Book Review: Julia
written by Munira Judith Avinger and illustrated by Lisa Neulicht
Book Review by Marian Buchanan
This is an unusual story for a couple of reasons: first of all, the main character and her friend are homeschooled — and we all know how rarely homeschooling is portrayed in books of fiction.
More importantly, the story is one of spiritual discovery. I would say most children’s novels that are based on inner development deal with more psychological issues such as learning how to experience and express openheartedness in relationships. In Julia, however, the question is more metaphysical: who is our real self beyond our roles, our bodies and death?
For those parents who are screening books for younger or particularly sensitive children, I should warn that death does come into the story in a number of ways — not as a morbid focus but rather as an event and issue through which the spiritual learning deepens. This includes the death of a loved animal, and also the appearance of the spirit of a dead person — not as a ghost exactly, the metaphysics are a little different from that.
If your screening is in terms of metaphysical or religious content, you might be interested to know that the characters seem to be Christian, as they read from the Bible at Christmas and recite the 23rd Psalm at the funeral, yet they are open to learning from other traditions as well: Julia’s friend Gabriel, whose mother was from India, introduces her to The Upanishads and they glean some valuable insights from them.
There is also a bit of magic in the story, in the sense that Julia’s spiritual journey is triggered by communication from a tree. It/he speaks to her telepathically in words and serves as a spiritual mentor of sorts, answering her questions when there is something she is trying to figure out or understand, and teaching her how to enter a state of attunement with the creatures of the woods.
The woods are where she lives with her parents, who are the caretakers. It is because of the remote location that she is being homeschooled. Her friend Gabriel is homeschooled as well, as his father is in charge of the campground further down on the same property. (The wider setting, by the way, is Quebec.)
The portrayal of homeschooling is of school-at-home for the most part. The book starts with an argument between Julia and her mother about whether she should have to keep studying math in the last month before the summer break. She thinks she shouldn’t because she has finished the 8th grade curriculum (and she hates math), and her mother says she has to start learning algebra now because that’s what’s next and “there’s no point in wasting time.” This doesn’t ring true to me, but perhaps those of you who follow a very structured school-at-home approach will identify with it. (I invite your feedback about this.) If I were to stereotype, I might have expected this family of guitar-playing vegetarians living in a cabin in the woods to have become unschoolers by the time the story unfolds, which is two years after they started homeschooling. Still, there is a certain amount of flexibility and customization portrayed in that the children get to choose which books to study for literature (they choose Emerson’s Nature and The Upanishads), and there is a certain homeschooling flavour to the fact that they learn science and natural history outdoors from Gabriel’s father, and music, art and carpentry from Julia’s father, while the textbook studying seems to be with Julia’s mother for grammar, math and social studies. None of this — except the reading — is described experientially, it is merely mentioned that this is what the arrangements are.
The writing style is straightforward and minimalist throughout the rest of the story as well. Emotions are named rather than conveyed and the environment is described only briefly, without a sense of atmosphere. The story advances through actions and dialogue described in ordinary language, and the spiritual ideas are laid out for the reader rather than facilitative of his or her own insight. Overall, then, the writing style is one of “telling” rather than “showing” and is plain rather than lyrical and evocative. As such, it seems a little unpolished to me, as do the illustrations. Nevertheless, I found the book unusual enough in its message to be worth the read. If your beliefs are different from those in this story and you are not open to shifting your perspective in spiritual matters, it may not be to your liking. But if you are interested in expanding your child’s or your own spiritual horizons, this book could certainly stimulate discussion and an exploration of beliefs about nature, life and death, and the relationships between souls.
Reviewer Marian Buchanan is our website manager and homeschooled her now-grown son “from day one.” A writer and published illustrator of children’s books herself, her art and design work are available through Zoetic Endeavours in the form of cards and prints of her Nature & Spirit artwork, customized astrology art charts, and “art for a cause” images like her “live free learn free” design.