November 21, 2016

The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito

by Tomson Highway
Illustrated by Sue Todd
Fifth House Publishers
70 pp.
Ages 14-18
October 2016

Think of The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito as an illustrated script, a script of “a one-woman musical in one act” and it’s the story of Mary Jane Mosquito, the only female mosquito born without wings.  Dedicated to “disabled children everywhere. Because they make our world a special place to live in”, the story is both light-hearted and heartbreaking–quite a workout for the heart–with a powerful lesson about acceptance of self and others.

The book opens, as any script will, with information about place, time and characters (here, dramatis personae) and the scene heading.  There is a vamp playing just before a voice from offstage announces “the one and only, the very talented, and the very beautiful, Miss Mary Jane Mosquito” (pg. 9). Though the child who eventually comes out on stage, bedecked in a top hat and oversized coat of tails, is a little surprised by the audience, she goes on to tell them her story, starting with the secret that she doesn’t have any friends or know how to make them.
From The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito 
by Tomson Highway, 
illus. by Sue Todd
Peppering her monologue with songs, as “singing is the only thing I know how to do” (pg. 12), and teaching the audience some mosquito (or is it Cree or Ojibway?) words like friend (“weecheewaagan”) and song (“nagamoon”), Mary Jane tells of growing up in Petit Petit Le Paw, northern Manitoba, and trying to find a connection between her lack of friends and her lack of wings.  At Miss Kathleen B. Curdew’s Centre for Education of Very Young Mosquitoes, her teacher Miss Maggie May Ditchburn would cruelly make an example of Mary Jane and, in insisting they repeatedly sing while marching, almost drives out Mary Jane’s love for singing.
From The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito 
by Tomson Highway, 
illus. by Sue Todd
Eventually Mary Jane convinces her parents to send her to Winnipeg to stay with her Aunt Flo, hopeful of a better school life.  Sadly, there she finds herself the only mosquito in a school of flies, moths, hornets and more.  A brave attempt at making a friend is thwarted and Mary Jane, surprisingly, sees red and attacks Minnie Matouche.  Her Aunt Flo wisely tells Mary Jane that “You don’t trust yourself.  You don’t love yourself. And therefore you don’t let others trust you or love you” and recommends, along with a change in venue (to wherever the cabaret is being performed), that “when you show ten times the kindness, to others, sooner or later, it will come back to you, ten times ten times ten.” (pg 51) Even knowing that the corollary is also true, i.e., that doing something bad will also come back at you, ten times ten times ten, Mary Jane at 16, sets off by train for Ontario.  And now here she is, singing and making friends with members of the audience, and telling them
I don’t need wings to fly.  I can fly on my own just fine, thank you, in my heart.  It’s not what you look like that matters, Aunt Flo’s words ring in my ears like chimes in the wind, it’s what you give to others that counts. (pg. 64)
The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito is a full read.  There is dialogue and details of the character’s actions on stage, and verses of song and choruses, and audience participation, and production notes (it was originally performed at Stratford in 2001) and it’s a brilliant vehicle for teaching, reading, and performing.   The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito is a book sated with lessons and wisdom in a unique format, a little girl performing on stage to an audience with whom she is to become friends.

Because The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito has the feel of a folktale, a oral story told to teach, Sue Todd’s lino cut illustrations work perfectly in carrying the story from opening music to curtain drop.  The art is bold in line and shape and colour, popping off the page in emphatic presentation, not unlike Mary Jane herself.  There’s emotion and a self-assuredness to Sue Todd’s art that invites the reader to partake in the drama within.  With Tomson Highway’s evocative text and Sue Todd’s powerful art,  The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito could be a condemnation of the residential school system or of communities that still have not embraced diversity, but at its heart it just conveys the message that we don’t all have to be the same and that love and friendship can surmount just about anything.
Illustration from The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito 
by Tomson Highway, 
illus. by Sue Todd
Image retrieved from

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