Jean Regnaud & Émile Bravo
I’m kicking myself for missing this one when it was released in early 2009. To my shame I’d done the classic thing of seeing the cover and instantly thinking it looked like a beautiful children’s picture book and put it on the “when I have a moment” list. And as is customary with things on that particular list I never managed to find that moment.
Thankfully two things happened that practically forced the book into my hands: It won the prestigious German Youth Literature Prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair and a week later I got chance to flick through it at Nostalgia & Comics. I realised then what a terrible mistake I’d made by ignoring this beautiful, painfully bittersweet tale of childhood.
(Jean’s first day at school, full of worries and very alone, from this very first page our heart goes out to this poor little boy. From My mommy by Jean Regnaud & Émile Bravo, published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
Jean is just a normal little 5 year old boy, Starting school for the first time and full of fear and worry at what this next bit of growing up may entail. He lives with his kind but busy Daddy, his lovely nanny Yvette (who understands that a 5 year old boy will do anything for iced chocolate milk), and his annoying but much loved little brother Paul.
But despite the surface normality of his life, it’s soon obvious that something is very wrong in Jean’s life, something terrible, something to do with mommy. And whilst it may not be immediately obvious to us, the readers, exactly what is wrong, it doesn’t take all that long for the terrible truth to become apparent. And after that, this comic becomes something quite rare, a book that grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go until the very end.
(For every heartbreaking moment in My mommy, there’s moments of simple laughter – just like this, which had me smiling at the simplicity of the joke and the subtlety with which its told. From My mommy by Jean Regnaud & Émile Bravo, published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
Jean’s neighbour Michele, a couple of years older and far too aware of how difficult Jean’s life is, confides in him that Jean’s mommy sends her postcards from her travels around the world. It’s such a mean and terrible, yet wholly believable thing for an older child to do. The world of the primary school can be a nasty, heartless place after all.
As the book goes on we share with Jean all the ups and downs of his life, finding new friends, settling into school, getting used to the politics of the playground, visits to grandparents, his love for Yvette – who can’t help, with her kindness, her cooking, and her iced chocolate milks, take on the role of his absent mommy:
(“But she is not our mommy”. Tears were welling at this point. From My mommy by Jean Regnaud & Émile Bravo, published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
But all the while there’s an unease in Jean’s world, and in our reading of the book. Little moments hit hard for us reading it – the terrible moments when the old people gasp “you’re just the spitting image….” and then break down in tears, the insistence of the school teachers and the school psychologist to chip away at the protective layers that Jean has placed around his memory of his mommy – every time there’s a lump in your throat.
Every day it seems Jean’s being forced to realise the truth. And when it does, through that horrible, typical, Michelle, it’s as heartbreaking for us as it is for Jean, so effectively has Regnaud manipulated our emotions throughout.
Over the course of the book, as we learn more and more about Jean’s life, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of awful, impending realisation and heartbreak on his part. It’s a book that had me wiping away the tears at the end, a beautiful, terrible, wonderfully bittersweet read. Regnaud picks his tone perfectly, somewhere between sentimental and maudlin, yet never overdoing either. And for a book with such a heartbreaking basis there are still many, many moments of sheer, simple, childish joy.
Artistically, it’s simply gorgeous. Most of the pages are constructed with colour and backgrounds acting as panel borders and transitions, others are beautiful full page scenes with just minimal captions and no speech bubbles, that wouldn’t be out of place in a picture book. But this is most assuredly comics, and Bravo creates some wonderful sequences with his light, expressive artwork. There’s so much said in the art that allows Regnaud the freedom to use his text sparingly and to most effect. Just looking at the pages presented here I trust you can see not just the beauty in Bravo’s artwork but the incredible use of facial expressions to communicate so much of the emotion I felt throughout.
(And a tear, just one of many, did the same down my cheek. From My mommy by Jean Regnaud & Émile Bravo, published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
Above all, My mommy is a stunning, beautiful book that just reads so well, and so true. The children and the adults are all depicted as full, rounded people, all their flaws on show to the world. The adults are good and kind, heartless, mean, stern and everything in between. The children are beautiful, innocent, naive things but every one of them has the ability to be calculating, nasty and horribly cruel. Just as we all are in reality.
Every award, every plaudit My mommy receives is more than deserved. But the greatest accolade I can give it is how much it affected me all the way through. Tears of sadness came at the end, but before them I’d been taken through so many wonderful and sad emotions.
It’s a beautiful, affecting book and one that I’ll be sharing with Molly. Although it may have to wait a while – the last section not only deals with the obvious loss of Jean’s mother, but also, brilliantly ties it up with the lost innocence of being told about the reality of Santa Claus. And my problem is that our house currently has a definite “don’t ask, don’t tell” thing going on. We’re convinced she knows the truth, but we’re also convinced she’s not going to tell us to maintain the illusion. And if that means putting off reading My mommy with Molly for a few months then I’m sure Mssrs Regnaud & Bravo would understand.