Author Kyo Maclear uses a fictional account of the relationship between sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell to tell a story that teaches empathy, compassion and the power of art to heal.
When Virginia is feeling dark and “wolfish” she takes to her bed and won’t come out for anything. She can’t bear certain colors or sounds. She rejects her sister, as well as all contact with the outside world, and longs for escape.
Vanessa longs to help Virginia, but can’t reach her with language. She instead listens to her sister carefully, thinks hard, and comes up with a creative solution. She paints the fantasy world her sister longs to escape to, and is able to draw her out of the darkness. The world Virginia fantasizes about is called Bloomsbury - a reference to the Bloomsbury Group - an intellectual circle of writers and artists including Virginia, Vanessa, and their brother Thoby.
The illustrations of Isabelle Arsenault are gorgeous - her use of striking black against vivid color is captivating. Her images do so much for the text, which is quite rich on its own - but married up they make a really successful combination. There is depth to the story and great value in it’s message of truly listening to the sufferer and trying alternate solutions to a complex problem. The process of making art can be just as valuable (if, at times, not more) than the end product.
This is also a great introduction to an important historical author, and I love that it doesn’t bore children with facts they are not ready for. So many children’s book about great artists who create work for adult audiences are much too serious and not playful at all. By tapping into the sisters relationship and creating a magical fantasy world this book succeeds in holding their interest, and possibly make them hungry for more information once they encounter Woolf’s texts later in life.