(story)time: Virginia Wolf

F received this birthday book from friends last weekend and we can’t stop reading it (and I can’t stop looking at it). I’m still marveling at the story and the illustrations in Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. The story is loosely based on real life sisters – writer, Virginia Woolf, and painter, Vanessa Bell. Young Virginia wakes one morning in a decidedly wolfish mood, and her sister does her best to lift the clouds and remind her sister of the things that bring her the greatest joy.

The illustrations in this book bring me so much joy – look at the details in this bedroom – I feel like it captures all the things I love about our house in one drawing. The details on that mantel, the floor to ceiling bookshelves, the iron bed, the light blues and reds. And there is Virginia, stirring, not quite herself.


Beyond the illustrations, the act of reading this book is so enjoyable. Virginia growls, and her words come out as angry, demanding, even slightly ridiculous requests and admonishments. Hmmm, we never hear words like that around here…


Quite honestly, it’s perfect – perfect in the way that it describes the way a child sometimes wakes up into the world. Perfect in the way that it describes the unpredictability of triggers. 


Vanessa does not give up on her sister, despite the hopelessness of the situation. Virginia starts to soften a bit as she begins to tire of this bothersome mood. She attempts to articulate her thoughts of a place she’d rather be than where she currently is…


…and as she sleeps, her sister brings those things to life on the walls around her, blurring the edges of the walls, the mood, the shadows, just enough to give Virginia an escape.

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This book reminds me why I love children’s literature so much. I cannot remember the last time I read a book that spoke to me in the way that this book does. There are no extra words here; each handwritten one is important and enough. The unwritten ones are even better. 


When you study the angle of the wolf’s head, can’t you see the gestures of all the other great books that deal with the real ways children (and adults) grapple with these emotions? Can you see Max on the island amongst the Wild Things, tired and spent and missing his supper? Do you remember reading Ramona raging against the injustice of being treated as little when she’s convinced she’s so big? (Until she’s sick and small and really needs her mother.) When was the last time you woke up as a wolf, with no softening in sight?


This is a book about the very best parts and most trying moments of being sisters (or brothers, or friends, or human). This is a book about using your talents to bring joy to others in need. This is a book about the absurdity of emotions – how they change us into unrecognizable creatures of storybook lore. This is a book about being six, or twelve or fifteen or forty or two, and how our world can turn upside down on a dime. This is a book about imagination and confidence in your ability to create your own story. This is a book about depression, and how others can offer us tokens of happiness and they just aren’t enough. This is a book about persistence and patience and trust. This is a book about finding the courage to take the ladder out. This is a book about imagination and stories and gardens and sweets and sisters and all the good things that can exist with sadness and still be rendered so lovely and real. This is a perfect book, and I think you might love it too.


Find these titles at your favorite local independent bookstore. Happy reading!

2 Responses to (story)time: Virginia Wolf

  1. If you google Virginia Woolf’s bedroom, you’ll see that the book includes an accurate rendering of the bed under all those bookshelves! It’s so great.
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