Unique women find their voices and overcome naysayers in two picture-book biographies that follow their subjects from childhood to middle age.
In Walking in the City with Jane, author Susan Hughes introduces us to a little girl who loves the outdoors. Jane is inquisitive and rebellious, and in 1934, after finishing her schooling in Pennsylvania, she moves to New York City, where she revels in all the neighbourhoods and complex networks that make a big urban ecosystem function. She marries and has children, passing on to them her passion for nature and urban bustle.
Things get exciting when a powerful city planner wants to run a highway through her neighbourhood. Jane protests against this plan by writing letters, attending rallies, and speaking up at meetings. Her efforts – and those of her neighbours – pay off, and the project is cancelled. Every few years, the city tries again, and Jane is always there to organize and put a stop to it. The third time, her activism gets her arrested, making her a local hero. Eventually, Jane moves to Toronto, where she continues to work as an activist for urban communities.
As is the case with many biographies, the narrative stutters a bit as one conflict is quickly solved and we move on to the next, and the next after that. But Jane’s victories have an impact nonetheless. Valérie Boivin’s illustrations, which are full of life, provide charm and support to the story. The warm brown and red tones of busy city neighbourhoods contrast with the cold greys of highways and high-rises.
Jane’s influence remains relevant today, whether it’s via ongoing efforts to protect nature and local communities from commercial development or in the way she combined family life with activism. In the book, we see her children alongside her at rallies as she stands up to those who want to destroy their community – a precursor to the mothers at the recent Women’s Marches who attended with their children, signs in hand.
In Bloom, author Kyo Maclear follows a similar story trajectory but tackles issues of artistic expression and self-confidence rather than activism.
Elsa is born in Rome in 1890 to a cold family who make her feel ugly and unloved; she finds solace in the city’s vibrant flower market. Realizing early that she must take steps to nurture her creativity, Elsa tries to plant seeds in her own ears, mouth, and nose in the hope that she can cover herself in blooms. When she finds herself in Paris as a young woman, with an invitation to a ball and little money to spend, she makes herself a dress and falls in love with fashion.
In Paris, she’s welcomed into a group of other artists, including Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, and looks to make her mark. The first design she sells – a sweater with a trompe l’oeil bow – is a huge success, and soon her unconventional creations are everywhere. Leaving behind the dark insecurities of her childhood, Elsa devotes herself to putting beauty out into the world.
Julie Morstad’s delicate art brings the vibrancy of flowers and 1920s and 1930s frock fashions alive. By focusing closely on Elsa’s quest for beauty and her ultimate triumph as a designer, Bloom takes a contemplative step back from the purely biographical and becomes a gentle ode to self-expression.