Who Owns the Clouds? by Mario Brassard, illus. Gérard DuBois, transl. Yvette Ghione

Review by Charlotte Mundy

Tundra Books, January 10th, 2023

100 pages, Hardcover, $25.99 CAD, 9781774880210

Ages 12+, Grade 7+

Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction

My sister says that I spent the days that followed trying to sort the clouds into two categories: those that belonged to us (the white ones) and those that didn’t (all the others). The problem was, there weren’t any white clouds left.

Mila is caught between dreaming and her distant memories as a young girl growing up in the midst of war. She remembers the stray cats that amassed the streets as homes were ravaged by bombs, the sturdy apple tree that was annihilated by fire, and the sepia photographs that her father took before the black clouds came in. She remembers the desperately endless line that formed as people attempted to flee the creeping devastation inflicted on their homes. Now, having fled the war as a grown woman living in a new city, Mila’s memories seem to be a lifetime away. Were they simply a dream? Mila’s quiet daily sorting of the clouds reflects her childlike innocence as she attempts to understand the chaos of war. As she grows in a place free of conflict, she remembers the black and grey clouds of smoke that follow warfare. Although her memories seem a lifetime away, her dreams still haunt her like a looming cloud.

Who Owns the Clouds? is originally written in French by Mario Brassard under the title À Qui Appartiennent Les Nuages?, translated by Yvette Ghione and expertly illustrated by Gérard DuBois. The story seemingly takes place in Europe during World War II and follows a Jewish family as their town is destroyed and they are forced to leave. A long queue of people that appears to be never-ending wait for a chance to escape death and destruction. Mila and her family, having no other choice, definitively lock their front door and join the endless line for weeks on end with only one suitcase each.

The crucial illustrations by Gérard DuBois occupy the entirety of every page in black, grey, and white colours, alluding to an old photograph or a distant memory. At times, the page is impacted with either a soft blue or vibrant red colour which adds to the gripping emotional impact of Mila’s story. Halfway between a dream and a distant memory, Mila remembers her uncle who defiantly dressed as Charlie Chaplin with a clown nose. The notable images of her uncle taunting the German soldiers with his vivid red nose give a sense of empowerment to those being oppressed. The red explosion that follows is final, but the following page is coloured a gentle blue, reminding the reader of hope and liberation. Mila reflects on her uncle fondly. The red of his nose spots the page in her present day, a reminder of the gruesome past that follows her and her family. The illustrations by DuBois are central to the story and the choice of colours is both compelling and purposeful.

The depiction of war in Mario Brassard’s Who Owns the Clouds? through a child’s eyes is haunting. Mila’s distant dreams and memories feel otherworldly after escaping her obliterated town. Although she almost remembers her childhood as a lifetime away, there are many hints that her past remains with her. The cats that she keeps for company, the tree outside of her window, her old family photos. Every day she sorts the clouds, a mechanism for coping with the trauma she endured. Only a person who grew up in war can truly know the difference between clouds of destruction and clouds of tranquility. Who Owns the Clouds? is a deeply empathic story depicting the innocent people whose lives are affected by the bitterness of war. Its thought-provoking messages could generate discussions for children on the realities of those displaced by conflict. I would recommend everyone read this book.

Charlotte Mundy completed her undergraduate with a BSc in Nursing. Living with the curse of creativity while working in a scientific field, she has been taking writing courses at UBC to satisfy her appetite for literature. She has always enjoyed reading and writing and hopes to one day become an author.

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