Sylvie Kan­torovitz

  • Review
By – August 9, 2021

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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