Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Jane, the Fox & Me is a large format hardcover, the space giving illustrator Isabelle Arsenault room to stretch out with beautifully muted drawings in pencil and watercolour washes, in shades of beige and grey. The story by Quebecois playwright Fanny Britt is aimed at younger readers, and Isabelle Arsenault’s many children’s books make her an excellent choice for this graphic novel set in a Canadian school in the 1980s.
Hélène is a young girl who is being bullied. A group of mean girls taunt her on the schoolbus, in the playground, by the lockers, in the lunchroom – even though she has done absolutely nothing to cause them to hate her. It’s just random cruelty, but knowing that doesn’t help her at all. They make horrible remarks to her about her weight, writing spiteful taunts on the toilet wall (“Hélène weighs 216 … she smells like BO”) and although she is almost exactly the same size as everyone else in her class, she feels sure all the other kids are agreeing and staring at her in judgement. Her only escape is the copy of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre that she carries with her at all times, diving into its pages for a little solace from reading about Jane’s problems instead. Arsenault’s drawings for the Jane Eyre pages are clean graphic bursts of colour for a world that has more clarity to it than the murkier place that Hélène has to live in. One day she hears the bad news that there’s a school camping trip coming up. The whole class is going and there’s no way out. How is she going to survive it?
Jane, The Fox & Me was originally published in French, and the translation of Fanny Britt’s text by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou is formal and slightly stilted, in a way that frequently reminds you it’s a translation. The melancholy tone and Hélène’s bookish isolation makes that formality less obtrusive than it would be in a different kind of setting, so it works out.
This is a beautifully told story, but the solution to Hélène’s woes is as random as the problem itself. In the last couple of pages she begins to accept herself and whatever perfectly normal flaws she might have, and the ending is comforting and reassuring for both Hélène and Jane Eyre. There aren’t really any lessons to take away from the neat resolution of this tale, but for children who are having a hard time it might be enough just to have a sympathetic book to disappear into for a while, just as Hélène did.