Since their debut picture book, 2016’s The Night Gardener, bagged a variety of honours and awards, the Fan brothers – who until now have consisted of illustrators Eric and Terry Fan – have moved from strength to strength, bringing their warmly surreal, fantastical style to books by other authors, including The Darkest Dark, a collaboration with author Kate Fillion and astronaut Chris Hadfield, and The Antlered Ship, with text by Dashka Slater.
The Barnabus Project represents the Fans’ third outing as both illustrators and writers (after 2018’s Ocean Meets Sky) and the first with a third brother, Devin Fan (roles aren’t delineated in the book’s credits). The more the merrier, apparently. The Barnabus Project is every bit as darkly and delightfully evocative as its predecessors – perhaps more so.
For as long as he can remember, Barnabus, a mouse-sized elephant, has lived in a multi-storey laboratory deep beneath the Perfect Pets store, itself located on a “perfectly ordinary” (and very Toronto-looking) street. The lab is where so-called perfect pets, for the most part fluffy, big-eyed monsters sold in boxes, get made; it’s also where failed experiments – goofily idiosyncratic creatures like Barnabus – wither in bell jars until they can be “recycled.” Though he’s not mistreated, Barnabus nevertheless dreams of escaping and visiting the fabled above-ground world described by his cockroach friend, Pip: a world of green trees and tall buildings (a.k.a. “mountains that reached all the way to the sky, lit with their own stars”).
The book’s strength-in-difference message is standard issue at this point. It’s the clandestine, sinister-adjacent world of the lab – at whose heart sits the ultimate failed project: a gigantic, one-eyed, octopus-like creature elaborately encased in metal and swirling ductwork – that thrillingly stirs the imagination and emotions. In the Fan brothers’ hands, the result feels like a happy amalgam of Jules Verne, Maurice Sendak, the Moomins, and Monsters, Inc.
Same theme, different setting, you might say of Riel Nason’s The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt, whose basic scenario and conundrum are right there in the title. Everyone knows that ghosts are sheets, not quilts; cue the opening image of a little quilt-ghost gazing forlornly out an attic porthole window at a sky full of conventional sheet-ghosts. Why is he a quilt? Though the ghost’s parents were sheets, his great-grandmother was “an elegant lace curtain,” and at least one known ancestor was a checkered tablecloth.
The main drawback of being a quilt-ghost turns out to be less aesthetic – though he is called “scrappy” – than kinetic. Heavier and more ungainly than sheets, quilts aren’t great at takeoffs or speed: a major issue when the sudden arrival of humans necessitates a swift exit.
When Halloween arrives, our ghost, unable to hover on his favourite night, drapes himself over a porch rail, where he’s serendipitously picked up by a mother who wraps him around her chilled trick-or-treating daughter. Elated by his sudden usefulness, the ghost doesn’t even mind when the girl later uses him as a napkin. When the mother runs her fingers appreciatively over his stitching, that little bit of admiration puts the wind in the ghost’s proverbial sails.
Nason’s book, sweet without being saccharine, is itself held aloft by Byron Eggenschwiler’s understated illustrations: the quilt’s blue squares, an orange pumpkin, and the little girl’s pink tutu all pop subtly against an otherwise muted, monochrome palette and blacks that fall just shy of menacing. Throughout the book, Eggenschwiler’s focus moves seamlessly from ghost’s-eye view to quilt close-ups and points in between while throwing out some playful details: an owl roosting in a grandfather clock, a sheet-ghost collapsed in giggles at some unheard joke. In addition to these visual pleasures, The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt also offers a sly twist on the transformative power of Halloween.