A picture book collaboration between Iqaluit-based writer Laura Deal and Toronto illustrator Emma Pedersen celebrates the beauty of the tundra and the power of our surroundings to bring us down or cheer us up.
Pedersen’s monochrome endpaper illustration reveals a landscape brimming with grumpiness: squat shoreside rocks, a handful of snails, and even the houses frown from atop their stilts! It’s cute and charming, though the child showing us around in the story is not impressed. For them, everything is ugly. But as our guide tours the shore, something gradually changes. When they stop and breathe in rhythm with the waves and notice the “effortless flight” of the seagulls squawking above, they realize something important: this isn’t an ugly place, it’s an ugly mood! With a dose of nature and a few mindful moments, they transform their ugly place into the place of beauty it was all along.
Deal’s text is engaging and invites lots of discussion. There’s something simple yet felicitous about this exploration of a remote biome, which is entwined with an exploration of our own familiar – but still largely unknown – mental landscapes. At first, while our narrator is still a grump, Pedersen’s muted palettes and lively lines are playfully serious. But her images build to a final, sunny exuberance – real-serious this time, and joyful – that feels like a revelation.
The Ugly Place is a great read, but there are a few details that would have benefited from more editorial attention. Once the child’s mood begins to change, Deal’s language becomes a touch grandiose, with the likely goal of lyricism, but the effect is slightly ponderous. The book’s central metaphor is very tantalizing (“There is only one way to get to the ugly place, and you have to feel absolutely miserable.”), but the opening is actually stronger than the climax, where a string of musical metaphors doesn’t contribute much to the book’s larger themes. Perhaps most jarring is the reuse of the grumpy-rocks endpaper at the back of the book, even though the story is resolved with happy rocks grinning widely on the final pages.
Despite these imperfections, The Ugly Place is a charming, thoughtful story with layers that will reward rereading. Blending an often overlooked setting with an important topic, this is a book that will make any shelf quite a bit more beautiful.