Sylvie Kantorovitz’s graphic memoir is a portrait of the artist as a girl and a young woman. Through subtly connected episodes, the Moroccan-born author and illustrator tells the story of her coming of age in France. The book is gentle and unassuming, viewing even the most unsympathetic people in Kantorovitz’s life with some degree of empathy. Readers will respond to Sylvie’s conflicts over her life choices in a narrative that rejects moral simplicities. Her illustration style is almost comically understated as well, presenting herself and others in lovable boxy cartoons, even as they undergo painful experiences.
A wide-eyed child with a stocky form, Sylvie resembles her mother minus the glasses and pearls. In fact, all the members of her family look strikingly similar, emphasizing the relationships that bind them together. When Sylvie earns an A in school, her mother reminds her that “It doesn’t count if the others also got As,” leading Sylvie to respond with a generic “Sigh,” not even contained in a cartoon bubble. When the young artist states, “But drawing was what I really loved to do. More than anything,” the sentence is suspended over a picture in which the young Sylvie walks on a tightrope with an angry monster waiting below. Kantorovitz accomplishes feats of communication using minimal words and evocative scenes.
Living in the small college where her father is employed, Sylvie and her growing family of siblings have unusual friends, including the son and daughter of other employees. Attending school, Sylvie is constantly aware of feeling different; she is tentative, unsure of herself, and somehow incomplete. In reality, she is more sensitive than many of her peers. She realizes that artistic creativity is at least part of what makes her different, and her father encourages this path. Seated in her “absolute favorite spot,” a small storage area that she has transformed into a studio, Sylvie is as enthralled by the small accessories of her future profession as she is by the act of drawing itself. Paper, erasers, markers, and tape help to form her self-image.
Antisemitism is another disturbing reality for which Sylvie feels unprepared. When children in her class mock her origins in a former French colony, she feels the sting of difference. Worse are the direct accusations from her peers of being a Christ killer. Her default defense mechanism is to “let people assume I was like them,” but that method is ineffective against this horrific claim. Her father’s patient historical explanations of Jesus’s actual death are also worthless, but less disturbing than her mother’s approach: “We don’t need to hide that we are Jewish. But we don’t need to proclaim it either.”
As Sylvie becomes a teenager, she continues to explore the idea of becoming an artist but also recognizes a vocation in the more practical profession of teaching. The highly competitive atmosphere surrounding the prestigious baccalaureate exam is one more component of her progress toward a more defined sense of herself, but this memoir is a deliberately unfinished work of art. Changing family dynamics, relationships with young men that are warm but do not lead to commitment, and even the decision to cut her hair short are all stages on a wavering path. This simultaneously self-assured and self-questioning young woman is unique, yet her story is accessible to anyone trying to find her own way in the world.
Sylvie is highly recommended for readers aged ten and older. It includes an author’s note explaining the process of writing the book.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.