Review of the Day: Sylvie by Sylvie Kantorovitz
Twenty years ago the children’s literary landscape was a different place. If children’s books follow certain trends over the years, then 2001 was a time when fantasy novels in the vein of Harry Potter started to proliferate like wildflowers. And, as happens every time there’s an all-encompassing genre eating up our attention, everyone wanted to know what the next big trend might be. Shiny vampires? Post-apocalyptic glimpses of a dire future? Sick lit? Later, in 2010, came the publication of Raina Telgemeier’s graphic memoir Smile. I can remember interviewing her at New York Public Library as part of a panel and afterwards watching a giddy kid reporter interview her. It was the very first time I’d seen a child consumed with that kind of starry-eyed wonder at a cartoonist, Still, I had no clue what Raina hath wrought. It would take a couple more years before we realized that she was at the forefront of the newest big trend and even more years before publishers were able to get anywhere near catching up with the need. The graphic novel memoir for kids still follows Raina’s pattern for the most part. Very few of them are about boys, and most of the authors/subjects are white. Even the art styles can sort of blend together after a while, all seeming very samey samey. Enter Sylvie. Sylvie does not look like the other memoirs. It does not act like them. It is different. It is new. It is . . . . French! In other words, a perfect new addition to every bookshelf looking for something familiar and odd all at once.
Welcome to the world! Now what do you want to do for the rest of your life? Sylvie lives in France at a Boys’ Normal School where her father is the principal. She likes to draw. She likes her family (with the possible except of her demanding mother). What she doesn’t like is the uncertainty around her future. Her mother insists that she marry rich and not become a teacher. Her dad loves teaching and recommends it as a profession. But is there another way to succeed? A way to live your life and do what you love? Only one way to find out!
One thing I came to really respect about the book was its dedication to those weird, abbreviated moments that happen in your life. The story is unafraid to show these off in a multitude of different ways. My personal favorite involves Sylvie’s friend Pascal. She plays with him and then suddenly decides that it’s entirely possible that he’s a thief. After that, bye-bye Pascal! You’re outta the book! It’s strange to include this story, but no stranger than the actual incident that, let’s face it, probably happened exactly like it did in the book. Our whole lives are full of these odd little moments that don’t necessarily connect to other moments in a linear way, but that say something about us as people. The Pascal section comes right out. You don’t need it, but I respect the book all the more for including it because it reminds us that life isn’t a cohesive story sometimes. It has little fits and starts, friendships that go nowhere, people who enter and disappear. By not making sense, it makes a peculiar kind of sense.
I keep a running tally of terrible parents in children’s books each year. And though I never officially write it up, there are different categories. Most Neglectful Parent. Most Idiotic Parent. Most Downright Evil Parent. And then there’s the good old Most Verbally Abusive Parent. Now the mom in Sylvie clearly uses her children as sounding boards for her own perceived slights and miseries. Periodically as I read this book to my nine-year-old she would turn to me and with bafflement in her eyes say, “Why is this mom the WORST?” Interestingly, I started to pair the mom in Sylvie with the mom in a middle grade novel out this year called Starfish by Lisa Fipps. In both cases you’ve got a mom with some serious personal issues, taking stuff out on her kids. And in both cases, I noticed with interest, the dad gets off scot-free. I mean, it makes sense. When a daughter is harangued by her mother on a consistent basis, she is going to side with her dad in all things. With hindsight, however, the dad’s seeming perfections can fade a little. Not in these two books. Though I would argue that Sylvie’s dad is culpable in some of his actions and is by no means the saint the book would have you think him to be, he’s placed in stark opposition to the mom without much criticism. Kids will take this at face value. Adults reading the book will want to know more. And seriously, what was going on with that mom, really?
If you are a children’s librarian and your read a lot of realistic fiction then you get bully burnout pretty quick. Authors love bullies for the simple reason that they provide instant conflict and excitement without a lot of work. Everyone knows what a bully is. You don’t need to set up motivations with them or humanize them in any way. It gets so ubiquitous that after a while you just long for a single, solitary book that’s bully-free. Sylvie is almost that book. That’s not to say there isn’t some bullying in there, but it’s brief. Because Sylvie is Jewish she gets some pretty ignorant questions, but she also gets some teasing because she was born in Morocco. Even so, there isn’t a single all-encompassing bully and these incidents happen once or twice and then disappear. If they’re there at all, it’s simply to establish Sylvie’s desire to fit in with the crowd more than anything else. In fact, I spent a lot of this book worrying that some great big terrible thing might happen to Sylvie and her family, only to discover that it’s just a calm, clear-eyed slice of a person’s life. No huge events. Just living with who you are, where you are.
My daughter, the aforementioned nine-year-old, has her life all mapped out. Literally every aspect of the future has been planned and considered. You cannot tell her that things change or that the future is unknowable because she has “A Plan”. For this reason, I occasionally think how happy she would have been to grow up with the school system in parts of Europe. Sylvie’s consideration of her future was a great comfort to my kid. A large chunk of the book concerns Sylvie’s worry about what she’s going to do with the rest of her life. Will she teach? Will she pursue art? What will her parents think? What’s practical and what’s just a dream? The way the pieces fall into place near the end of the book seems so natural, and there’s a true comfort in it. For kids that love that kind of order, particularly in the midst of the messiness of life, Sylvie will be a kind of balm for them.
These days Sylvie Kantorovitz lives in the Hudson Valley. As I read through her book, I kept wondering about the comic influences of her youth. There’s a brief mention of Tintin, but there might have been other references I missed. It made me think about books by people who grew up in France and books translated from France. The thing I love about French comics is how you really can’t lump them all together. The look and feel and tone of each one is individual and unique. So in that sense, Sylvie fits in perfectly. While it technically falls under the purview of middle grade graphic memoirs, you could never mistake it for Telgemeier Lite. Funny and peculiar, I feel so fond of this little title. I often have to field the question of what to buy kids that already love Raina’s books. Slip in the usual stuff, but include Sylvie as well. Early 70s France never looked so good.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network