Sea Change got a little lost after it was published earlier this year. After a starred review and my bookseller’s insistence that anybody over 10 should read this story, I didn’t hear much else about it.
One reason it got lost is that I didn’t know how to find it. As a 115-page illustrated novel about a young boy’s summer trip to his great Uncle Earl’s house in Nova Scotia, this book could be shelved as a graphic novel or as a prose piece.
Another reason it got lost is that readers are not used to reading books like these. Frank Viva intersperses four-color illustrations throughout the text, sometimes breaking up the prose on the page so that readers have to jump from one side of the illustration to another to finish a word or a sentence. Words occasionally appear larger, smaller, or slanted to heighten emotion or to make a scene more vivid. While illustrations typically make a text easier for a child to read, in this case these artistic elements intentionally make the text harder to read.
Sea Change is at its strongest when story and image come together to elaborate on meaning. In a scene where the boy, Eliot, discovers that Uncle Earl has a secret attic library in his home, Eliot is at a loss for words. Viva devotes a full page spread to the moment. The page is almost entirely black and shows Eliot and his pile of books in white penciled outline. Rays of words poke through from a small window. The words: “The last bits of daylight that came in through a tiny attic window made the gold lettering on all the book spines shimmer.”
In another scene, Eliot, his quasi-girlfriend, Mary Beth, a neighbor, Timmy, and Happy, his dog are sitting together as Eliot reads to them. The illustration shows them sitting on sand and encased in a hourglass, with the sand close to running out. This reminds me of the book’s inevitable ending, that Eliot must go back home at the end of summer.
Unfortunately, the illustrations don’t always enhance the text in this way, leaving the prose to do most of the heavy lifting. Viva is committed to portraying Eliot’s voice, and perhaps this commitment is also a weakness: without the presence of an adult narrator to extend on Eliot’s thoughts, we get to hear a lot about what Eliot did without any kind of insight or introspection. We hear about how he had to eat grilled cheese without ketchup, how he had to pack a mermaid towel, how he lied and said he had eaten a lobster before when he hadn’t, and how he innocently asked Mary Beth about a bruise on her arm. It’s atmospheric, for sure, but it isn’t all that interesting.
Despite the focus on children and childhood throughout the text, Sea Change makes a better book for adults who are looking for something different, something small, and something a twinge nostalgic.
by Frank Viva
TOON Graphics, 2016
Publisher Recommended Age: 8-12