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HELBLING READERS BLOG

HELBLING READERS BLOG

Beat the bullies through books: a review of Jane, the Fox & Me

November 11, 2019 by Nora Nagy

I told her, You’ll see, the story ends well.

Did you have any books in your childhood and teenage years which surrounded you with a protective haze? The ones which made you feel safe and ‘normal’ and where the world was a wondrous place? Books where you could escape, whose main characters you could secretly (or openly) relate to, books that inspired you and gave you hope and the courage to go on? Books which didn’t make you feel like a stranger, but rather that you had friends just a page away. Jane, the Fox & Me written by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault is one of those books. It is a graphic coming-of-age story for pre-teens and teens as much as it is a story for adults. We also think that it is a great book for language learners as not only will students feel connected to the characters (who range from cool-kid gangs through your everyday nerds and outcasts), but they will also find lots of fun language resources to explore. And the real help lies in the visual world of the book, as it will support the language learner just enough to make sure they never feel lost.

Recently I  showed the book to a varied bunch of younger and older friends, and it stirred up memories and emotions in every single one of them. The story works on multiple levels to tell the story of Hélenè, a young teenager who is picked on by the usual bullies at school.  Hélenè is confused and hurt by the situation and isolates herself. The only refuge she finds is in reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.

The plot

Guessing from the references to the music and videogames that Hélenè’s twin brothers are interested in, the story is set in the 1980s. However, the characters are so realistic and their problems are so familiar to anyone who has ever gone to school that the story could very well take place in our time. We are in Montréal, Canada, and Hélenè feels lonely and depressed because the ‘cool’ girls school have turned against her, calling her fat and making fun of her. She doesn’t tell anyone about this, not even her kind and loving mother because she doesn’t want to worry her. Instead, she creates strategies to cope with being bullied. On the bus, in the school camp, and even at home, she escapes by reading the story of Jane Eyre, sharing her own take on the classic with us. Her ordeal gets worse when the whole class goes on a school camp for a few days, and she ends up in a tent with all the other outcasts. We get to know the other girls’ survival strategies: focussing on their own beauty or writing a journal. One evening in the camp, a red fox appears from the wilderness, looks into Hélenè’s eyes, and she feels connected for a moment. Although the fox is scared off by one of the girls, its appearance is significant. After the fox incident, a new girl enters Hélenè’s life: Géraldine, a kind-hearted chatterbox, who shows genuine interest in Hélenè. They become friends, and soon enough, Hélenè’s life changes. Despite all the hardship and rejection – just like in Jane Eyre’s life – Hélenè resists and comes to a realisation about the mean words of the bullies at school: ‘I’m starting to see that the less I think about it, the less it’s true.’ Her neverending hope and belief in a happy ending – just like in the story of Jane Eyre – helps her endure and make a good friend.

Visual storytelling

From the first moment Hélenè steps into the world of Jane Eyre, the visual world of the book changes. Up to this point, the graphic style was monochrome brown and grey pencil drawings in a comic book type representation. When we enter Brontë’s novel, we see a colourful world with three main colours in all sorts of shades: red, green and blue. These pages are crafted in coloured ink, and as the illustrator, Isabelle Arsenault explains in an interview, she wanted to achieve an affect which would ‘allow the readers themselves to breathe and escape’. When Hélenè connects with the fox or makes friends with Géraldine, colours start to appear: the fox is red, and the whole world turns colourful when she feels more secure and accepted by a friend.

The interplay of all the visual features together with the spare written text create this narrative. Without any of the visual elements, the story would be less compelling and less powerful. Not only do the different media (pencil and ink) and the colours carry meaning, but also the layout and the typography contribute to the final narrative. A plot summary without the emotions and meanings expressed through the visual features would give us only a small portion of the whole story.

Although it might be difficult for students to reflect on the visual features, draw their attention to them when you discuss the story in class. For example, you can ask: ‘When do colours appear?’, ‘Why is the fox red?’, ‘How does a double page with the girl standing in the forest alone make you feel?’, ‘Why do the pages turn colourful in the end?’ ‘How do the brown/grey drawings of Hélenè’s life before Géraldine make you feel?

Double page from Jane, the Fox & Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. © Walker Books. Source: Picturebook Makers Blog

Reading as refuge 

We see Hélenè disappear in her book, and this can be read on two levels in the book. Reading functions as a shield against any danger and harm, and also as an invisible door into a land of hope and wonder. Hélenè faces harsh and painful verbal attacks at school, but she finds safety and liberty the moment she opens her book.

Apart from the act of reading, the story of Jane Eyre also offers Hélenè refuge. Jane suffers a difficult childhood, but in Hélenè’s words, ‘she grows up to be clever, slender and wise anyway.’ And as we learn, ‘Everyone needs a strategy, even Jane Eyre’. When Hélenè’s life takes a turn for the worse, she arrives at the difficult stages of Jane’s life. And just when Hélenè starts seeing colours and hope around her, she realises that Jane’s life is improving, too. Jane discovers she can love Mr. Rochester despite all his faults. And, just like Jane, Hélenè starts seeing herself more clearly, learning to move forward, out of the darkness of her bullies’ destructive world. She is even able to share her love of reading and love of the story of Jane Eyre with Géraldine, her new friend. Because as we learn, ‘You’ll see, the story ends well.’

The creators of the book

  • Fanny Britt is a Canadian playwright and translator living in Quebec, Canada.
  • Isabelle Arsenault is an award-winning French Canadian illustrator living in Montréal, Canada. Check out her website here.
  • The publisher is Walker Books.

If you are interested in the story of Jane Eyre, you can find the e-text on Project Gutenberg. If you’d like to read it with your teen or adult langauge learners, check out our graded reader edition:

  • Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Brontë, adapted by Frances Mariani and illustrated by Caterina Baldi - level 4 reader, CEFR levels A2-B1