“If we’re lucky, art can help us through our wolfishness.”*

Kids Can Press, 2012

And it does, indeed, help Virginia get through her wolfishness.

As does her sister, Vanessa. And the painting of Bloomsberry.

What’s this? A children’s book about Virginia Woolf? But we all know how THAT story ends.

And, yet, Kyo Maclear’s story begs the question: maybe we focus too much on the ending.

Adult readers of this story, who know that Virginia Woolf suffered from mental illness and depression and eventually drowned herself, will perhaps judge that young readers should not be exposed to such realities.

But young readers who accept this as a storybook will find the story of two sisters, one who wakes up “feeling woofish” and another who is desperate to help her out of it (out of bed, out of the wolfishness).

The story is one of getting through the wolfishness, a triumph.

(And, isn’t it true that we tend as adults to focus on the incident that Virginia Woolf did not come through, but in fact there must have been many successful navigations of troubled times that preceded that loss.)

And the triumph is rooted in art.

Isabelle Arsenault’s artwork is detailed and playful in nature. (You can see some full pages on her site here.)

Even on the opening page, when Virginia has growled and moaned and pulled up her covers over her head, her room is filled with energy.

Not in colour (no, the shades are muted reds, blues and greys).

Not in movement either (for the parts and pieces are still, including the wolfish ears visible against the pillowcase).

But in content. It is a room busy with childhood. There are toys on the bookshelves, a teacup next to the bed, sharpened pencils on the mantle, pieces of an alarm clock sprung and smashed.

It is a busy room, but the movement is arrested in this moment.

Even the two stuffed toys atop the fireplace are unsmiling (their mouths simple, flat lines).

And the painting of the rabbit makes him appear sorrowful, even fearful, as he faces away from the wolfish form beneath the covers, as though he is fleeing even within his frame.

When Virginia’s wolfishness intensfies, the shades grow ever grey-er. Only Vanessa and a girlfriend appear with much colour in the first half of the story.

When Virginia is imagining something good, there are fragile, hesitant lines of colour, as her slim wolfish form strains to express this snippet of hope to her sister.

But left to herself, beneath the covers, Virginia only becomes more wolfish. Ultimately it is Vanessa’s art that overcomes Virginia’s howls and growls (though in response to what Viriginia has described as “perfect”).

In the second half of the story, the use of colour changes dramatically; for instance, background colours contrast, and the stuffed toys appear completely differently, but to discuss it in more detail steels from the power of the story.

But, lest the idea of the sombre ending of Virginia Woolf’s story caution you against this book, take note that this story is one of two sisters.

  “We looked out the window and gazed at the sky. We watched the clouds: a smudgy sailboat, a flying llama and a floating castle. It was like a whole other world.
Still, my sister said nothing. To anybody.”

At the end of Virginia Wolf, the only wolfish bit of Virginia, which the reader can see, is the blue bow on her head; from another angle, and in another colour, that bow would take the shape of ears. But, here, it is blue, and not the mournful, watery blue with which the story began.

Kyo Maclear also writes stories for adults (I really enjoyed her first novel, The Letter Opener, though I’ve yet to read her latest, Stray Love) and has written one other for children (Spork). Have you read her work before? Or, are you thinking of doing so now?

* This quote is taken from an essay which appears on her site as an “Extra”.