Review by Jieun Lee
Annick Press, 8 September 2020
32 pages, hardcover, $21.95 CAD, 978-1-77321-434-4
Ages 4-7, Grades Pre K-2
Picture Book, Contemporary Realism
Myra Louise is a very good thinker, reader, and best of all, listener. But other people only notice she’s quiet. In a society that views extroversion and vocalized opinions as signs of strength and success, thoughtfulness is not always valued or understood. Why Are You So Quiet? gently explores the power in listening and observing.
“Why are you so quiet?” seems like a simple question, but Jaclyn Desforges’ beautiful first picture book explores the complex nuances of what that actually means. In doing so, she highlights different ways of communicating and interacting with the world. The story takes on the voice of the protagonist by remaining gentle and soft.
At the beginning, young Myra Louise doesn’t understand why people keep asking her why she’s quiet, and she even thinks there may be something wrong with her when she thinks: “Myra Louise didn’t know quite how to answer.” Feeling small, she begins to physically shrink on the page. The other characters engulf the two-page spreads, and readers have to search for Myra Louise, as she becomes lost in the sea of other children. Her feelings of isolation deepen when her mother asks the same question, not appearing to understand her at all. Her fluffy black cat, however, clearly appreciates her soothing presence.
But when Myra Louise begins to ask the same question to other people and things around her, she changes its meaning; instead of demanding to know why they aren’t saying anything, she tries to understand how else they could be communicating to her. Once she realizes her gift is listening, she takes up more and more space, until her face is one whole page, lit up with joy.
The mixed-media illustrations by Risa Hugo help Myra Louise and her imagination stand out by using different textures for the girl and her background. For example, when we go from Myra Louise reading and dreaming about a listening machine, to her in a tool room, the difference between her figure and the big tool room, surrounded by a hammer, paintbrushes, and a drill, is striking—she not only imagines this amazing tool to help her listen but builds it herself, completely from scratch. She’s surrounded by supposedly innate, silent objects—but she brings them to life (including a fabulous pink octopus that follows her everywhere). The colours also become increasingly brilliant, making the reader visualize the world that Myra Louise sees and hears. The visual representation of vibrancy and the beauty of paying attention takes over the pages in gorgeous bright colours.
Why Are You So Quiet? is elegant and powerful. Children and adults alike will appreciate how Desforges and Hugo advocate for introverts everywhere, and ask what we miss when we are always making noise. It demonstrates the importance of giving space to voices that are not often heard, and ensuring that we always make an effort to always actively listen and pay attention.
Jieun Lee is a graduate student in UBC’s MA in Children’s Literature. She doodles and scribbles as much as she can and aims to tell stories of children’s experiences in immigrant families and the magical effects of food.