[Nonfiction Wednesday] Radical Women Authors: Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf as depicted by Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford

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Myra here.

We are delighted to join the Nonfiction Picture Book meme 2016 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year.

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I am cheating a little bit here as these two illustrated biographies may not really be technically categorized as picturebooks. They are more like illustrated nonfiction titles. However, they are gorgeously crafted and fit our theme quite nicely as we celebrate those who perceive the world a wee bit differently: the free thinkers, the artists, the rebels – and these two radical women’s contribution to literature simply can not be denied.


img_7154Virginia Woolf

Written by: Zena Alkayat Illustrations by: Nina Cosford
Published by: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2015 ISBN: 0711236658 (ISBN13: 9780711236653) 
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

If you want a brief primer on the lives of these outstanding authors that older (I am thinking teenagers and even advanced middle grade) readers would enjoy, these Life Portraits series created by Alkayat and Cosford would be the perfect bet.

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Apparently, Virginia came from a large blended family with both her parents having different spouses previously. In psychology, we call this a genogram – but of course, Cosford does this with so much more panache.

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What struck me in this story is the close relationship that Virginia shared with her older sister, Vanessa, who was an artist. As their brothers attend school, the sisters would spend their days doing art: Vanessa with her easel, Virginia with her reading and writing. It is clear that they came from a family who valued learning and books, especially since their father was a respected historian and critic, described in the book to be “ferociously intellectual.”

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It was also apparent that Virginia shared a very close relationship with her father. However, all that came to an end way too soon as Virginia experienced the death of both parents one after the other, as well as the death of her half-sister. This altered life in a huge way for their family. However, this did not stop their life of radical and progressive thought, especially as times they are a-changin, as what Bob Dylan says:

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Clearly, Virginia followed her own counsel, and did not care too much about what other people would say, or even about appearances and propriety as she “scandalously” shared a house with four men, including her brother, Adrian:

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The story went on to trace the group of artists which Virginia is a part of: the Bloomsburys which included the likes of E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, her sister Vanessa Bell and her would-be husband Clive Bell, and Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s future husband.

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I was particularly interested when Vita Sackville-West was introduced into the narrative (believed to be the inspiration for Woolf’s novel Orlando), but she was only mentioned quite briefly, although I can surmise that her significance in Woolf’s life was paramount. Hence, her suicide in the end left me wondering exactly what triggered it – because for all intents and purposes she seemed to have lived such a rich, wondrous, art-filled existence.

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Alkayat and Cosford also included a list of references in the end for anyone who may be interested to know more about Virginia Woolf’s life. I was also reminded of the movie The Hours which referenced Virginia’s life story:

Jane Austenimg_7144

Written by: Zena Alkayat Illustrations by: Nina Cosford
Published by: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2015 ISBN: 0711236666 (ISBN13: 9780711236660) 
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

As I was reading this title, I was amazed at the many confluences between Jane’s and Virginia’s life. Both belonged to a huge family (although Jane’s seemed to be strictly nuclear, unlike Virginia’s more complicated, colourful one), both shared an intimate relationship with their sisters and their fathers who were by and large very supportive of their artistic pursuits.

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They also both seemed to have the luxury of time to read and write despite what may be perceived as societal demands for them to find a suitable husband and settle down.

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Jane Austen also seemed to be a woman who speaks her mind, even when it comes to affairs of the heart, as can be seen with her short-lived romance with law student Tom Lefroy, which predictably frightened off this hapless creature who eventually “disappeared from her life.” Men. 

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Well, at least it provided her with fodder for her writing. Her pathways to publication were also shared in detail here, her many disappointments, and how much her entire family supported her and believed in her. I just found it such a shame that her father passed away not realizing how Jane would eventually become known for her writings – and for centuries to come. But then again, he may already have faith that this will happen.

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These are two beautifully crafted books that you should definitely find and read for yourself. Cosford’s art is quite stunning, I thought, and Alkayat has the talent of distilling information into bite-size pieces that never seemed overwhelming or trying too hard: a must-add to your Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf collection.

4 Comments on [Nonfiction Wednesday] Radical Women Authors: Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf as depicted by Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford

  1. Wow…Myra…yes…these may not be picture books for the very young…but they are definitely beautiful books with lots of pictures and important stories to tell…I know that middle grade and even higher levels would do well to use picture books for their students…these would be perfect!

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  2. These do look wonderful, Myra. I don’t remember having any students who were ready for Virginia Woolf, but several were falling in love with Jane Austen. They would have loved these brief, illustrated biographies. Thank you!

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  3. Definitely very interesting women to spotlight! I like the comparisons between the two.

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  4. What a beautiful series of books celebrating such inspiring, trailblazing women who lived life their way.

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