the same to someone else?)

b) As someone who grew up with bullying, how do you move past it and grow in kindness and security, helping others rather than dwelling in the past?

c) As someone hurting from pain inflicted by others, how do you repent and grow?

To point (a): I don’t really see the Changeling as the sort of person who will ever be deliberately cruel, and I won’t borrow trouble. She is decidedly the sort of person who takes comments personally, however, and already has. It’s my job to help instill strength and self-confidence in this growing person and help ensure she has the tools to deal with unkindness and face it with grace. But that’s not (yet) what I want to address right now.

To point (b): Thinking about (a) helps me address (b). I feel that grace and radical kindness is the correct response to bullying. Not overlooking the past, but saying, “I’m going to pay off that old feeling by pushing more positivity into the world.” Naive? Maybe. It works for me. That’s also not what I’m talking about right now (yet).

To point (c): If you go into Yom Kippur with pain from others’ on your mind, are you doing it wrong? Aren’t you supposed to be thinking about the wrongs you’ve committed, not the wrongs done unto you?

Well, maybe. I am not a rabbi, nor do I play one on TV.

But I have been made to feel small, feel like being myself is inadequate, and feel frightened. And I do know that every time I’ve made a misstep of which I’m acutely conscious, it has come out of those feelings of inadequacy and low self-confidence. (Obviously there may be things I’ve done of which I’m unaware. What I don’t know of I can’t speak to, though, so I’m focusing on what I do know.) I’ve said things which I regret– almost always when I’ve been frightened for myself, or when I’ve been put down and am trying to climb up, or for a hundred reasons which have to do with not knowing who “Deborah” was any longer.

I’m not going to go into all of that in detail. I’m thinking back to my childhood here, which is deeply personal and not for public consumption. But trust me: if someone says something angry-sounding and you don’t know why? Maybe it’s because they’re just mean, but maybe it’s because they’re feeling lost and alone.

Now, what does that have to do with Yom Kippur and Jane, the Fox, and Me? After all, the protagonist of the book does not act out when she’s been put down. She’s silent in the face of humiliation. And on Yom Kippur you’re really supposed to think about the times you’ve acted out. Right? “I sinned by doing This or That.” Acted perniciously, obstinately, disobediently.

I think, though, and, again, I am not a rabbi, or a maharat, or anything of the sort, that the protagonist of Jane, the Fox, and Me and I have a misstep, if not a sin, in common: we lost faith in ourselves. We were both made, as we all are, in the image of God. If we listen to people telling us we’re inadequate, and internalize that hurt, we are losing confidence in who we are. And that is someone wonderful.

Jane, the Fox, and Me is in no sense a religious work, and if you’re not religious, either, then you can read it, enjoy it, and learn from it regardless. But if you are, and if you’re in a mood of self-reflection before a major religious event in your life, I recommend it. It’s a good counter-charm to flagellation and self-recrimination, if, like me, you feel you’re pretty good at that on your own…

This is a book of kindness, of acceptance, and of perpetual beauty.

It is also a book, to glance back at point (a) above, for parents to read. It’s a book for helping you help your child be stronger within, more self-confident, less prone to flagellation. I can recognize, now, occasions on which I’ve told my daughter her interests were silly (even if I thought they were) and ridiculous (again, even if I thought they were). That was wrong. Make that crinoline dress for your girl. Help her feel stronger.

I want to end with a word about the format, because I think that’s relevant. It’s called a graphic novel, and I suppose you can call it that. But to me, it’s an adolescent book, partway out of being a picture book, but not yet fully grown into a full-on graphic novel. (NB: That’s a problematic statement, assuming as it does that picture books are for little kids, and graphic novels for older folks. Pretend with me for a minute.) It’s inter-genre, just as the characters hover between ages, just as in identity they hover between who they want to be and who they are.

Just as I, as the reader, hover in self-image between who I was and who I am today.

And it is all, completely, beautiful.

Final, final note: Go back to the Popova piece for the pictures and page views. I linked to it because I don’t have the book with me, and I want you to see the inside of the book. That’s important. So if you haven’t yet read her post, if you don’t even want to read it, scroll and look. Then go to Indiebound or your local book shop or library and drink in the whole book, think about who you were growing up, and think more about who you are today, and how you can be yourself more fully.

Dammit, now I want to snuggle my Changeling.

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The Witch Family

Back we go to preparing for Hallowe’en! It occurred to me while I was pulling together my Hallowe’en posts that most of them were picture books. What about older readers? Well, off I trotted to the book shop to ask them what they thought, and when they suggested Eleanor Estes’s The Witch Family, I was hooked.

The Witch Family Estes.jpg

I love Eleanor Estes. The Hundred Dresses simultaneously broke and healed my heart, my favourite book feeling.

The Witch Family is utterly, utterly different, but written deftly and with a light touch. There’s no heartbreak here; just humour and mischief. The story is of two girls, Amy and her friend Clarissa, who banish the local Old Witch to a glass hill for her great wickedness.

But what of Hallowe’en? they wonder. So they decide that they really need the witch back on Hallowe’en, or what good is Hallowe’en? So, provided that the Old Witch is good the rest of the time, she can come back and be wicked on Hallowe’en.

The rest of the novel is about the deep, philosophical struggle between wickedness and goodness, between when wickedness, and what sort of wickedness, is permissible, and when one must be very, very good.

The Old Witch, for example, needs a family in order to be good– witches can’t be alone. So first comes a Little Witch, Hannah, and then Weenie Witch, the witch baby. But then Hannah needs a friend– so she finds a mermaid in a lagoon, named Lurie. And it all starts to sound very idyllic, really…

But is it, quite? What of the Old Witch’s ultimate, deep, existential wickedness? What of her desire for rabbits?

The whole novel is rollicking good fun. The issues at play (wickedness and goodness, obedience and disobedience) are handled so lightly that they let you think without stressing your poor brain, and the Hallowe’en hurly-burly itself is just a delight.

This is the perfect MG novel for children of about age 8 and up who want to enjoy Hallowe’en without being made to shake in their shoes. It’s not remotely scary, and has only the occasional tiny spooky bit.

We’ll have more Hallowe’en stories soon! Some old favourites will be back…

On the Virtues of Re-Reading, and October Giveaway

Dear Readers,

It’s no secret to those who know me that I love reading books I love over and over again. Ask my parents about Pride and Prejudice, for example. Ask my husband about The Secret Garden (every. single. spring.) and Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard and all of Tolkien. Oh… and the Moomins.

Some re-readings are a little more measured, thoughtful, perhaps casual: I hadn’t read Haroun and the Sea of Stories in over a decade and couldn’t remember it well, so I read it again. (Just as glorious the second time around. You should all read it, and I plan to write it up eventually.)

Some are more… compulsive, instinctive, and burning with need. This doesn’t make the books better or worse (can’t get much better than Haroun, I wager!) but there’s a form of passion involved that means I’m tearing bookshelves apart to get at the necessary volume.

You’re all thinking, “Uh-oh,” right now, and I don’t blame you. First, I suppose I sound a little crazy. (I own that. I am a little crazy.) Second, I bet you’re all worried about what I’m compulsively reading right now.

The weird thing is, despite my strong belief in the high values of re-reading books, I actually haven’t been compulsively re-reading anything lately, and I miss it.

I miss what you learn from re-reading books. (Craft, nuance, and compelling characters. If it’s not a book which inspires warm re-readings, it probably lacks compelling characters.)

I miss the glorious feeling of reveling in plot. (Again, books without some form of really good plot don’t compel me to re-immerse myself. I do not mean it has to be a rushed plot: Martin Pippin is slow and weird! But it has to have a good, immersive story.)

I miss the feeling of being drawn on by the Pied Piper, whether I will or no.

But just lately I’ve been hearing the beginnings of a tune, and I can’t tell whether I’m being called to one or the other of Cat’s books:

The Glass Town Game

Is this what the Pied Piper wants me to read? Or is this set what the Pied Piper wants me to read?

Right now I’m letting it go, finishing up another book, and letting the piping grow more and more insistent, but I’ve discovered something…

I want friends to read with me! And you know what that means:

Fellow readers, I want you to enjoy and revel in the pleasures of Cat Valente’s worldbuilding with me. Here are the rules:

a) I will send THREE readers each ONE paperback of one of Cat’s books. The usual rules apply. I will ship anywhere in the world, and I will pay for shipping. Seriously. I’ve sent books everywhere. Just ask.

b) Email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com with your choice. Don’t apologize if, say, you want The Boy Who Lost Fairyland. Maybe you own the first three, and just need #4. That’s OK! Just be honest.

c) If you need a recommendation? Ask! Maybe you’re new to Cat’s MG fiction and don’t know where to start.

d) Yes, this is (mostly) for Cat’s MG. I adore her adult fiction, too, and would happily talk to you about it. But this is really to promote The Glass Town Game and Fairyland. THAT SAID… I do want you to experience Cat’s fiction and if you’re stumbling over the MG, well, we can talk. You never know. Point is– if you want to read something by Cat and don’t know where to start, email me! deborah@childrensbookroom.com

e) No deadline, first come, first served. Once I’ve mailed three books, we’re closed. (Probably.) But email me any time in October to check!

So, let’s get reading! Tell me what you want to read, and we’ll all get started. October is Cat Valente season round these parts: Let’s get reading!