If I Couldn’t Be Anne – Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout, Tundra Books, 2020
The key to readers’ fascination with L.M. Montgomery is their belief in kindred spirits, people or books, which validate their inner lives. For the second time, Kallie George and Geneviève Godbout have created an intensely beautiful picture book for young children, older readers, or adults who have retained lifelong associations with the original novels. (George has also written two chapter books based on Anne, reviewed here and here.) If I Couldn’t Be Anne explores the rich inner life of the beloved heroine, who can’t be constrained by the ostensible limits of the real world. Anne can imagine that she is anyone, and so will children reading this artistically distinguished appreciation of open-ended possibilities.
Each picture and accompanying text offers a different persona for Anne, a girl whose visions are too grand to be confined in one approach to her life. We meet Anne floating peacefully in a boat. Readers of the novel may remember that she and her bosom friend, Diana, attempted to impersonate Elaine, the Arthurian heroine of Tennyson’s poem, by floating down the river in a small vessel. Familiarity with the original books is not necessary for young readers to enjoy this work. In fact, the picture books function independently and prime children to meet Anne later in Montgomery’s work. Here she is a picture of serene dreaming, her eyes closed and her famous red braids lying outside the white blanket covered with lilies.
But Anne can be part of the real world, too, elevating it to the realm of imagined roles when she sees herself as a great lady serving tea. The rose blossoms on her dress match the tea set and pastries, in Godbout’s ode to an idealized domestic world.
Not all of Anne’s dreams flourish without problems. Children will appreciate that cooks who are “forced to follow a recipe” may wind up with awful results That’s what happens when reality places unreasonable demands. Anne’s red hair, which she eventually appreciates as an intrinsic part of her special beauty, is at first a source of distress.
She philosophically reasons that red is “divinely beautiful when compared to ghastly green,” the color which results in the novel from an experiment with cheap hair dye. Anne’s sad face reflected in the mirror signifies every child’s disappointment in an unlucky attempt at change.
Sometimes Anne soars to her aspired heights, following a bird with her free spirit, pictured by Godbout as a disembodied silhouette leaving Anne’s body. Anne, sitting on a star, watches a shooting star mimic her own flights of fancy with a smile of appreciation.
Perhaps the most ingenious picture in the book is a summary and a metaphor of what reading means to all of us. Anne is “an invisible friend who lives in a book, a kindred spirit to anyone in need.” Godbout’s two-page spread features a book open to a small violet shadow, Anne on the page. A pair of steel-rimmed eyeglasses on a table points to the accessibility of imagination and literary friendship. George and Godbout have effected this kind of magic in their creation of a new Anne, clearly related to her original, but also standing on her own two feet.