While the Fan Brothers, Debbie Ridpath Ohi, and Ashlyn Anstee employ acutely different tones, styles, and media in their latest picture books, all unearth joy in some of life’s most unpleasant feelings: grief, sadness, and selfishness.
Ocean Meets Sky opens in sepia-soaked serenity, with a young boy named Finn remembering his late grandpa and the stories they shared “about a place far away where ocean meets sky.” Finn builds a boat in tribute to these stories, falls asleep, and wakes up sailing the sea in a mythical world full of giant fish, islands of books, and mountainous seashells.
As the journey progresses, so too does the enchantment of the surroundings. The Fans’ illustrations are truly breathtaking. Unforgettable highlights include an aerial view of Finn sailing over a gargantuan golden fish alongside iridescent moon jellyfish and an ascension into the sky to meet a placid blue whale floating across the moon. Finn also crosses paths with the Titanic, an old masted vessel entangled in a kraken’s tentacles, and several war submarines in the sky. These ships, like Finn’s grandfather, who Finn later sees in the moon, are actually harmless ghosts. The Fans juxtapose the real with the surreal, showing that imagination and story can play a crucial role in processing loss.
Ocean Meets Sky quietly explores the journey of saying goodbye. I’m Sad is a bubbling Socratic dialogue on overcoming the blues starring a little girl, a flamingo, and a potato. This is Ohi’s third collaboration with comedian and writer Michael Ian Black, and it’s their most affecting by far.
Flamingo is sad, but more than that he’s anxious about his future. Will he feel like this forever? Will his friends still like him? Though simply worded, these are deep questions, and Ohi’s digital artwork brings movement and vivacity to what is essentially a three-way conversation. Big bold lines, opaque candy colours, and exaggerated expressions highlight the comedic moments, which mostly centre on grumpy Potato and his obsession with dirt.
The final pages show the three characters in thoughtful silhouette, with the little girl asking Flamingo, “Do you still feel sad?” The resolution is realistic, though a little surprising. Many picture books would end with the disgruntled character being cheered up, but Flamingo’s response is more about acceptance of tough feelings than an attempt to assuage them.
If sharing is caring, the main character in Hedgehog could not give a fig about his animal neighbours. Yes, this is a story about a selfish hedgehog who literally hogs a hedge. He refuses to make room for other needy animals when hibernation space becomes scarce. Although this is Vancouver-born Anstee’s third picture book in four years, she’s flown a bit under the radar in the Canadian illustration scene. But she deserves a spot on the uproarious crowd-pleaser list, along with Jeremy Tankard, Mélanie Watt, and Elise Gravel.
Anstee’s work with Nickelodeon and JibJab’s StoryBots is apparent in the cartoony exuberance of her style; Hedgehog’s demeanour vacillates hilariously between sweet and reserved when he gets his way to all-out bonkers rage when things go sideways. He’s an inflamed, self-possessed toddler making everything worse for himself, and preschoolers will delight in his outbursts while also understanding the atrociousness of his behaviour. Hand-lettered with almost 40 exclamation points in the short text, it’s part SpongeBob, part Scaredy Squirrel, and part feel-good, frenetic coziness.
These three picture books offer up a stylistic smorgasbord. The illustrators’ media range from digital art to graphite to gouache and the tones span surreal to comic. Regardless of these differences, all three books do the same thing: they suss out the good parts of feeling bad. Authentic, emotional moments live equally in the face of a dearly departed loved one in the moon, a potato wearing sunglasses, and an entitled hedgehog having a conniption.