CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 28. . . .March 31, 2017
The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito: A Musical Cabaret.
Tomson Highway. Illustrated by Sue Todd.
Markham, ON: Fifth House, 2016.
70 pp., hardcover, $24.95.
Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.
Review by Gregory Bryan.
You don’t trust yourself. You don’t love yourself. And therefore you don’t let others trust you or love you. You can’t just expect to go out and take. You have to learn to give. Because you see, when you show ten times the kindness, to others, sooner or later, it will come back to you, ten times ten times ten...
Tomson Highway’s musical cabaret, The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito, is a most unusual book. It represents a mixture of commentary about bullying, disabilities, leadership, isolation, identity, and residential school experiences. Together with Sue Todd’s illustrations, Highway’s written text makes powerful statements that are informative and thought-provoking.
The story protagonist, Mary Jane Mosquito, begins the book at four years of age, and the story events unfold over several years’ duration. She hails from Petit Petit Le Paw in northern Manitoba which “you must understand, is not very big.” Mary Jane is described as “the only female mosquito, in the history of the world, to be born without wings.”
Mary Jane’s early schooling experiences are traumatic ones under the severe leadership of Maggie May Ditchburn. Sue Todd’s illustrations of Ditchburn portray her as a fierce, imposing taskmaster controlling the behaviour of her students. Indeed, in one instance, she is portrayed as a puppeteer, pulling Mary Jane’s strings and manipulating her life.
Mary Jane experiences countless struggles trying to fit in and form friendships as she struggles through her schooling. At one point, she is relocated to live with her Great Aunt Flo in the North Kildonan part of Winnipeg. At her new “A-Lemon Entry Public School”, she discovers she is the only mosquito. There were “house flies, horse flies, black flies, deer flies, sand flies, dragon flies;” indeed, the school housed “every kind of fly you could imagine” but “neither a stitch nor a hair nor a squiggle of an itsy bitsy teeny weeny sweet mosquito” other than Mary Jane. After a long and traumatic struggle, under the guardianship of her great auntie, Mary Jane eventually comes to see the wisdom in Great Aunt Flo’s advice to trust and love herself and to extend kindness to others. “I don’t need wings to fly,” Mary Jane concludes, “I can fly on my own just fine, thank you, in my heart.”
Todd’s illustrations are hand carved linocut prints. She then scanned the prints and coloured them in Photoshop. They are bold and brightly coloured. The combination of the colours and the thick black linocut outlines results in visually interesting and often unique artwork. Todd has created illustrations reflective of Mary Jane’s vibrant personality struggling to break free of the restrictive confines of the people about her.
Although told primarily in English, Tomson Highway’s written text also includes sections in French and Cree. As one who does not speak or read either language, I can attest that this potentially creates some problems for a reader, yet I think it also adds to the authenticity of the storytelling.
I do not claim to have a full understanding of all that is to be found in The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito. I expect that, even after several readings, this would still be the case. Yet, I was able to understand enough of what Tomson Highway and Sue Todd have done to be able to recognise the unmistakable quality and importance of this book. I recommend it highly because I think that, like me, readers of various ages and origins will benefit from trying to make sense of it all as we follow the experiences of the admirably determined protagonist, Mary Jane Mosquito.
Dr. Gregory Bryan is a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba where he teaches children’s literature classes.
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