Monday, December 08, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #342: Jane, the Fox & Me by Britt & Arsenault

Being a teenager is the worst thing that everyone has to live through. And if being one weren't bad enough, inevitably teens have to live among and with other teens, who are at best half-socialized animals on their way to actually becoming human beings one of these days. (At worst -- don't ask what teens at their worst are like.)

A lot of people forget this, or try to forget it, once they're not teenagers anymore: it's not fun to remember that anxiety and despair and uneasiness and other raw-nerve feelings of those years. But the best stories about teens know that even the ones who look most self-assured and organized are frantically trying to build themselves, day by day, from inside.

Jane, the Fox and Me knows that pain: its young narrator, Helene, is living through it day-by-day. For some reason -- or most likely, for no reason -- the other girls in her small school turned on her a few months back, calling her fat, writing nasty graffiti about her, and snickering behind their hands. They're all on the cusp of puberty -- maybe thirteen, maybe eleven -- and girls and boys are still separate tribes. Helene has no friends, since queen bee Genevieve made her the scapegoat. And it eats at Helene, and makes her obsess about the things they call her, and to internalize them.

The only thing Helene has to hold onto is the book she's reading: Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which Helene is slowly reading, a few pages each day on the bus to and from school, all this winter and spring. Jane's tribulations are like a mirror to Helene's own, and she believes that if Jane can find a happy ending, she can, too. (Or, more darkly, vice versa.)

And then, as the school year is finally coming towards its end, there's a sudden class trip: all forty of them, out in the woods together for four days. It's a present, and there's no way out: Helene will be stuck with all of those bullying girls, all of those kids who are not her friends, for the whole time. But maybe she can find something to cling to during that trip: maybe Jane Eyre will end well, or she'll see something in nature to inspire her, or, even, make a new and true friend.

Jane, the Fox & Me is written sparely, almost like a journal, entirely in Helene's words. The author, Fanny Britt, is best-known as a playwright, which may have given her the tools to focus so closely on Helene's misery and pare away everything extraneous. We see a little of Helene's home life and a little more of her school life, but we know her from what Britt tells us through her words.

Matching Britt's words are Isabelle Arsenault's art: mostly black and white in what looks like soft pencil and crayon, with washes of color bursting in for some scenes -- Jane's story, in particular, is more colorful and sharper-edged than Helene's own. Her lettering is distinctive and expressive rather than uniform; entirely hand-drawn letter by letter.

This is a subtle and powerful story of bullying and coping, of one of the many ways that it can be horrible to be a teen, of the unexpected things that can suddenly pop up and make your life better almost in an instant. It's a lovely, emotionally powerful, excellent graphic novel, and it shouldn't be left for people who happen to be teens at the moment.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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