Thao Lam’s nearly wordless book, a follow-up to her well-received debut, Skunk on a String, is about courage, imagination, and unexpected paths to friendship. It centres on a nameless young girl with brown skin and black pigtails whom we first see unpacking boxes in her room. A moving truck on the title page suggests her family has just arrived in the neighbourhood. Murmurs of conversation draw her to the open window, where she spies a trio of kids at eye level in a tree house. Though they smile and wave, she’s overcome by shyness and ducks down under the windowsill.
In her crouched position she notices a small tear in the wallpaper. Peeling it back releases a flock of yellow paper birds. Her curiosity piqued, the girl continues her excavations, discovering in her own walls a kind of tropical Narnia brimming with flora and fauna. The latter seems benign but for one Gruffalo-esque monster who approaches our heroine with a stomp and a gap-toothed roar. Frightened, she burrows deeper into the wallpaper, with the monster in hot pursuit.
As it happens, the monster is just lonely. The chase turns into a high-spirited, friendly game of hide-and-seek that takes the pair on a palimpsestic tour of wallpaper designs from bygone eras, including a 1960s-style polka-dot pattern, a pond teeming with frogs, and a sky bursting with rainbows. When the monster loses track of the girl, his three eyes turn teary and she’s quick to find and comfort him.
The pair pauses their frolics so the girl can have lunch, but after gobbling down a sandwich and rushing back upstairs she’s dismayed to find the wallpaper portal closed. It turns out fun isn’t just infectious, it’s emboldening, and the book ends, perfectly, with the girl approaching the kids at the bottom of their tree house ladder with a simple “Hello.”
Lam’s paper-collage technique, reminiscent of Eric Carle, is, undoubtedly, germane to her subject, but it also gives the pages a marvellous sense of depth and tactility. (A graduate of Sheridan College, Lam’s award-winning artwork has appeared in Cricket and other publications.) Inventive, warm-hearted, and visually sumptuous, Wallpaper is a surefire conversation starter: Lam’s monster can be taken as a metaphor for social anxiety or simply as the awkward, exuberant goofball he is. A delight from start to finish.