Rather than letting Eliot spend the summer hanging out with his friends, going to backyard sleepovers and the drive-in, and buying “monster cards and the latest issue of Spider-man,” Eliot’s parents are sending him to stay with relatives in Point Aconi, a tiny fishing village on the north shore of Nova Scotia. When 12-year-old Eliot arrives, it’s worse than he had feared – Point Aconi offers a world of work and bullies, and Eliot is forced to live with an uncle whose house has fish drying on a line out front and who thinks tongue sandwiches are actually food.
But there is also a local girl, Mary Beth, who draws Eliot out and shows him the wonders of his new surroundings. There are new friends and ways to pass the summer days. There are also new challenges, and secrets that will test Eliot to his breaking point.
Frank Viva’s Sea Change is a magical book, a deft, understated chronicle of the moment a young boy passes from childhood into something altogether more mysterious – and terrifying – almost without being aware of it himself. Eliot is a skilfully drawn fictional creation: at times he is demanding and nearly unbearable, at others vulnerable and relatable, but always fundamentally human. The story is inspired by Viva’s own childhood summers in Point Aconi, and this intimate knowledge of and love for the area is reflected in the immersive quality of the storytelling.
Viva, author and illustrator of numerous picture books and winner of more than 450 awards for his illustration and design work (including a slew of New Yorker covers), writes with a subtle strength, never overplaying his hand. While the writing – with its controlled vocabulary and straightforward sentence structures – is pitched perfectly for an audience of 10-to-12-year-olds, the attention to detail will captivate older readers well aware of the implications of things Eliot has virtually missed.
Viva’s art reflects and supports this textual approach. The illustrations are simple (pencil and ink drawings with digital colours), firmly integrated within the text rather than merely accompanying it. A depiction of Eliot being carsick on his way to the airport, for example, incorporates a swoosh of perfectly placed words. Lines of dialogue appear near characters’ mouths, the pictures set amid the text so the flow of the narrative is never broken. As a result, parts of Sea Change have the feel of a comic book, without the rigour of frames or dialogue bubbles. (There are also points where the text itself becomes an image – a crying face, or the moment before a kiss – which will prepare young readers for later encounters with Mark Z. Danielewski).
This sort of story has, of course, been done before, and rightly so: the transition from childhood into encroaching maturity is one of the most significant passages in human life, and one that young readers can relate to directly. With Sea Change, Viva brings an intimately vital and unique world to life, while respecting both the singular quality of Eliot’s experiences and the universal nature of his transition.