Anne’s School Days – Adapted by Kallie George, Pictures by Abigail Halpin
Tundra Books, 2021
What reader of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables doesn’t remember the empowering moment when Anne smashes her school slate down on Gilbert Blythe’s head? No, physical force should not be the response to teasing; we all want to be clear about that with our children and students. But no harm comes to him, and generations of girls reading the book understood that mocking someone’s appearance, or anything else about her, merits an unmistakable response. Once again, Kallie George and Abigail Halpin, in their illustrated chapter book series adapted from Anne’s original story (see earlier volumes here and here), have captured the impact of the classic without imitating it. (I’ve written about some of Halpin’s non-Anne work elsewhere.)
The book opens with Anne and her “bosom friend,” Diana Barry, off to school. It’s significant that George chooses when to preserve the antique language of the original, as in this phrase to define the intimate friendship between girls (also known as “kindred spirits.”). The balance between writing in homage to L.M. Montgomery, and using language more suited to contemporary younger readers, is subtle. Less subtle is Gilbert Blythe himself. He has an advantage in Anne’s eyes. He’s good-looking, but “Anne didn’t care that he was handsome. But she was glad that he was smart.” Anne is obviously discerning and confident. But, cultural norms being what they were at the time, “Anne was very sensitive about her looks (especially her red hair).”
When Gilbert publicly humiliates Anne by yanking on her gorgeous red braid and whispering “Carrots,” she needs to defend herself. Halpin’s picture shows the perspective from the back of the classroom. Anne is facing the blackboard, seated next to Diana. Gilbert’s obnoxious gesture reduces her to a visual joke, spoiling the symmetry of her appearance. Yes, we all know that he will ultimately turn out to be the love of her life, but at this moment, he needs to learn a lesson, possibly a more valuable one than the rest of the curriculum in Mr. Phillips’s schoolroom. Now the reader is at the front of the classroom, watching as an infuriated Anne stands up for herself, and for every girl who’s ever been the target of a socially inept boy.
But don’t think that Anne’s days are consumed by anger. She has loving foster parents, Matthew and Marilla, even if Matthew is a bit more of the child empathizer than his sister. Her friendship with Diana is also at the center of her life, and her unbridled imagination enriches everything. Halpin’s pictures are both realistic and stylized, offering, like the text, a distinct version of Anne and those around her. The red and gold foliage of Prince Edward Island becomes a theatrical setting for a poetry-reciting Anne, who becomes a self-created woodland creature with literary dreams.
The contrasting personalities of Marilla and Matthew are another theme of Halpin’s images. Marilla needs to be involved in the productive of baking, while Matthew enjoys his tea, avoiding her direct gaze while they discuss Anne. The pieces of Anne’s broken slate, evidence of her misdeed, sit on the table in front of them.
One of the features of Anne’s life is her orphanhood, which gradually ceases to define her in the original novel. In Anne’s School Days it is just as clear that Anne enjoys the closeness of a wonderful, if untraditional, family. Seated with her “parents,” and her beloved Diana, in a scene of domestic harmony, young readers will understand the meaning of what Anne has found. Her hair may be red or auburn, but that’s not really important: “Maybe Anne had changed, just a little. But she’d always be Anne, with an e.”