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The Courage of Elfina by André Jacob

http://www.lorimer.ca/childrens/Book/3084/The-Courage-of-Elfina.htmlThe Courage of Elfina is the captivating story of a teen who finds herself in a very adult situation. Elfina lives in the country on the banks of the Paraguay River. Her mother died in child birth, while her father is often away working on a large farm in neighbouring Brazil. Elfina attends the local school and lives with her grandmother. When Elfina turns twelve, her grandmother tells her that she will be going to the capital to live with the family of her father’s sister, Evoala. Her wealthy aunt has promised to enrol Elfina in a good school. But big surprises lie ahead. The family is not staying in Asunción, but moving to Montreal to operate a clothing import business. Aunt Evoala also changes Elfina’s name to Elfina Silva Rodriguez so that she will be like their daughter. But Elfina is never sent to school, nor is she treated like their daughter. Instead, she becomes their live-in maid and works around the clock, cooking and cleaning for the family of five. One day, fed up with the exhausting work and frightening home life, Elfina makes a run for it and succeeds in turning her life around.

The Courage of Elfina is a graphic novel intended for young adults aged twelve to eighteen who are interested in social issues. The thin, sixty-four-page graphic novel also comes with information and statistics on forced child labour and a list of resources and websites for further reading. The book is intended “for reluctant readers,” which is also the tagline of the publisher.

The author, illustrator, and translator of this story make up a stellar cast. Author André Jacob is a former UQAM professor and a guest lecturer on immigration, racism, and international development. Christine Delezenne is an award-winning children’s book illustrator, and Susan Ouriou is also an award-winning literary translator of more than forty works. However, it is the illustration work by Christine Delezenne that really takes the reader on Elfina’s journey. Delezenne skillfully uses a variety of panels to tell Elfina’s story and show the confines of her real and imaginary worlds in the daily toil of her life as a maid.

It is a shame that the illustrator, known for her drawings and their texture, used only high-contrast black and white illustrations with pale blue halftones for colour. From the huge mango tree in the Paraguayan countryside, to the city of Asunción and the red-brick turrets of the family’s Montreal home, this story begs for colour. A broader palette would have also given the reader some greater contrast between Elfina’s life in Paraguay and her experience in Montreal. Some additional hues could have been used to evoke the teen’s psychological state, like her brief moments of happiness in the grocery store when she sees the fruit and vegetable displays that remind her of home.

Elfina is a compelling character that young people should readily identify with. She is ambitious, and when her personal boundaries are crossed, she pushes back and rebels. However, even though this story was intended for reluctant readers, the text itself offers very few opportunities for the reader to truly enter Elfina’s experience, as in this sentence: “On the bus taking me to the capital, I felt lost and sad”; or “I let myself fall under the spell of my old fantasies.” Although the story is written in the first person, the reader knows little of the sounds, scents, textures, and tastes of Elfina’s world, which could have easily been done using simple language. In the end, the text feels more like an outline than a novel.

The Courage of Elfina is an engaging tale to teach young readers about forced child labour right here in Canada. However, this story could have a much greater impact if it were fleshed out and if a wider variety of colours were used in the illustrations. The story itself was gripping, and I hope that one day it will become a full-length novel or graphic novel.

The Courage of Elfina

André Jacob

Translated by Susan Ouriou

Illustrated by Christine Delezenne

James Lorimer and Company Ltd.

$24.95, cloth, 64pp


This review has been cross-posted on the Montreal Review of Books website (mRb).

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Chicken Rising by Dawn Boyd

Just a little note from me. I think anyone that pens a book this good on their first attempt deserves a pat on the back.

Creating a graphic memoir of your childhood is a daunting task, particularly if it was not picture perfect. In Chicken Rising, D. Boyd pens a series of vignettes that make up the early life of Dawn, D. Boyd’s younger self, in Saint John, New Brunswick in the 1970s. According to an interview with her publisher, the comic artist initially found the process of “reliving the past and bringing her parents back to life” an enjoyable experience. But Boyd was later alarmed by how many private details she’d divulged and felt guilty about how harshly she’d portrayed her mother, whom she wanted to show as “a complicated person, not a villain.” A self-described introvert, the comic artist said that, in the end, the process made her feel vulnerable and exposed, and gave rise to moments of panic.

When viewed through today’s lens, parenting in the 1970s requires some explanation. While more amusing seventies references like flower power, free love, and Woodstock lore abound, parenting at that time rarely reflected this kind of open-mindedness. Dawn’s parents, a war-vet who operates a fried chicken restaurant and a stay-at-home mom, are older and believe in “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Their wooden spoon, the instrument of choice for giving a lickin’, makes two appearances in the first fifty pages. Boyd also shows us the unglamorous yet highly realistic details of that decade, such as short, frizzy perms, beanbag ashtrays, the ubiquitous cigarette, and the late-night movie, which is one of the rare activities that Dawn and her mother enjoy together. The author also skillfully inserts many pop culture references that give the story an extra 1970s layer, which successfully reels the reader further into the story. Although not always an uplifting memoir, there is still a good dose of dark humour.

 Dawn is a sensitive child who is attracted to the arts. Yet, whenever she expresses her desire to be any type of artist, her mother is quick to discourage her, telling her that she’ll have a hard life. Dawn’s mother Sybil is very critical of her daughter, believing that she is preparing her for life ahead. Sybil scolds Dawn for getting ninety-nine percent on a test and making that one error. Her mother is also quick to take the teacher’s side of a school incident without giving Dawn a chance to explain.

Like many parents of her generation, Sybil sees listening to her child’s feelings and validating them as an indulgence, and an overindulged child is a spoiled child. After a boy punches Dawn in the stomach at school, Dawn reports to her parents that everyone at school is mean. Instead of asking her daughter to elaborate, Sybil responds, “You should be grateful to get an education.” Exasperated, Dawn explains that she was punched, to which her father responds, “Nobody ever got anywhere from being a crybaby.” This is indeed tough love, and life at school and in public is also pretty rough and tumble. But in the end, Dawn finds her people.

Although Chicken Rising makes for some sad reading at times, this debut graphic memoir is one of the most realistic graphic representations of the 1970s I’ve seen in a long time. Boyd also demonstrates that she has a keen ear for dialogue, using many sayings popular among adults in that decade. My parents had some of the same refrains and used the same curse words as Dawn’s parents. There were only a few instances of “Jeezly,” obviously a Maritime expression, which sounded foreign to my central Canadian ear.

At times, I found it hard to believe that this is Boyd’s first book. She already draws like a pro, adding plenty of detail to each frame and changing up the panel layout on every page, which plays with the story’s dynamic. I look forward to seeing more work by this comic artist.

Chicken Rising
D. Boyd
Conundrum Press
$18.00, paper, 152pp

This review was cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books (mRb).

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Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal

Aminder Dhaliwal’s web comic Woman World has made her an Instagram sensation. The comic artist has over 148,000 followers, with her biweekly serialized comic strip garnering an average of 25,000 likes. In this collection of both previously published and new Woman World comics, Dhaliwal serves up slice-of-life anecdotes of a village of women many years after the male species has died out and the planet has been ravaged by a series of natural disasters. Although this post-apocalyptic theme may come across as dark, most of the strips are light and hilarious, addressing issues such as identity, solitude, love, and anxiety, with some occasional angst about the survival of the species.

Woman World was reportedly in part inspired by the LA Women’s March in 2017, an empowering day for Aminder Dhaliwal, when the comic artist met many wonderful people. Dhaliwal apparently started to imagine what the world might be like if it were only inhabited by women. Her collection features a recurring cast of characters, with a handful catching a large part of the limelight. Grandma Ulaana is the only one who remembers the world when there were men, and Emiko is a young girl who believes that men look like Kevin James after she finds a DVD of the Paul Blart: Mall Cop movie. There is also Yumi the blacksmith, Lara the carpenter, Uma the record keeper, Ina the artist, and Doctor.

The village in this all-female society is led by Mayor Gaia, who leads naked, not as a statement, but so she can feel the cool breeze on her underboob. As all great societies keep records, the Mayor gives the order to start an archive, but first the village needs an official name. Mayor Gaia already has a name in mind, but then, so does everyone else. Lady Land, Female Federation, Dame District, Matriarch Macrocosm, Queens Quay, and Gal Globe are other names that are thrown into the ring. But the Mayor prevails and the village is called Woman World, and their first major project is to build a hospital.

Dhaliwal draws her characters in dramatic poses, and their facial expressions convey a wide range of
emotions. There is a spirited line to her black and white drawings with grey shading, but there are bursts of warm colour every few pages. Although I did not find all the strips equally entertaining, Dhaliwal strikes a nice balance between the funny and the thoughtful, and the comic artist has a genuine talent for timing. What I liked the most about the collection was that it served up a world that accurately reflects how women interact in everyday life that is at odds with our mass media offerings.

My favourite strips involve the discovery of strange objects in the ruins that litter the countryside. In one instance, a little girl finds a pair of stilettos and decides that they are a type of construction boot made to create tiny holes. In another, on a medical supply run, Doctor discovers a male android manufacturing plant, but the plant only got as far as making the mechanical male genitalia. Grandma Ulaana has to explain to Doctor that what she really discovered was a dildo factory.

Aminder Dhaliwal is recent newcomer to the comic world, but we will definitely be hearing much more about this native of Brampton, Ontario. Woman World has already been nominated for the 2018 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Online Comic. An animation graduate of Sheridan College, Aminder Dhaliwal has worked on several animated television series, including Sanjay and Craig, and is currently a director at Disney Television Animation.

Woman World
Aminder Dhaliwal
Drawn & Quarterly
$29.95, paper, 256pp

This review has been cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books (mRb).

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Almost Summer 3 by Sophie Bédard

The third volume of Almost Summer follows the ups and downs of a gang of teens who are about to graduate from high school. With CEGEP just around the corner, the stakes are high. Emily’s mother wants her to study science, while her sidekick Michelle fails math, but shrugs it off. It doesn’t matter because she’s going to study early childhood education anyway. Anthony thinks he’ll study social science to keep his options open, while Max hasn’t got a clue. He refuses to put on a mortarboard for his graduation photo because it would involve removing his beanie and who knows what lies below! This year, Max is more interested in Noémie who’s creating a wall-sized mandala and waffling over studying art.

The release of this third volume of Almost Summer follows on the heels of volumes 1 and 2 published in 2017. The Almost Summer series is the work of comic artist Sophie Bédard, who at the age of 19 did the unimaginable. Just a year after graduating from CEGEP, she published not one but two volumes of the very popular Glorieux printemps [Almost Summer].

I asked Bédard why the change in seasons in the English translation. She said, “I didn’t like the ring of Glorious Spring in English. I liked Almost Summer because it evoked waiting, and during our teens, we sometimes have the impression that our life is on hold. Nothing moves very fast. We have plenty of interests and aspirations, but we’re hemmed in by the fact that we’re still just kids.”
The first two volumes of the French-language series went on to be nominated for a Bédélys and a Bédéis Causa award, two prominent prizes for Quebec comic artists.

The series is set where Bédard grew up in La Prairie on Montreal’s South Shore. In fact, Emily, Michelle, Anthony and Max all go to the same high school as the author attended, La Magdeleine. Don’t be surprised when you pick up a copy and recognize places like the Dix30 on the pages of volume 3. As for the inspiration for her characters, Bédard said that they are composites of herself and some people she went to high school with. In the author’s words, “They’re a happy blend of both.” But if she had to pick the character who most resembled her as a teen, it would be Emily in her everyday life. However, Bédard becomes Michelle when she goes out with friends and has a few drinks.

In the Almost Summer series, the two main characters couldn’t be more different. Emily is a serious student with a strict mother, “No phone calls after 7:30 pm,” while Michelle (aka Mimi) is impulsive, melodramatic and silly, just like your average teen! Michelle has a series of crushes, but decides she’s met her “soulmate” when she sees him playing soccer, and it’s his calves she finds most attractive. Emily has a secret crush that she entrusts only to her diary, which Michelle has no qualms about reading and shamelessly reporting to anyone willing to listen. Nevertheless, the characters of Emily and Michelle complement each other. Emily needs Michelle to bring some fun into her life, while Michelle needs Emily to keep her in line and do some studying. Anthony lives with his grandmother, and he actively pursues Emily, regardless of how many times she bluntly rebuffs him. He’s been friend-zoned. They both work part-time at the same flower shop, which adds further hilarious annoyances for Emily. Then there’s Max who has a wandering eye. He can’t decide which girl he likes. It all depends on which girl he sees first.

Unlike volumes 1 and 2, some seriousness and maturity creep into the characters in Volume 3. Anthony asks Emily to go for a walk with him to visit his mother’s grave, while Max finally removes his beanie and buys some much-needed shampoo. Emily begins to think for herself and about her future rather than just obeying her mother, and Michelle finally has a chance with her “soulmate.” The dialogue is perhaps the best feature of the Almost Summer series, and volume 3 in particular. It’s funny and accurately depicts how teens talk to each other, with Emily and Michelle delivering the best quips. The teen reader will find the characters’ situations and reactions both realistic and entertaining.

Although there is little for the gang to do in their suburb, there is still plenty of action, and the story moves forward at a brisk pace. Bédard’s drawings are compelling and have a strong clean line throughout. What is more, one cannot help noticing that the characters’ expressions, especially Michelle’s, have a strong manga feel.

I asked Bédard about her influences in terms of story and drawing styles. She said that she was inspired by manga authors Ai Yazawa, Kyoko Okazaki and Kiriko Nananan, particularly in terms of their pacing, and their focus on the feelings and silent moments of their characters.

Bédard’s interest in making comics intensified when she was studying Graphic Arts at the CEGEP du Vieux Montréal. As a teen, she’d had a webcomic about her everyday life, her friends and school. “I published comics on a blog so that my friends could see them and comment on them,” said Bédard. Incidentally, the author has also twice been nominated for the Joe Shuster Award “Best Webcomic Creator.”

It was through her webcomic that she came across work of other Quebec comic artists. Then, while at CEGEP, when she was just 17, Bédard signed up for a comics workshop given by two well-known Quebec bédéists, Jimmy Beaulieu and David Turgeon. As part of the workshop collective, Bédard published a few strips and then concentrated on longer stories. Once CEGEP was over, in addition to working as an illustrator, she began work on what would become Almost Summer, which was picked up by Pow Pow before Bédard had even finished inking it.

Although a date has yet to be set for the release of the final volume of Almost Summer, Bédard explained the story focuses on Emily’s and Anthony’s family issues, growing up in less than perfect circumstances and learning how to stand up to their parents. Bédard said that it was important for Anthony to remain in Emily’s friend zone. The author believes that friendship between young men and women should be celebrated. Since it is also the final volume, the gang bids adieu to high school and expands their horizons to Montreal, where a number of scenes unfold.

Sophie Bédard has recently finished a university degree in sexology. She hopes one day to be able to combine comics and her field of study. How she will do this still remains a question. The comic artist is currently working on her fifth book, a graphic novel about young adult women, which will also be published by Pow Pow. Ideally, she hopes to complete this book some time in the fall. Until then, all her other projects are on hold. Finally, it would not be overstepping to say that Bédard has had quite a successful run. Now bear in mind that she has yet to celebrate her 27th birthday.

Almost Summer 3
Sophie Bédard
Translated by Helge Dascher and Robin Lang
Pow Pow Press

This feature is cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books (mRb).

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