VIRGINIA WOLF, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, written by Kyo Maclear, is the story of two sisters — Vanessa and Virginia — one bright and sunny, and the other, well, wolfish. Vanessa tries everything she can think of to cheer her sister up, but nothing seems to work. In a quiet moment of resignation, Virginia tells Vanessa the story of a place she calls Bloomsberry, “with frosted cakes and beautiful flowers and excellent trees to climb and absolutely no doldrums.” Vanessa becomes inspired to paint this imaginary place, Virginia is inspired to join in, and creativity is a contagious healer . . .
A picture book about depression and creativity seems like quite a tall order, but Kyo Maclear brings these themes together artfully by creating a story loosely based on the real relationship between author Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. It does a great job of expressing the affecting and powerless feeling that mood disorders have, not only on the sufferer, but on their loved ones — all told in language that kids will relate to:
“One day my sister Virginia woke up feeling wolfish.”
Isabelle Arsenault’s illustrations are what make this book a show-stopper. In this audio clip she described beginning with a very subdued palette, and towards the darkest moments in the middle the art is composed of colorless silhouettes, then crescendos to bursts of color. Her hand-drawn type is perfectly paired and integrated with the artwork.
And there are those great moments of repetition that we love in picture book texts:
[See the sweet trailer for this story.]
I wished the book had included a writer’s note in the back with more information about the real-life inspiration for the sisters, because there are so many little nods in the book to the life and work of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. For example, in researching Vanessa Bell’s artwork, how wonderful is it to see her paintings inspire parts of the illustrations in this book? Or that the name of the magical imaginary place called Bloomsberry is inspired by the place where the real Vanessa and Virginia moved to in England and joined The Bloomsbury Group—an influential group of writers, philosophers, and artists. The more I read about these women and their family and friends, the more fascinating they become. But on second thought, further reading about their lives leads quickly to some very adult topics, so I could see this being a reason against leading kid readers so directly to the inspiration of the book.
VIRGINIA WOLF is a great one for the artistic, or the sensitive, or in most cases, both.
Thanks for this post. I didn’t know about this book, but am now going to look for it. Gorgeous illustrations! And the hand lettering also conveys so much mood.
What a strong review – I cannot wait to read it and now I also am intrigued by Vanessa and Virginia.
So skillfully done. Thanks for sharing!
Love your post. Thanks for sharing this wonderful book!
Feeling woolfish myself today, I’d better get this book! What a wonderful word! Thanks for the heads up.
Isabelle Arsenault is one of my very favorite illustrators, Eliza!! If you haven’t yet seen Cloth Lullaby, get thee to the library! I own a copy–it’s so lovely, both text & art!
I haven’t had a chance to see Cloth Lullaby yet, but can’t wait! Thanks for mentioning it, Maria.
Oh gosh what a lovely and beautifully illustrated book. I must get my hands on this. What a wonderful write-up. Thanks so much for sharing about this. 🙂
This looks gorgeous, Eliza. And what a challenging subject to tackle for kids. Can’t wait to read it!
Can totally relate to feeling wolfish today myself. Just didn’t know that’s the brilliant way to describe it. Clever wonderful review. I’m intrigued.
I am fascinated with books that show interesting relationships, especially those within a family. I can’t wait to get my hands on this one. Thank you for posting.
Hmm . . . depression is a very interesting topic to take on in a picture book. I’m intrigued!
Thanks for introducing me to this lovely and important book!
I can’t wait to see this, thank you so much, Eliza! And (I haven’t seen it yet) it does seem that some mention of the ‘facts’ in an afterward would be interesting and could probably be done in a kid friendly way?
Thanks Jennifer! And I think you’re probably right about finding some way of making that info kid-friendly.
One of our forever favorite books! Had never seen the trailer or audio clip… thank yoU!
Thanks so much for reading and all the lovely comments, everyone!
This book looks amazing – thanks for sharing.