Kids are naturally tough and resilient, if we inspire them to be. Which is why many experts encourage parents to speak more candidly with their children about subjects often thought to be intellectually or emotionally off limits. Regrettably, the publishing industry seems to have embraced a cautious approach in the types of children’s books they bring to market. Which is why we were delighted to discover Valerie Fontaine’s extraordinary picture book about domestic violence: The Big Bad Wolf in My House.
With the help of Groundwood Books, we connected with Valerie to hear her thoughts on the important role books can play in bringing uneasy, real-life topics to young readers.
When most people think of children’s books, they probably don’t think of them as vehicles for educating children on topics like domestic violence, even though children are among the most vulnerable to abuse. What inspired you to tackle this difficult, still somewhat taboo topic?
Parents and teachers are increasingly looking for children’s books that will provide them with the right words to tackle difficult subjects with kids. I think that all subjects can—and should—be discussed with children. They are very open and curious, and they appreciate frank discussions. You just need to find the right way to talk about it. There are very few books that deal with family violence, and I thought it was important to give a voice to these victims and to make people aware of this reality but also to bring attention to women’s shelters. These precious resources are not well known yet bring much hope.
We thought using the classic fable character of the Big Bad Wolf as a familiar entry point for children to conceptualize domestic violence was a stroke of brilliance. How did that device come about?
This story came into my head all at once and almost fully written. Like a great inspiration. I didn’t really intellectualize the creation process—it all came from the heart. The character of the Big Bad Wolf says it all by itself: fear, oppression, violence; this strong character allowed me to avoid explanations, and it created the atmosphere by itself.
Did you consider using any other fables or characters for this project before settling on the Big Bad Wolf? Are there other stories you think are ripe for similar adaptations?
No, the story of the Three Little Pigs seemed obvious. It allowed me to show the efforts that the little girl makes to protect herself from the wolf: how she had to protect her space, her body, and her heart. For the mother, I saw her more as Little Red Riding Hood. She is being controlled by the wolf. Her red dress in the first illustration by Nathalie Dion immediately made me think of that story.
The illustrations by Nathalie Dion, with their poignant use of unfilled spaces and stark shadows, are a powerful complement to the frank narration. What was it like seeing your words brought to life?
I admire Nathalie’s work very much. I wasn’t able to imagine my characters. I didn’t know whether they should be wolves or humans, so I let Nathalie make the decision, according to her inspiration. I think she made the perfect choice by drawing the man as a wolf while keeping the mother and little girl human. She was able to soften the imagery with her soft colours and comforting lines. I couldn’t have hoped for a better collaboration. Her illustrations add a layer of meaning to my text that makes the book even more powerful. It was very moving for me to discover the results of her work.
Lastly, are you working on any projects right now you can talk to us about?
This is my first book to be translated into English. I am very happy to know that the topic of family violence will be dealt with, acknowledged, and denounced over a larger territory. I have new titles in French that will come out this fall, including one with Scholastic.