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Virginia Wolf

by Kyo Maclear; Isabelle Arsenault, illus.

In Kyo Maclear’s latest picture book (following 2010’s Spork), a young girl named Vanessa narrates a simple story. Her sister Virginia has woken in a particularly wolfish mood. She growls, howls, and groans, and her silhouette reveals glimpses of lupine ears, teeth, and tail.

None of Vanessa’s attempts to cheer her sister works, and the grumpy girl states she could only be happy in a perfect place, called Bloomsberry. Vanessa cannot find such a place in the atlas, so she decides to paint it. Soon the walls of the bedroom are alive with flowers, birds, and giant frosted cakes. Thanks to her sister’s efforts, Virginia slowly emerges from her funk, and all is well.

Heaven knows why Maclear felt it necessary to load this sweet story with allusions to Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell, both of whom were members of the famous Bloomsbury Group. The references are not helpful, or funny, especially given the unhappy outcome of Woolf’s lifelong struggle with depression (she drowned herself in 1941).

But perhaps it doesn’t matter. On a basic level, the story works very well. The drama of taming a bad mood is familiar territory for most young readers, the close bond between the sisters is heartwarming, and the uplifting power of art is joyfully proclaimed.

Isabelle Arsenault’s illustrations are inviting and original, moving from subdued blues and greys to brilliant colour as the imaginary world of Bloomsberry comes to life. Her clever transformation of Virginia from wolfish to serene (her wolf ears become a large bow) adds to the drama and its resolution.

With all that it has going for it, the book seems to succeed in spite of, rather than due to, the dark literary allusions within.