Sonata for Fish and Boy, the first solo picture book by Toronto-based illustrator Milan Pavlović, is a well-orchestrated, wordless appreciation of music and friendship. In a riverside park, a mop-haired child plays a violin with closed-eyed, fully immersed concentration. Tuckered from practising, the boy stretches out on the bench for a snooze. A fish, attracted by the melodious notes, jumps out of the water and pays the napping musician a fantastical visit. Through their unspoken connection, these unlikely companions discover just how far music can take them.
The dreamy, coloured ink and pencil illustrations on watercolour paper initially use earthy deep plum and teal tones. As the fish and boy float over orangey-red rooftops, gazing down upon people singing and dancing together in the street, their spirits lifted by music, additional swatches of saturated colours are introduced. There’s a distinct arc and pleasing rhythm to their journey. The duo fly amid a flock of green birds, whose beaks are open in song; then they soar even higher, racing past spinning planets and musical notation. The scenes are also harmoniously interconnected, with background details hinting at adventures to come – a blue polka-dotted balloon hovers in the solar system, with a long string trailing down, signalling a return to Earth. Giant, fluffy summertime dandelions are the next round shape to appear in the reverie, like a continuation of a musical theme in a different variation. The blowing seeds lead the fish and boy through an open door to a house party where an animal band jams. A trombone-sliding rabbit and a drumming mouse play them out as they tumble through a window in a whirlwind decrescendo.
This imaginative flight of fancy is grounded in solid storytelling, and it follows the three-part form of the titular sonata. At the circular ending, the original muted palette returns, along with the same park setting. But in this recapitulation, the seasons have changed and an elderly man, with a familiar smile, appears. When he picks up and plays the waiting violin, a fish leaps into his arms like a long-lost friend. Was it all a dream? Just as music invites different interpretations, so does this beguiling offering.
Over the Shop by Governor General’s Literary Award winner JonArno Lawson is an exceptional wordless picture book that considers how small, individual acts of kindness, respect, and generosity can build community. Lowell’s General Store has a melancholic, seen-better-days air with its faded facade and wilted plants outside, and no customers inside. A little girl and her brusque grandparent, the shopkeeper, live in the back of this rundown building and need to rent out the upstairs apartment to make ends meet. But the shabbiness of the boarded-up windows, cupboard doors falling off their hinges, and bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling scares away a revolving door of prospective tenants.
A turning point comes with the arrival of a possibly queer couple who see beyond the surface flaws to envision possibilities. Initially rejected by the gruff grandparent, for reasons left up to the reader to reconcile, the child insists they move in, and through hard work and tender loving care, a found family is formed, galvanizing a revitalization of the property as well as its occupants.
Qin Leng’s marvellously meticulous ink and watercolour illustrations convey the narrative with a cinematic fluidity. Wordless communication is instant and instinctive: a physically close but socially distant next-door neighbour steals glances and then quickly averts their eyes; the lonely girl looks through a grimy, long-unwashed window and waves to a child on the other side who wants to linger but is moved along by their mother. A myriad of such subtle details will reward those who take the time to carefully look, like the gradual taming of the stray alley cat (as well as the growly grandparent), the gender non-specificity of several characters, and a rainbow flag proudly waving at the spruced-up and renamed Lowell and Friends General Store. This masterful, multi-layered picture book encourages assumptions to be replaced by curiosity and reflection.