Virginia Wolf

by Kyo Maclear; ill. Isabelle Arsenault

Kids Can Press, 2012

32 pages

Fifty years ago, Maurice Sendak published Where The Wild Things Are–and all hell broke loose.

Parents, educators, and politicians alike were horrified that anyone would produce a picture book centered around children’s deepest, darkest emotions and fantasies. Most didn’t want to admit that such emotions and fantasies even existed. Many libraries and schools banned the book, and reviews were overwhelmingly negative.

Then the American Library Association awarded the book the Caldecott Medal, the picture book genre’s highest honor, and adults started to realize that kids loved the book. Wherever it hadn’t been banned, libraries couldn’t keep it on the shelves. Clearly, Sendak had struck a chord.

Producing a book like Wild Things only made sense to Sendak. In his Caldecott acceptance speech, he said, “From their earliest years, children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions. Fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives. . . . And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis.”

In a day when authors and illustrators are accustomed to being much more honest about the true inner lives of children and teens, it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking Where the Wild Things Are was. And it’s still hard to find anyone who engages those inner lives quite as elegantly, productively, and intensely as Sendak did.

But every now and then, I find a book that strikes me as a worthy successor to the Sendak legacy. This time, it was Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault’s Virginia Wolf.

Inspired by the real Virginia Woolf and her sister, this picture book chronicles Vanessa’s efforts to help Virginia overcome a howling, growling wolf of a mood.

Virginia wakes up one morning feeling depressed and irritated. She wants nothing to do with anyone and insists on staying in bed. Her dark mood turns the entire family’s world topsy-turvy–so Vanessa, whose little heart is aching for her sad sister, takes it upon herself to soothe the wolf.

Following a suggestion from Virginia, Vanessa begins to paint: flowers, birds, bugs, trees. And as she paints, Virginia begins to take notice. Eventually, Vanessa creates an immense, weird, and wonderful garden-world called Bloomsberry where Virginia can re-center herself. Then the world returns to rights, and Virginia is a girl again.

There’s so much to love about this book. Maclear’s spare, evocative descriptions of Virginia’s mood perfectly capture the chaos and pain of real depression. And Arsenault’s stunning illustrations–an inventive combination of silhouettes, black-and-white drawings, and thin-lined watercolors–evoke the mental and creative gymnastics both sisters execute over the course of the story.

I’m an inveterate learner, so I personally favor books that open doors to or plant seeds for other topics. And that’s something else to love about Virginia Wolf. It’s an excellent story for introducing young children to the real Virginia Woolf, if only to the fact that she was one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.

Particularly for girls, I think it’s good to hear the names of influential women at a young age, to know from childhood that there are many women who have made great achievements in all kinds of fields. And the book can also open doors to conversations about art, how it affects us, and the creative process.

What’s inspiring about the book, however, is precisely what makes it such a worthy Sendak successor. Children get sad and angry, sometimes extremely so. And full-blown mental illness like depression often begins to manifest during early childhood. (Woolf, who suffered her first nervous breakdown at age 13, was herself a lifelong sufferer of depression and other mental illness.)

Virginia Wolf offers girls coping with outsize emotions–including those who may already be diagnosed with mental illness–a way to see that they’re not alone in how they feel. It also shows them that they’re not alone in coping with their emotions. It plants the idea that there are loved ones standing by who care deeply about how they feel and want to help them heal. It communicates the message that there is no shame in feeling sad or angry, that help is about being healthy, not about repression or blame.

In short, Virginia Wolf tells girls that big emotions are real, that it’s OK to feel and express them, and that the people who love them (especially other girls and women) are a safe place for coping. Unfortunately, it’s not all that common to find this kind of message in a book with female protagonists, but I’m glad to have found at least one book where it holds true.

Thanks to Neely’s News for introducing me to Virginia Wolf!

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