- Posted by Ed Sizemore on April 14, 2009 at 6:57 am
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: story by Jean Regnaud; art by Emile Bravo; translated by Vanessa Champion and Elizabeth Tierman
- PUBLISHER: Fanfare/Ponent Mon; $25 US
Review by Ed Sizemore & Christopher Sizemore
Jean is a five-year-old boy attending his first day at the “big kid’s school”. He has a secret: his mommy doesn’t live with him, and he doesn’t know why or even where she is. When asked by the teacher to say what his parents do for a living, he lies and says his mommy is a secretary. So begins the story of a pivotal point in Jean’s life. It’s a tale of Jean’s first faltering steps into not just elementary school, but the world of adults. My Mommy is based on writer Jean Regnaud’s own experiences growing up without a mother. (However, it’s not clear how closely the book follows Regaud’s life. I wish I could find a good interview with him about this book, in English.)
My Mommy is the quintessential bittersweet story. It’s the perfect blend of fond remembrances of childhood innocence and joy and the end of that innocence. Regnaud is a master of balancing opposites in this book. There is laughter and sorrow; days of wonder and nights of terror; the thrill of learning, the discovery of harsh truths; loving, kind parents and harsh, brutal parents; tenderness and cruelty. Regnaud effortlessly captures all the complexities of life in this children’s book.
This is also a very poignant story. Jean is being forced to acknowledge and come to grips with the absence of his mother. Adults who read the book will figure out quickly where Jean’s mommy is, but children will have to wait until almost the end to discover the truth. I was really torn as I read the story. On one hand, I wish Jean’s father had been more honest with him earlier in his life so he would avoid this awkwardness and pain. On the other hand, I wish Jean could continue on in ignorance and innocence. I knew he needed this experience as part of growing up, but I wanted to spare him the suffering. Thinking on that level helped me understand Jean’s father better.
Regnaud is able to craft such a multifaceted work because he is honest in his storytelling. The story is nostalgic without being saccharin. He portrays kids and adults as they really are, warts and all. The children in this book make fun of those who are different, they become friends for no reason other than sitting next to each other, they’re confused by school and their parents, and they have fantastic imaginations. The adults can be marvelously kind, they act like kids are a burden, they talk about kids like they’re not standing right there in front of them, they care for their children, and they’re weighted down by the daily grind.
This is an incredible book that deeply moved me. But I wondered how well American kids would be able to relate to the book. The book is steeped in French culture, and I was worried that a young American reader would get lost in the differences. So I asked my seven-year old nephew, Christopher, to co-review this book with me.
I was surprised and delighted to find out that Christopher liked the book as much as I did. Even more amazing, he connected with Jean and his experiences. He thought the book did a good job of being realistic about kids and their experiences. He said that the events in the book were very similar to the kind of stuff that happens at his school and among his classmates. He didn’t like the way that kids made fun of each other or called each other names. Some of the language in the book is stuff that he and his classmates aren’t allowed to use in school. He thought it was neat that the Vietnamese kid finally started talking and told the other kids to leave him alone.
Christopher saw similarities between Jean’s dad and his own (my brother). They both work long hours at demanding jobs and come home tired. He liked that Jean’s dad corrected his kids when they used bad grammar. But he thought it was mean that Jean’s dad didn’t let Jean and his brother watch TV, especially with one sitting right there in the living room.
He liked Jean a lot. He understood why Jean would make up stories about his mother to fit it. Christopher said he would probably do the same thing. He also thought it was cool how Jean found out about Santa Claus, but it was kind of sad when Jean found out about his mother. He thought that he and Jean could be friends.
A few other things bothered Christopher. He didn’t like how the one grandmother would rather smoke and do crossword puzzles than spend time with her grandkids. He didn’t like how people smoked in the book in general. (Telling, since both his parents smoke.) He thought it was stupid that Jean helped the next door girl comb her hair. He would never do that. He also didn’t like some of the violent ways kids were treated, like the next door neighbor literally dragging his daughter by the hair, or the nanny who used a whip to punish Jean and his brother.
Christopher gave the book the best recommendation I can think of. He wanted his own copy. I’m getting him one as a late Easter gift.
Both Christopher and I loved the art in this book. The book is blend of illustrated story and comic book. Panel borders are used sparingly and very few pages have a traditional grid layout. The thick lines and simple character designs are perfect for the story. Bravo is a gifted artist and able to convey the entire range of human emotions through body language and facial expressions. I especially enjoyed the soft color pallette that made you feel like you were seeing someone’s memories. Bravo’s art captured all the nuances of Regnaud’s story perfectly.
I’m hoping that Ponent Mon/Fanfare will translate more works by both authors. They’re both skilled storytellers. My Mommy is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for both kids and adults. This book is a must for public libraries. I’ve bought copies to donate to the children’s collection of the libraries around me. I guess that’s the best recommendation I can make.
Preview pages can be viewed at Ponent Mon/Fanfare’s website.