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“Jane, the Fox and Me” by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Jane, the Fox and MeIf you are short of friends, there is nowhere to hide in the grey-brownish world of a junior high school in Montreal. Even on the bus in the morning, your non-friends never stop teasing you, and once you get to school they lurk in every corner, on the stairs and behind bathroom doors which are scrawled all over with insults aimed only at you.

This is how Jane, the Fox and Me – a graphic novel which might be a helping hand for young readers – begins. Its original title is actually Jane, le renard & moi, as it was written by Quebec playwright and translator Fanny Britt and boasts the beautiful drawings of Quebec illustrator Isabelle Arsenault.

Their book has proved a success: perhaps also owing to the important role played in the story by the figure of Jane Eyre, it has been warmly welcomed in Britain. It was published there last February by Walker Books, in the wake of the success achieved in the United States, where it gained significant recognition. The American edition – in the translation by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou – was chosen as a New York Times Best Illustrated Children Book for 2013. Among other languages, Jane, le renard & moi has also been translated into Italian, and its beautiful cover, showing the young protagonist Hélène in company of Jane Eyre and a flamboyant red fox, can be currently seen in Italian bookshops.

The graphic novel addresses with both precision and humour a problem affecting especially junior high schools around the world, from Britain to Japan, Italy or America: child bullying. As the reference to a rather old song suggests (Love Over and Over by the Quebec duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle) the story is probably set in the 1980s, a decade when the phenomenon was not yet exacerbated by abuse via the social networks.

Before she is singled out as a victim, the protagonist Hélène shares a passion with her school girlfriends for crinoline dresses. However, she cannot afford to buy a vintage dress, and when her super busy mum finally manages to sew one for her, nobody cares for crinoline any more. What is worse, her now ex-friends start calling her fat and smelly for no reason at all. Unlike the other girls, Hélène loves eating ice-cream and raspberry jellies, but she does not look fat in the drawings. Nevertheless, insults flourish on the school bathroom doors: «Hélène weighs 216», «Hélène smells like BO»(that is, body odour.) And the final anathema: «Don’t talk to Hélène. She has no friends now».

So the world turns grey for Hélène. We do not get to see her orange crinoline dress with red polka dots. From the start, all the strips and drawings in the book are in shades of grey, the right colour to convey how gloomy life has become for the little girl. Still, Hélène has her resources at home. Not only does her mum sew for her and work hard for her children. She is also capable of sending Hélène conspiratorial glances when they go shopping together, and make fun of silly shop assistants. She even throws fantastic dinner parties for her friends, transforming the house into a place full of light and music.

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Jane, the Fox and MeOnly half-despairing at the situation and full of humour like her mum, Hélène soon discovers an old strategy to protect herself from the attacks: reading. Plain, solitary but clever Jane Eyre is a heroine, but Hélène does not take her too seriously and considers her character and story with a critical eye. With the only comfort of the book, she then leaves for a much-feared school camp in the Laurentian Mountains, where she fears she will be at the complete mercy of her torturers. Surprisingly, however, a magic encounter with a red fox in the forest and the friendship of a vivacious girl, Géraldine, finally restore colours to her world. At the end of the story, Hélène realises that the right way to face her problem is simply to stop thinking too much about it.

At the same time, in the last pages, a green leaf, a pair of red trainers, and random colour blotches refresh the rather limited colour palette, which up to this point in the story have been confined to grey and brownish, with the only exception with the strips depicting Jane Eyre and the fox, both prevalently painted an orange-red.

Hélène’s story reminds children that there are ways to avoid persecution from their peers. In particular, it points to a very simple strategy, if perhaps out of reach for today’s hyper-technologized teenagers: they can take refuge and find inspiration in a book. Clever Hélène discovers her strategy quite early in the story, and she is able to get over her problem before the school year ends.

This book also shows its young readers how free and independent they can be from other people’s abuse, how much they can rely on their own resources, as well as on the beauty and surprises life has in the stores for them. It points out how all these experiences help them grow out of their problems.

The beautiful drawings by Isabelle Arsenault make this encouragement all the more clear.

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