I get excited to see new books from Kids Can Press. They often publish books created by artists and illustrators overseas, and I always find it intriguing to see what folks are doing with picture books in other countries.
They also publish a fair number of books from our northern neighbors in Canada, given that they’re based in that country. One of their newer titles, Loula is Leaving for Africa, is written and illustrated by one such Canadian, Anne Villeneuve. And it’s a treat, this one.
Villeneuve gets right to the action on page one of this book with Loula, our young protagonist, declaring that she’s had enough and is running away. That’s because on the very first page, her triplet brothers trip her, knocking over her beloved tea set and her favorite toy cat, as Loula falls to the ground. One gets the sense that this is one of a long list of grievances she’s suffered at their hands (and feet!). She leaves with her essentials: her cat, her tea set and her best drawing. (I love those choices.) Her mother is too busy practicing arias to really care that she’s hightailin’ it out the door, and her father can’t be interrupted either, as he’s busy creating new mustaches.
Loula clearly lives an upper class lifestyle, since—as she stomps outside—there’s a limo waiting. I suppose it’s for her diva opera-star of a mother, though the driver, Gilbert, is later referred to as the “family chauffeur.” Loula plows past the vehicle, heading stubbornly to the nearest tree. Villeneuve consistently depicts her with a mess of scribbles above her head to communicate the frustration and anger she feels.
When Gilbert asks her what she’s doing up in the tree, she declares that it’s really Africa. Gilbert gets out a map and shows her that Africa is actually elsewhere. The kind and wise chauffeur convinces her that she’ll need a companion for this trip to the continent, as well as a “ship,” which is really the limo. (“I hope you don’t get seasick,” he tells her, driving off.) Off he goes to accompany her, putting his imagination to work to delight and comfort the child and merely taking her to a nearby park: A bird up in a tree is really a snake (“let’s pretend we don’t see him”); a passing horse in the park is a giraffe; an ice cream vendor is a restaurant; the sandbox is the desert; and the seesaw is a plane.
Loula plays along, happily. In the end, they sit together next to a stream and enjoy the quiet. There’s a poignant wordless spread that shows the two enjoying tea together (don’t worry—her toy cat is still there) as they watch the sun set.
We read repeatedly that the best thing caretakers can give children is their attention. Not more toys, not more video games, not more stuff. We read it, in fact, every time we turn around. Is it starting to get old? Well, it’s true. And if we are reminded ad nauseam, it’s because lots of parents lead busy and over-scheduled lifestyles. (I’m not throwing stones. I can fall for it, too.) This explains the prevalence of picture books today about busy parents, whose attention to the screens in their lives (though Loula’s parents are busy with their art) causes their frustrated children to run away and enter into the world of their imagination (Matthew Cordell’s hello! hello! and Aaron Becker’s Journey, to name only two such recent books).
This book makes us stop and think in the same way. In the end, Loula gets what she wants and needs: attention, time, quiet and imaginative play from an adult in her family. (One gets the sense that Gilbert may as well be family.)
All that’s to say that those children who feel a bit of that “I’m busy” sting from their harried parents may find that this story really resonates with them.
But the book delights in many ways, not just for this subtle point it makes about time and attention. The ink and watercolor illustrations, for one, are lively and brisk. Villeneuve’s lines are relaxed and fluid and bring much energy to the tale, and she tells the story with an understatement that is endearing. She manages to make Loula spunky and plucky without being too precious about it.
A sweet (but never saccharine) and tender story of friendship, this one charms in every way.
LOULA IS LEAVING FOR AFRICA. Copyright © 2013 by Anne Villeneuve. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Kids Can Press, Toronto.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.