CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number . . . .March 17, 2017
The feeling of being different from others, whether real or perceived, is something that most people can identify with through personal experience. These feelings may arise due to aspects such as one’s physical appearance, cultural differences, or values, each of which serves to set someone apart from their family, peers, or larger community. Gabrielle Grimard’s picture book Lila and the Crow deals with this topic from the perspective of a young girl who has moved recently to a new city where she does not know anyone. Readers of all ages will recognize the feeling of being different and excluded by their peers. Initially, Lila is hopeful that she will be able to make friends in her new school. However, daily her classmates make fun of her hair, eyes, and skin colour, calling her a crow. Based on the book’s illustrations, it appears that she is the only non-white person in her class. Ashamed of her physical differences, Lila develops low self-esteem and attempts to hide how she looks, even as she continues to feel increasingly lonely as the weeks pass. When the autumn festival arrives, Lila has a magical encounter with a crow and its friends, all of whom deposit a whole bunch of feathers. She makes a costume out of them and goes to school the next day where she becomes the envy of classmates who admire her costume. As such, the story’s resolution is open-ended, but readers will come away with the sense that Lila is going to fit in and become accepted by her peers.
The narrative trajectory of the story is fairly straightforward and focuses on Lila’s experiences from her perspective, with no mention of her family and only limited references to the other classmates. The other classmates are only mentioned in terms of their hurtful comments towards Lila and, at the end, in terms of their comments about her costume. As a result, one potential criticism that some people may have about this story is that it is non-specific, both in its narrative and characters. The story, itself, does not mention a specific setting, apart from the fact that it is taking place in a city. It is unclear whether the narrative is even taking place in Canada as it could readily occur in the United States or even outside of North America, since crows are a common bird species that can be found throughout the world. As for Grimard’s techniques of characterization, she provides no specific reference to Lila’s ethnic or cultural background, nor is there any reference to a surname or other potential identifying marker that could contribute to the character’s uniqueness.
This contrasts with other picture books, such as Ruowen Wang’s Little Wen and Nicola Campbell’s Shi-Shi-etko. These two stories derive their meaning from their protagonist’s specific historical and cultural contexts, which also serve to enrich the narratives. In contrast, it appears that Grimard’s intent is to create a story that all kids can identify with by making the choice to create what appears to be a non-white character, but without specifying that character’s ethnic or cultural background. However, in doing so, some people may argue that such a general story that lacks any grounding in specific contexts may serve to simplify, whitewash, or overgeneralize these types of experiences by conveying the impression that everyone’s experiences are “universal,” regardless of their background.
While it is true that these could be potential inadvertent effects, the story’s genre also needs to be taken into account. The picture book format does not allow for a large amount of complexity that would be possible in other genres, such as the young adult novel. As a result, some latitude needs to be given in this case. Nevertheless, it would be important for adults to raise this issue when discussing this story with children, whether in a personal or educational context. For example, in the classroom, teachers can acknowledge that all children can experience such discrimination, but also highlight that it is important to considering everyone’s experiences in relation to their specific personal, cultural, and communal contexts, since they are not always the same. By recognizing the differences in people’s circumstances, readers can obtain a fuller appreciation of their experiences and their complexity.
Another potential issue is the one-dimensional nature of the other characters whom we only perceive through the lens of their actions towards Lila. They are all largely homogenous in their treatment of her since they all seem to make fun of her, and there is no indication that any of her classmates may have treated her better or shown any sympathy. While this does increase the impact of the story, particularly the ending in which they all seem to have a change of heart, it would also be important to recognize this in any discussion of this book.
Nevertheless, as a whole, Grimard does offer an engaging narrative that focuses on a common experience that many kids have. In particular, Grimard’s watercolour illustrations contribute effectively to the story’s emotional trajectory and overall impact through their representations of Lila in relation to her surroundings and peers. For instance, they emphasize Lila’s separation and differences from the other kids as well as evoke reader sympathy. The illustrations have a number of close-ups of Lila’s face and scenes that draw attention to her isolation, both within the scene and from other children. Instead of providing an overly realistic, photographic depiction of the story’s scenes, Grimard’s choice of soft lines and colours leaves room for readers’ imaginations to embellish the narrative with their own impressions of Lila and the other characters. Furthermore, the impact of the story’s final illustrations—which portray Lila with her admiring classmates surrounding her—is enhanced by the earlier illustrations that highlight Lila’s sadness and isolation from the other classmates. Grimard’s colouring also includes contrasts of light that further draw attention to Lila’s separation by situating her in shadow or a less well-lit portion of the scene in contrast to the more brightly lit portion where the classmates are.
In addition, the story’s overall narrative arc and resolution evokes the narrative trope of the outsider or foreigner who comes to a new place and eventually integrates into that community. However, what makes it distinctive from similar stories is its incorporation of the crow as an integral part of the narrative’s resolution. The fact that Lila bonds with a bird, rather than a person, is an interesting choice because it demonstrates how people can find comfort and become rejuvenated through their engagement with nature. Furthermore, this exemplifies Grimard’s original use of the crow as a proactive and central element, rather than as a marginal or negative influence. As such, her representation of the crow also contributes an evocative dimension to the narrative because it draws upon and subverts what people may associate with crows. Typically, negative connotations are often associated with crows in contemporary popular culture. In contrast, Grimard depicts the crow as a caring and positive influence that empowers Lila since it gives her an idea for the costume that she wears to school and, in doing so, facilitates her acceptance by her peers.
For more information about Gabrielle Grimard, readers can visit her website at http://www.gabriellegrimard.com/.
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.