March 13, 2012

Virginia Wolf

Written by Kyo Maclear
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Kids Can Press
32 pp.
Ages 5-10

As all readers do, I tried to predict the story of Virginia Wolf, without reading the jacket flaps or blurbs. I was sure it was a retelling of a story in which a wolf named Virginia went after a little girl in a yellow dress, treeing her. I should have known that Kyo Maclear, author of Spork (Kids Can Press, 2010) and adult book, The Letter Opener (HarperCollins Canada, 2007) could not pen such a superficial story.  She didn't.

Virginia, awakens feeling "wolfish": dark, unhappy, reclusive, determined to shut out the noises of the world. Her sister, Vanessa, is surprised by the extent of Virginia's doldrums, and unsuccessfully tries to cheer her up. Only when she makes the effort to ask Virginia what she needs is Vanessa successful in using her artistry to engage Virginia and brighten her mood.

In Virginia Wolf, Kyo Maclear's Virginia suffers from "wolfishness", expressively represented by Isabelle Arsenault's frenetic, shadowy illustrations. But Isabelle Arsenault's joyous Bloomsbury of flowers, greenery and iced cakes exemplifies the soothing beauty of Vanessa's artwork which brings relief to her sister's dark mood.

Kyo Maclear's text accentuates the overwhelming nature of Virginia's mood while depicting the nebulous attempts by Vanessa to help her sister. Appropriately, the reversal is gradual, with a swing to help change direction, a ladder to lead upward, and a gray snail that unanticipatedly reaches a mountain top.

"Down becomes up. Dim becomes bright. Gloom becomes glad."

Virginia Wolf is loosely based on the relationship between writer Virginia Wolf (1882-1941) and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), who both helped establish the Bloomsbury Group, a guild of creative thinkers. The real Virginia Wolf suffered from mental illness, which manifested itself in depression, nervous breakdowns and ultimately her suicide. The sisters' names and the references to their brother Thorby and Bloomsbury suggest that Virginia Wolf is Kyo Maclear's uncomplicated take on depression and how it is experienced intrinsically and extrinsically. The alliance of Maclear's tale with Arsenault's illustrations has produced an accurate, touching, and enlightening portrayal of caring.

This unique book trailer for Virginia Wolf, narrated by a young voice, helps promote the need to understand how to help anyone who may feel "wolfish".

Uploaded by kyomaclear1 on Feb 13, 2012 to YouTube.


  1. So glad you liked this too! I hope this is showered with awards, it's such a great book.

  2. And, Medea, it would justifiably deserve each one of those awards.