I saw this book on Things Mean a Lot, and looked for it at my library when getting piles of picture books for my kid. It’s a story of friendship, loneliness and self-image. Helene struggles in school because her friends have inexplicably shunned her. They whisper rumors and giggle behind her back and write nasty notes on the bathroom wall about her weight and body odor. Untrue things, but Helene believes them and retreats into silence, loneliness and books. She’s reading Jane Eyre, and finds a lot of comfort in the story of this plain, ordinary woman from a difficult background who overcame the odds to become someone admired and loved. (That’s what Helene gets out of it, I myself haven’t read Jane Eyre in a very long time….) But she can’t always escape into her reading. There’s a class trip to a camp, and Helene dreads having to wear a bathing suit in front of the other girls, having to endure the taunts and ridicule. When she gets publicly humiliated by another girl, she feels her life is ruined. But a momentary encounter with a wild fox lifts her spirits, and then another girl, surprisingly sympathetic, joins the “outcast cabin”. Helene finally makes a new friend. She also discovers during a regular visit to the doctor, that her weight is perfectly normal. I really like the message of this book. The difficulties of navigating school days and crowds of kids who can be so unreasonably cruel with their ostracizing cliques balanced out by the solace of books, nature walks (something visually depicted in the book) and finding a person who sympathizes. It did seem to end rather suddenly, and I wished for a bit more depth, but I think the length and detail is just right for the age group. The illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault are very nice. I like the sketchy quality of the pencil drawings (especially their use of value and negative space), which is brightened by watercolor washes on certain pages, reflecting Helene’s varying emotions.
I offered the library copy to my eleven-year-old, but she shrugged: “I have lots of books to read already.” It’s true, she does have a hefty stack on her bedside table. A good problem to have! I’m going to suggest this one to her again someday, I think she’s at just the right place to benefit from it.