Je suis fou de Vava (I’m crazy about Vava) is the story of one summer in the life of Vieux Os, a ten-year-old boy from Haiti. He lives with his grandmother, loves his dog and red bicycles, rescues drowning ants, and believes the sky is blue because of the sea – and he’s crazy about Vava, a girl who lives on the other side of the hill.
Before I launch into a discussion of this picture book, I ought to point out that Je suis fou de Vava is not currently available in English, although it has been translated into Haitian Creole. So why are you exploring it, I hear you ask. Well, I just couldn’t resist this title. Every time I looked into picture books with a Haitian connection, Dany Laferrière’s name cropped up, and when I set eyes on the book’s illustrations by Frédéric Normandin, I knew I had to share at least one of their stories with you. So, when I quote from the English ‘version’, the translation is in fact an unofficial one by yours truly.*
Je suis fou de Vava takes the form of a letter written by a ten-year-old Haitian boy, Vieux Os (Old Bones), to an imaginary friend on the other side of the Caribbean sea. Throughout the course of the book, our young protagonist flits from one scene to another and, as he does, we learn a little about his life and thoughts: his dog Marquis, his grandmother Da, his passion for red bicycles, his fear of a fish eating his leg when he takes a dip in the sea, his belief that the sky is blue because of the sea. This structure (or lack of) might frustrate some readers, but I enjoyed it; it’s a quirky, original way to experience the patchwork of Vieux Os’s everyday.
But there is a constant in the story: Vava. Whatever Vieux Os does or thinks about, he always comes back to Vava; his love for her is the theme that binds the book together. Vava is a radiant character, dressed in bright yellow with matching bows in her hair, and everywhere she goes, a group of yellow butterflies flutter around her. In one sublime scene, Laferrière compares her to “a flame walking through a field of corn”. But – poor Vieux Os – Vava never seems to pay any attention to him. When the two characters do happen to be in the same space, however, Vieux Os can’t cope: his heart thumps, he feels hot and cold and, in one episode, passes out.
The scenes where Vieux Os recovers from his ‘illness’ (or as I read it, lovesickness) are fascinating. We are introduced to Timise, a voodoo faith healer with a “head like a vulture”, who massages Vieux Os with castor oil. But, in the illustration, behind Timise, a statue of the Virgin Mary perches on a little table. And on the next page, when a medical doctor announces that Vieux Os does not have malaria, his grandmother Da sings “Alleluia” to the Virgin Mary. I was surprised and confused to see voodoo religion and Catholicism featuring side by side (less so by the faith healer and medical doctor’s interventions), so I looked into it. In this article from The New York Times I discovered that scholars estimate that between 50 and 90 percent of Haitians practice “at least elements of voodoo, often in conjunction with Catholicism.” The scenes suddenly made sense.
The voodoo theme appears elsewhere in the picture book. Loné, the notary is able to walk through a downpour of rain without a single drop falling on his suit; Passilus, the butcher, turns into a horse after midnight. And, as darkness falls, Da, the grandmother tells Vieux Os stories of zombies, werewolves and she-devils until he falls asleep. A couple of pages further on in the book and you’re in for a fright. Against a darkened backdrop, the double-page spread is alive with skeletons and brightly-coloured monsters with clasping claws, jagged teeth and orange eyes. When my daughters first asked for Je suis fou de Vava as a bedtime story, I’ll admit to skipping these pages …
What I enjoy most about this picture book are the little things – the observations and everyday scenes: the lizard pretending to sleep, and then scuttling off as a boiling drop of Da’s coffee falls on his back; the sun that always seems stronger after the rain; Da bathing Vieux Os in orange tree leaves in her backyard. There are moments of simple beauty and poetry in the language that I find both moving and powerful. And let’s not forget Frédéric Normandin’s illustrations that bring the story and Haiti vividly to life. Each and every page bursts with colour, energy and humour.
So there you have it: I’m crazy about Je suis fou de Vava: the text, the eye-popping illustrations, and story of Vieux Os’s summer of love and life in Petit-Goâve, Haiti.
Je suis fou de Vava by Dany Laferrière, illustrated by Frédéric Normandin (Les Editions de la Bagnole, 2013; first edition published in 2006) – title not currently available in English
Dany Laferrière is a Haitian-born Canadian novelist and journalist who writes exclusively in French. He was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and raised in Petit-Goâve; he moved to Canada in 1978 and published his first novel in the mid-80s. He was elected to the prestigious Académie française in 2013.
Frédéric Normandin is an art director, illustrator and animator who has collaborated with Dany Laferrière on two other picture books, La fête des morts and Le baiser mauve de Vava. He studied art, architecture and scenography. He lives in Quebec with his family.
Je suis fou de Vava won the 2006 Governor General’s Award for children’s literature – text (Canada).
* As I mentioned in my Haiti country snapshot, I am a professional translator (French into English) when I am not blogging about world picture books.