Jane, the Fox & Me

by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault; trans. by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou

Groundwood Books, 2012

104 pages

When I was a kid, I often felt as though I lived in friendship limbo. I always had 2 or 3 very close, loyal friends, but I was never part of the “popular” crowd and often endured teasing and bullying from both boys and girls who had more social cachet. And then there were my limbo friends: the half-dozen or so people who seemed to love me until someone more popular appeared.

Very early in childhood, books became my escape from this relationship drama. I discovered Dickens in second grade, followed soon after by Nancy Drew, Narnia, L.M. Montgomery, Tolkien, and Louisa May Alcott. Those became my staples through elementary school and middle school. Tolkien and the nineteenth-century novels, in particular, drew me in for their beautiful depictions of friendship and love and their sometimes-overblown stories that eventually, always, tidily resolved.

In high school, I added Steinbeck and Victor Hugo to my bookshelf. Their stories were messier – more realistic, frankly. But by that time, I’d built a handful of solid, affirming friendships and learned to ignore or limit my emotional investment in people who wanted me to be someone I was not (as opposed to the best version of myself).

This is why Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault’s Jane, the Fox & Me resonated so deeply with me. It’s the story of Helene, a young girl whose inner monologue has turned toxic because of bullying and social isolation. The format is unusual – a hybrid picture book and graphic novella – and the spare language and careful use of color and line add to the tale’s emotional resonance.

Helene’s friends have jettisoned her (we never learn exactly why, but there are hints that socioeconomic status plays a role), and her mother is so exhausted by the demands of single-parenting three children that she doesn’t realize she’s modeling an unhealthy self-image for her daughter. So Helene dives into books, the world of Jane Eyre in particular, as an escape.

When her entire class is sent to nature camp by the school’s fundraising arm, Helene initially feels even more isolated. But Jane Eyre’s story eventually begins to work its magic – the plain, poor girl who wins love because of her wisdom and quiet strength – and Helene ultimately makes two friends. One is a fox that wanders out of the woods while Helene is reading on the cabin steps one night, and the other is a kind and self-assured classmate who realizes she’d rather join the social outcasts than bully them.

For non-alpha girls navigating the social landscape of middle school, Jane, the Fox & Me is a place to find inspiration. It’s heart-breakingly, but also upliftingly, real. Helene’s tired mother’s face, the awful things Helene says to herself (or her former friends say to her and about her), the stark portrayal of her isolation – they’re unvarnished, sometimes shockingly so. And it’s not like she ends up at the social pinnacle: she just makes a momentary connection with a wild animal and starts to build one firm friendship. But that’s real life, not the overblown and tidily resolved drama of my Victorian escapes. Which means that girls can actually see themselves in Helene and her story. That’s a key requirement for inspiration, and it means that the hope and light brought by Helen’s new friendship is ultimately believable.

Humans are inherently social, even if we don’t all experience ideal sociality the same way. Jane, the Fox & Me shows isolated girls that there is hope of connection, a way to join the wider world without sacrificing who they are.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a copy of Jane Eyre at the library.

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