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Toronto-based illustrator, cartoonist, and now debut novelist, Rosena Fung, released her middle grade graphic novel, “Living with Viola,” (2021, Annick Press, ages 9-12, $22.95) in November. In it, Livy begins her first day of sixth grade at a new middle school, a school her hardworking immigrant parents feel will offer her more opportunities than her old school.
Quiet, awkward Livy feels very alone, but she isn’t alone. Her alter ego is with her — Viola — the dark-side voice in her head that’s always overpowering her with negative talk.
Fung uses the graphic literature medium exceedingly well. Livy’s first day in her new school is exhausting. Her cruel inner shadow, Viola, is relentless, making Livy self-conscious of the Cantonese lunch her mother has packed her and fearful that she will always be alone.
Even at home, it is hard to shake Viola off, but helping her ah ma (mom) cook after school shows the reader the true Livy through Fung’s artful explosion of fancy and delight in a magical playland of ecstatic dumplings, dancing garlic, and rivers of oil and soy sauce.
There is so much creative joy inside this young, anxious girl. And so much sweet charm inside this graphic novel.
We learn that Livy loves to draw, which is both a blessing and a curse. Although it leads to friendships at school, it also causes great internal stress for her. Her parents, aunts and uncles make it no secret that a job in art is not sensible, stable or respected.
These pressures begin niggling at her and Viola’s whispers in her ears about her cousin Michael who was “sent away” after dropping out of college haunt her. Her father even says, “Don’t talk about him,” when Livy brings him up. But, Livy’s caring teacher notices her talents and urges her to turn in an art piece for an upcoming art contest.
As the school year proceeds, Livy’s new friend group splinters, she fails to turn in an art entry, and she has a breakdown in the classroom requiring a parent/teacher conference. She feels she has failed her parents and that she is a bad person. All her creative joy is gone. Is Viola going to win?
This is a worthy book for all young people, especially those who might be struggling with feelings of anxiety. At book’s end, Livy is clinically diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorder and she gets help from a professional.
A few pages are spent using mindfulness tools such as breathing techniques, anchoring, and distraction methods. Face it, growing up is hard in any era, but, during this pandemic, young people have had a new sort of isolation and disruption from life. This extremely well-done and sensitive book by Fung is a fun and empathetic way to possibly break through to a child who has had a rough time of it.
To view Rosena Fung’s art and illustration, go to rosenafung.com. She has illustrated sprawling urban murals throughout Toronto that undoubtedly bring smiles and giggles to all who see them, as well as humorous comics and magazine illustrations. With helpful messages of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness, her art and comics are a warm hug and a soothing balm with heart and humor. Just what the world needs.
Wendy Henrichs is a children's author living in Iowa City.