There’s something sweet and silly about sheet ghosts. They rise up in our minds with the nostalgia of Charlie Brown at Halloween. But there is a darker underside to them as well, to think about ghost children is to think about children suffering. Even though Charlie Brown is alive, his lumpy costume with too many holes is just another marker of the many complex emotional aspects of the Peanuts strips. Brenna Thummler plumbs the depths of grief and isolation for living children in her graphic novels Sheets and Delicates, as well as bringing to “life” a cast of sheet ghosts.
In Thummler’s first book Sheets, a young ghost named Wendell has trouble settling into his afterlife in the Land of Ghosts. He’s more interested in spinning wild stories than making progress in his ghost group therapy. When he sneaks back to the land of the living he hides out in the basement of the home/laundromat run by thirteen-year-old Marjorie Glatt. Marjorie is trying to keep her family’s business afloat after the death of her mother. Her father is so flattened by his grief that he rarely comes out of his bedroom, leaving her to care for her younger brother. The regular customers at the laundromat are casually cruel in their expectations of a middle school laundress. Mr. Saubertuck, a creepy boundary crossing man, alternates offers and threats to buy the location and turn it into a spa. All of this is added to the exhausting work of being a teenage girl: bullying, gym class and odd attention from teen boys. Wendell unintentionally makes things worse before they join forces and help one another move forward through their grief.
Delicates takes up where Sheets leaves off. As the baffling wheel of middle school fate turns, Tessi; the mean girl who bullied Marjorie, has now become her bestie; buying them matching chokers and going everywhere together. Her father’s depression has improved, taking over more of her home and work duties. She remains a bit uneasy in her newfound happiness. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons she takes it to heart when her gym teacher asks her to keep an eye out for his daughter. Eliza Duncan does not fit in at all. The story follows Eliza’s attempts to photograph and develop images of ghosts; solitary travels around town that have her contemplating her social isolation. The only advice her parents and Marjorie offer her is to stop being interested in the one thing she cares about; an unthinkable path. When she runs into Marjorie and Wendell, she finds a possible friend in Wendell. Marjorie refuses to allow him to reveal himself as a ghost and get to know Eliza more, afraid of what will happen if it gets out to her cool friends that she hangs out with ghosts. But Wendell is getting restless as Marjorie’s new life has less room for him. Marjorie shows fleeting kindness towards Eliza but it’s not enough when Tessi lashes out at Eliza, Marjorie never joins in but she also never stops her. In the end it takes Wendell and Marjorie working together to discover how deep Eliza’s desperation has become and to save her.
Thummler is an impressive force both as a writer and artist. The character development of Marjorie, Wendell and Eliza is expertly handled. Some of the side characters and situations in Sheets feel a little outlandish, Mr. Saubertuck is practically a cartoon villain complete with mustache. The emotional core of Sheets overshadows those minor blemishes. However the writing of Delicates is better honed, a keenly balanced school drama. Every page of each book is a joy to look at. Her dazzling color palette acts as an immediate emotional time travel to the 90’s with a riot of neons, pastels and deep jewel tones. Her ink lines give definition and texture but are overwhelmed by the colors, adding a painterly quality. The extreme detail of her settings adds a strong slant of realism and impeccable draftsmanship. The occasional full page image invites the reader to pause and drink in the scene. The images carry the story, with many silent panels.
Both books cover raw emotions and thoughts in young teens in a bracingly realistic manner, despite Wendell’s ghostly presence. Marjorie, Wendell and Eliza are given time and space to contemplate their situations and moments with emotional impact often stretch on for several panels forcing the reader to feel their discomfort. The books are powerful vehicles for helping kids cope with similar issues or to instill apathy. While Eliza loses hope and starts to wonder if she would be better off as a ghost, her thoughts never become more explicit. Some people may think that middle school is too young for kids to be reading about suicidal thoughts, but suicide rates among kids 10 to 14 have risen alarmingly in recent years. It’s important to have books that show other kids share these thoughts, gives them appropriate weight, and shows the importance of seeking help when you or someone you know has them.
Oni Press doesn’t give a suggested age range for either graphic novel, but they do provide an educator’s guide on their website covering both books and referencing Common Core standards for grades 3-6. Sheets is tagged as grade 6 and up by its School Library Journal review while they suggest grade 8 and up for Delicates. A cursory search of library catalogs show some placing them in YA and some in J. My professional but still subjective choice would be in J, though I probably wouldn’t select them for an elementary school library. The emotional maturity of the stories is above the popular Smile and Real Friends, but middle school students not ready for the YA section should feel comfortable grabbing them too. Your fans of issue heavy realistic fiction will like these graphic novels, don’t let the sheet ghost scare them off.
By Brenna Thummler
Oni Press, 2021
Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Black