Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen – Deborah Hopkinson and Qin Leng, Balzer + Bray, 2018
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman writer, especially one who lived a long time ago, is a heroine for bookish girls. How best to introduce her life and work to girls, and boys, still too young to read her sophisticated and ironic commentary on life around her? For all her accessible plots and appealing characters, Austen’s language and historic references may become a harder sell to kids raised on contemporary fare. Deborah Hopkinson and Qin Leng, in her their new picture book biography of Austen, make an enthusiastic case for the author as someone who one would want to meet if we could, and whose books should be eagerly anticipated.
Hopkinson is the author of many critically acclaimed works of both fiction and informational books. Leng is an outstanding artist; her work includes a charming picture book, with Monica Kulling, about the devoted relationship of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. They are a perfect match for presenting the intimate but glorious world of Austen’s novels as a joyful one.
Hopkinson’s young Jane knows what she wants. Equally happy having fun with her…
…family or immersed in her father’s library, she is more of a friendly role model than a distant genius. Obviously, this interpretation requires simplifying the facts of Austen’s life, which was in many ways deeply countercultural. Hopkinson alludes to this in appropriate ways, such as by pointing out that Austen’s novels were not always published under her name, but “by a lady.” Similarly, her assertion that Austen’s father was proud of Jane’s work and sent it to publishers emphasizes the positive and supportive aspect of her family life, ignoring the very real and rigid gender roles in her family which required her to balance her authorship with household duties restricted to women. Since this is a picture book for elementary age readers, these omissions are appropriate, and Hopkinson includes a bibliography of books and websites where readers can explore further.
Hopkinson’s text is simple, but not patronizing. Readers learn, for example, that Jane was both an obsessive and discriminating reader, who not only “devoured everything,” but who also “knew exactly what she liked, and precisely what she didn’t,” and annotated her reading with “her own keen observations and sharp, wry comments.” The sadness of her short life span is offset by the fact that “she lived long enough to achieve her dream.” Hopkinson definitely chooses the inspirational rather than challenging and conflicted angle for her story. It was tough being a literate girl and woman in Austen’s day, and older readers will later discover that.
Leng’s illustrations are simply, to borrow from the book’s title, “extraordinary.” Detailed line drawings, pastel and earth tone colors, and simple, stylized features recreate Austen’s world. To paraphrase the author, who referred to her novels as portraits executed on “the little bit…of Ivory…with so fine a Brush,” the pictures in Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen are delicate and understated, but produce an entire universe. Leng’s Jane is observed from an angle as she sits in a window seat, observed in writing her “keen observations” with a quill pen in one book, while a pile of other books waits, supporting her inkwell. A deep staircase filled with still more books seems like a potential hazard of which Jane is unaware in her concentrate state. A funny update to Jane’s life shows a group of subway riders of different ages and ethnic backgrounds absorbed in reading, while a movie marquee in a station background announces “Pride and Prejudice/Jane Austen.” The out-of-date straps for riders to hold only make the picture more affecting. A timeline of Austen’s life is surrounded by a border of flowers, and brief summaries of her novels, accompanied by quotes, are enhanced by miniature pictures.
Whether or not it is universal, I’d like to acknowledge the truth that readers in search of a beautiful picture book about Jane Austen will want to read and share this one.