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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Violet Bing and the Grand House

written and illustrated by Jennifer Paros

Literary heroines, especially those of middle-grade novels, tend to run to one of two types: they're either plucky and intrepid or shy and timorous. In Violet Bing and the Grand House, however, audiences meet a protagonist who crosses the categories, a timid seven-year-old girl who combines unease about anything outside of her minuscule comfort zone with a ferocious determination to stay squarely within it, a girl who specializes in saying "No" to anything, like bumpy pancakes, piano lessons, or sleepovers, that tosses her into the daunting realms of novelty and uncertainty. "When the going gets tough," says Violet Bing, "I always just want to go home."

When Violet says "No" to accompanying her family on vacation, she's stuck with the disconcerting alternative of staying with her great-aunt Astrid at the Grand House. There she's initially intimidated by elements ranging from the colors on the bedroom walls to the prospect of seaside outings. Soon, though, she's intrigued by a local girl chasing a stray dog, spurred on by an old diary that proves to have been written by her great-aunt as a young girl, and tempted by the internal appeals of the mysterious house. It's the last that really lifts her into a new viewpoint—literally, as she finds the secret passage in the house and climbs up to the old sunroom, an achievement that proves to her she's more of a match for the unknown than she had realized.

The book doesn't hammer its point home; like Aunt Astrid, it sits back and allows Violet space to grapple with the drawbacks of her self-imposed strictures. From the start, Violet is uncomfortable rather than contrary, a kid who also might like a little something different if it weren't so complicated to explain just how novelty would need to blend in with her reassuring routine. She essentially undergoes a quiet program of desensitization, moving gradually from looking at new experiences (either through the upstairs window or on the map Aunt Astrid made of the house) to dabbling her toe in them to modestly enjoying them while still retaining some control over her participation; since nobody ever pushes Violet toward these explorations, she's free to sort out her own balance and she's in charge of her own progress. The plot trajectory is subtle and the plot itself mild rather than dramatic, but this is a book about character and voice. Violet is utterly credible as a kid who's so in the habit of defending herself from being overwhelmed by change that even she's starting to sense the possibility that she's missing out as a consequence. Paros offers a third-person present-tense narration that's economical in expression and sympathetic in tone, but it's also quirky and individual, wryly comedic yet perceptive about Violet's thoroughgoing unease ("And although lunch is still some time away," thinks an uncomfortable Violet faced with the alarming prospect of a new friend, "she should probably start getting ready for it, or something").

The touches of linguistic complexity may make this more suitable for a gently humorous readaloud at the younger end of the range; more experienced readers will nonetheless be reassured by the concise text and the spare, tidy line drawings that thickly populate the pages. Either way, many kids may recognize elements of themselves in Violet, and they’ll warm to this tenderly jocular but understanding literary exploration of a kid who considers stasis her best friend.

Deborah Stevenson, Reviewer

 

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Cover image by Jennifer Paros from Violet Bing and the Grand House ©2007. Used by permission of
Viking Children’s Books.


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This page was last updated on June 1, 2007.

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