The Line in the Sand by Toronto author-illustrator Thao Lam is a wordless picture book that speaks volumes about how conflict can arise from misconstrued communication and mistaken perspectives. A seven-eyed, squid-like being blithely wanders down the beach, dragging a stick in one of its tentacles. Most of the monsters at the seashore pay no attention to the arbitrary mark in the sand and merrily continue to build castles, collect seashells, and kick a ball around. But an aquatic, green, six-limbed, protruding-fanged behemoth and a confetti-sprinkled, bobbling antennae-eyed creature both look down and notice a fresh division between them that was not there before. Can it be crossed? Should it be crossed? Tentative steps to investigate are met with resistance from each side, and a battle line is drawn.
Topsy-turvy emotions are central to any conflict, and the multicoloured characters display a wide range of relatable facial expressions and body language. Mounting frustration and indignation can be read in every furrowed brow, impatient foot tap, and accusatory finger point. The two monsters see how far they can push the boundaries. As the fracas escalates, both obstinate parties dig in their heels and step over the actual and proverbial line.
It’s hard to see the big picture when you are smack dab in the middle of an altercation. Lam’s patterned and textured digital collage illustrations offer fleeting glimpses of the heated argument, unfolding in quick succession. Small panel close-ups show the two monsters’ feet facing off, leaving it up for discussion whether individual transgressions in the territorial turf war are accidental, intentional, or a bit of both. The sparring sides interpret the line in one way, but panoramic double-page spreads afford the reader with a broader perspective, including sightings of the roaming, stick-dragging monster who is oblivious to the brouhaha caused by his innocuous actions.
When common ground is found, the dust begins to settle, and the monsters can no longer see what they are fighting over. After a conciliatory laugh and a hug, the once divisive lines in the sand are reimagined and become part of collaborative playground fun. Without a single word, Lam has communicated a master class in conflict resolution.