Montreal author Fanny Britt and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault did not meet until they started collaborating on their first graphic novel, 2012’s Jane, le renard et moi, about a socially ostracized girl, Hélène, who finds solace within the pages of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It was Arsenault’s French publisher (and husband), Frédéric Gauthier at La Pastèque, who played matchmaker, intuiting a kindred connection between Arsenault’s versatile illustrative style and Britt’s poetic writing. Jane, which is available in 15 languages – including the English Jane, the Fox and Me, published by Groundwood Books, and translated by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli –established the duo as a formidable team, earning a stack of awards and international praise for its nuanced approach to the sensitive subjects of bullying and self-image.
This October, Britt and Arsenault tackle another tough topic in Louis Undercover, which follows an introspective young boy as he pines for his first love, while enduring the effects of his father’s alcoholism on his family. Here, the two speak about their creative process, the emotional wisdom of children, and uncovering light in dark places.
On their unusual partnership
Britt: We didn’t have any recipe when we created Jane, the Fox and Me because it was so new for both of us. The graphic-novel style was very experimental at that point. We’ve never questioned our process, but everyone is always surprised to hear that Isabelle never intervenes in my writing, and I never intervene in her illustrating. When I’m writing, I’m completely alone and I do my thing, and then Isabelle reads it and goes off and does her thing with complete respect. It seems like that’s unusual, but it suits us. For Louis Undercover, the main difference was that we had a previous book together, and we were trying not to be repetitive.
Arsenault: We wanted to stay true to ourselves, but we also wanted something different. We knew [the two books] would have some resemblance in the scenes or the way we speak, or the way we illustrate and symbolize things. But we didn’t want to have a formula for a nice graphic novel for young people. I think it was a privilege for us to not know that much about the codes of graphic novels and comic books, because it made us free and innocent. We didn’t ask, “Is this graphic-novel-esque enough?” or “Is this for youth or not?” We said, “Let’s not think about anything and just do the story we want to do, and we’ll see who it touches and how it’s perceived when it’s done.”
Britt: During all the translations for Jane, most publishers around the world – Groundwood being the first – insisted on keeping the Québécois aspect. They didn’t want to change the names, they kept the accents on Hélène. We changed one cultural reference for the English version only, which is the McGarrigle sisters. In French, it is the Québécois folk singer Richard Desjardins. It was an homage from me, and I love that the Korean version also includes Richard. I felt very free when I wrote Louis because I didn’t have to think, “Oh, is this universal enough?” If you start thinking about it too much, that’s when you get clichés – you’re afraid of not reaching your audience, or that it’s too local or too specific.
On writing tough subjects for kids
Britt: Isabelle has said any subject can be tackled, as long as it’s done with sensitivity and nuance. And she has a very specific way of illustrating – sometimes it’s incredibly detailed, and sometimes it gets blurry. It’s the presence of both of these traits that make the illustrations so vivid and touching. Also, because Louis is a kid, he doesn’t understand everything that goes on between his parents and with his dad, or even with himself. So there’s always this element of blurriness or confusion that comes with that age. Kids have all of the emotions in them, and when they have an alcoholic parent, they know something is going on even if they might not have the words to express it. I wouldn’t be afraid to talk about feelings with any child.
Arsenault: The subject might be dark, but it’s told with a lot of subtleness – we never see anything shocking or too sad. It’s just emotively touching. But, like Fanny said, we render it through some blurriness where the details are not shown, they’re just suggested. It leaves room for the children’s own interpretation. I like that aspect of Fanny’s writing. She’s descriptive sometimes, and sometimes just open. That makes room for me to explore visually and suggest images. I’m trying to play off of everything and to also have some pages where there’s no text, and leave room for breathing during the story.
On hopefulness and humour
Britt: We always try to offset drama with humour, whether it’s in the text or the illustrations. That’s always my way of avoiding or ducking out of the storylines that I tend to go for. Louis is fairly new, so we haven’t had many talks with readers about it. But what I’ve found is that adults tend to find Louis very, very sad and heartbreaking – and the kids that I talk to tend to see hopefulness and courage. That makes me happy.