Thursday, March 08, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #67: Louis Undercover by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Children know more than adults give them credit for. They know huge things, things too big for words, things they try not to think about. As they get older, they can corral those huge things with words and tame them into the pieces of normal life. But kids can't do that yet: the world is big and dangerous and surprising and entirely out of their control.

Louis is one of those kids: old enough to know things, too young to do anything about them. He's eight or ten, maybe -- old enough to be responsible for his kid brother Truffle (who is not really named Truffle). And he shuttles between his separated father and mother, when he wants to focus on Billie, the girl in his class who he thinks about all the time, but hasn't quite worked up the courage to actually talk to yet.

Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault (writer and artist, respectively) tackle a different story from their first graphic novel Jane, the Fox & Me here -- Louis is younger than Helene was, and there's nothing he can do to solve his own problems. Well, there is something he can do to solve his problem with Billie, and we'll see by the end of the book if he's able to do that.

But Louis's father has a drinking problem, the kind that starts with wine at 11 AM to quiet the shakes and goes on to mania and then depression from there like clockwork. Louis and Truffle seem to only live with their father on weekends, or occasionally -- but this all new. Their parents were together not that long ago, and Louis desperately wants things to go back to normal.

Their mother is the one keeping things together: getting the boys to school, hiding her tears from them, working and cooking and mothering as hard as she can. She moved them from that big, now-mostly-empty house the father is still rattling around about eighteen months ago, to a small apartment in Montreal. The parents are not divorced. Nothing is final. But even Truffle knows, on some level, that something is wrong with his father.

Louis Undercover, if you want to be reductive, is the story of a family broken by an alcoholic, seen by a child, told in comics. But it's so much more than an "issue" story, deeper and more resonant. We all worry about our parents. We all worry about our children. We all are in families that don't work as well as we want them to. We all want to both go back to the good times in the past and move forward to new good times in the future.

Louis tells us this story: it's all in his words, and Britt makes them cutting and true, every moment. Arsenault's softly colored pages, with their fuzzy panel borders, draw us into that story, and make it real while keeping it from being so cutting we can't stand it.

This is a lovely, true book. Like so many books made for younger readers, it should not be restricted only to them. And, frankly, an adult -- a parent -- will get a lot more out of Louis Undercover than even the most thoughtful and mature child. But that's what great books do: they meet you where you are, and also wait for you to grow up, so they can meet you there as well.

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