It’s not often you see picture books for young children which address depression. Sure, there are probably many informative nonfiction titles on the subject, but I specifically mean fictional titles that approach the subject in a metaphorical way.
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I hesitate to use the word “depression,” in fact, given that it implies a clinical diagnosis of a chemically imbalanced despair done by a professional in the medical field. Lots of children experience such a thing, but one can also merely get the blues. Leslie Staub and illustrator R.G. Roth address this in Everybody Gets the Blues, released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January.
Complete with a text that reads like its own blues number, Staub—who is from New Orleans and reportedly wrote this as a response to Hurricane Katrina—reminds us that feeling “all bad and mad and sad inside” is normal. The young boy of the book communicates his doldrums to none other than the Blues Guy, who tips his hat and then lets the boy grump and cry. He eventually takes the boy soaring through the air (complete with his trumpet) to show him that everyone gets sad: “moms and dads, dogs and cats, rodeo clowns in silly hats, scary bullies, beauty queens, little old ladies from New Orleans…”
In the Winter 2011 volume of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Philip Nel and Julia L. Mickenberg addressed the topic in their further look at “radical children’s literature,” or books that, among other things, “recognize the cognitive and emotional capacities of children”—and in a way that “display[s] literary and aesthetic quality.”
This means, of course, that they’re done well, with subtlety and grace. (There are plenty of books for children that address such emotions in a clunky and condescending manner.) One of the most beautiful, which Nel and Mickenberg note, is Shaun Tan’s arresting 2001 title, The Red Tree, which “[invites] readers to view the world through the eyes of a clinically depressed child.”
In March, Kids Can Press will bring readers another picture book, Virgina Wolf, addressing this subject using a unique take on despair “loosely inspired” by writer Virginia Woolf and her older sister, artist Vanessa Bell. It comes from the same author-illustrator duo who brought us 2010’s Spork, Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault. It’s beautifully illustrated (no surprise, given that it’s Arsenault, such a gifted artist) and throbs with an intense energy, especially in the opening: One day “Virginia woke up feeling wolfish.” (“The whole house sank. Up became down. Bright became dim. Glad became gloom.”)
Depicted by Arsenault as a dark shadow hiding under bedcovers, appearing very lupine with what look like ears sticking up out of her head, Virginia growls and yells. She scares away visitors, barks at her sister to stop painting her and orders her to leave her alone after the well-meaning sibling’s attempts to cheer her. Eventually, her sister merely “lay[s] beside her on the bed. We were two quiet lumps under the blanket. We sank deep among the pillows.”
Sitting in a lovely silence, they gaze out the window. “There must be something that will make everything feel better,” her sister says. Virginia’s response? “IF I WERE FLYING RIGHT NOW I MIGHT FEEL BETTER.” She goes on to describe “A PERFECT PLACE,” involving “FROSTED CAKES AND BEAUTIFUL FLOWERS AND EXCELLENT TREES TO CLIMB AND ABSOLUTELY NO DOLDRUMS,” a place she matter-of-factly calls “BLOOMSBERRY.” (Yes, her words are all in caps. She is still in her deepest of despairs, after all, and quite shouty.)
And the response her sister has to Virginia’s fantasies holds the true magic of this book. She tiptoes out of the room with her paints and carefully, slowly creates Bloomsberry with her paintbrush. She brings “the outside inside,” creating lush gardens on her sister’s walls. And Virginia starts to pay attention. “The whole house lifted. Down became up. Dim became bright. Gloom became glad.”
I happen to be a huge sucker for this theme in literature and art and music, the arts’ very power to heal—to repair or at least soften, that is, those stinging emotional wounds we all carry. When done as well and as poignantly as it’s done in this book, I get a big lump in my throat and start seeking the closest tissue box.
This one, also a touching tribute to sisterly relationships, is written with warmth by Maclear, who knows how to get out of her own way and tell a story with economy and emotion. And Arsenault’s mixed-media illustrations take readers from a mostly dark world of shadows to one of vivid colors and swirling lines, all standing in for the compassion and kindness of Virginia’s sister.
And those wolf ears? Thanks to her sister, Virginia’s up and about at the end, and in the light we clearly see her big, pointy blue bow, complete with some rosy cheeks and a bit of a smile.
No doubt the wolf will return, but for now, she’s got the gardens of Bloomsberry and a sister who loves her.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.