Title: Jane, the fox & me
Author: Fannie Britt
Illustrator: Isabelle Arsenault
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Publication Date: September 1, 2013 (English translation)
Audience: Grades 5 and up
Summary: This coming of age graphic novel tells the story of Hélène, an early adolescent girl whose childhood friends have turned against her (no reason given) and made her the object of their derision and disdain. Confused and hurt by the cruel words both spoken to her and written about her on school walls and passed notes, Hélène works hard at hiding.
Throughout this lonely and confusing time, Hélène takes comfort in reading Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. In Jane, she finds a kindred spirit – someone ignored and abandoned, but with inner strength and a strategy to overcome her sadness. Jane’s story becomes a way for Hélène to try and understand her own experience.
On a mandated school camping weekend, living in the ‘outcast’ tent with two other girls, Hélène has a moment of connection with a small red fox that emerges from the woods as she is sitting in front of the tent. A scream from one of her tent mates, berating her for trying to touch a fox that is probably dangerous and rabid, leaves Hélène feeling like she has become so worthless that even something sick would have nothing to do with her. It is the lowest point of the story.
Soon after, however, Géraldine arrives at the outcast tent, banished from her own tent because of her unwillingness to join the cruelty. Slowly, a friendship emerges in which jokes, conversation, questions, and the sharing of favorite stories become a part of the week. Hélène returns home with a best friend and this connection changes her understanding of herself and gives her a new understanding of Jane’s strength as well.
Literary elements at work in the story: In a graphic novel, both the spare words and the images must tell the story. The art panels that tell Hélène’s story include both one page full panels and smaller multi panel pages, with the full panel pages being particularly adept at powerfully depicting isolation and loneliness. When Hélène is narrating, all pictures are crafted in shades of brown and grey. The drab colors add emotional punch, and the slight addition of color and a font change when Jane is in the picture help keep the parallel stories unique and understandable. The reader is given, with these simple changes, the sense of connection that Hélène feels when reading this novel.. When Hélène tells her mother some time after the camping trip that Géraldine is her best friend, the next full page spread shows two small flowers of blue and yellow in the midst of a grey landscape. Over the next four final pages, the color expands as Hélène’s own sense of herself expands with the connection to Géraldine paving the way to that new understanding.
The text of the book is sometimes difficult to read because of its cruelty, and because of Hélène’s own self-aware commentary about what is happening to her.. The taunts and insults that Hélène’s former friends send her way are painful and so unnecessary. (“Hélène weighs 216!” is written on a bathroom stall, although the pictures of Hélène do not reflect this.) Hélène’s own interior dialogue indicates the pain that grips her at school. (After hearing her friends snickering at the back of the bus, Hélène notes that “even with my creeping vine of an imagination, I’m always taken off guard by the insults she invents. The same thing happens every time – another hole opens up in my rib cage. Hearing everything. Hearing nothing.” p.18.)
There are many picture books and novels about bullying and self-esteem. The graphic novel format used here tells another such story in an extremely powerful way.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? This story is a translation of one originally written in French, and the setting is Montreal, but it could be anywhere. Hélène’s family consists of two brothers and a mother who obviously works very hard. (A father is never mentioned, and the mother is depicted as juggling many household chores by herself so one assumes this is a single parent home.) There are several scenes in which decisions about money have to be made and it is clear that this is a working class family. The book, however, does not seem to be saying that not having as much money as others has created the problems with Hélène’s friends.
Theological Conversation Partners: Just like Hélène found in Jane Eyre’s story a way to see and understand herself, the Bible offers a way for us to see and understand ourselves. Despite God’s good gift of community (Genesis 2), we read stories of people who are alienated from that community by the actions of others. The Samaritan woman (John 4) , the children who were kept away from Jesus (Matthew 19, Luke 18), or Zaccheus (Luke 19) are but a few examples of situations where the ruling community declared who was important and who was not. The Bible is also full of the anguish of those who are feeling hurt and lonely and who express those feelings to God (Ps. 22, 142).
But the Bible also holds up a mirror that allows us to see community as God intended it. Stories such as the Good Samaritan ( Luke 10), the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) , or even Paul’s letters reflecting on how to live in community (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12) remind us that God calls us to reach out to those who are outcast and hurting. Our response to the Helene’s of the world can be to offer the gift of compassion and love and inclusion.
This book is written for upper elementary and middle school children for whom issues of identity and self-esteem can sometimes be overwhelming. As those who work with children and young people, it is important that we share with them over and over their identity as beloved children of God . (Isaiah 43, 1 John 3, Galatians 3.) Equally important is to help them see the belovedness in all God’s children and to develop the capacity to reach out to include them in community.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Hélène was once friends with the girls in this book. Does the story give any clues as to what might have happened to have changed their friendship?
- What pictures in this book help you understand best how lonely and hurt Hélène feels?
- Hélène sees herself looking like a sausage when in fact she looks like no such thing! Why do you think it is sometimes hard for us to see ourselves as we really are?
- What does Géraldine do that encourages Hélène to think they might be friends? Are any of the actions that Géraldine takes something you could do to be a friend to someone who might be feeling lonely?
- Géraldine stands up to other children who are bullying Hélène. What would it take for you to stand up to someone who was hurting someone else?
- The Bible tells us that God tells each one of us, “I have called you by name. You are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1). What difference does it make to you that God knows and loves you? How can knowing that help you when you feel unloved or unlovable?
- What stories in the Bible are important to you and why? How do they help you think about yourself and your choices?
This review was written by alumna Ann Thomas Knox who serves as Director of the Instructional Resource Center at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Jane, the fox & me by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.