Brenna Thummler's first solo work for young readers, Sheets, is a subtle, gentle work that expresses empathy and warmth even while depicting life's more painful experiences. Sheets shows the versatility of the graphic novel medium as Thummler uses color palette and the shape, size and solidity of panels to evoke emotions both pleasant and upsetting.
"It's difficult to list, in order, the things I hate. But I can say with no uncertainty that laundry and ghosts are currently tied for first. Laundry because it's much too real. Ghosts because they're not."
Marjorie has been running Glatt's Laundry, her family's tiny laundromat, since her mother died "this past spring." When her mother, who started the laundromat when she was only 19, passed away, Marjorie's "[d]ad sort of did, too. He's still 100% opaque, but slightly less visible." To keep things running, Marjorie attends school full time, works in the laundromat and takes care of Owen, her kindergarten-age brother, while her father spends most of his time in a deep depression, drinking "his special coffee." Marjorie's illustrated world is depicted in a variety of colors but all are subdued--gentle pinks, blues and greens all wash together until her world seems faded, hazier than it should be.
Wendell's world, on the other hand, appears all too real. Entirely depicted in shades of gray and blue with strong, bold outlines, the Land of Ghosts looks like a campground in disrepair. Ghosts in sheets cluster together to chat, play games and even to attend groups such as Dead Youth Empathetics (DYE). When the reader first meets Wendell, he and several other sheet-ghosts are all seated in a circle on folded chairs: "Hello, my name is Wendell, and I'm a dead youth. I think I'm ready to share how... I died." There's a brief moment when everyone in the group thinks this is real progress (finally!) but Wendell immediately dives into a story about mutant pirates. As his story becomes ever more outrageous, the other members of the group begin speaking over him. Clearly, this is not the first time Wendell has wasted valuable healing time.
Thummler keeps the ghost world friendly and approachable with humorous situations and tons of puns: the ghosts want to go to the baths because the new Ghosturizer scent of Vaguely Vanilla is said to be way better than the old of Barely Bubblegum. Wendell is invited to the baths but he decides to go home instead, a full-page panel showing the lonely ghost peeking sadly out of the window of his trailer. Then, Wendell gets an idea. On the outskirts of town, there is a train only "for emergencies and Ouija." As the train speeds past, Wendell gets picked up in the draft and clings to the top of the train, off on a journey back to the land of the living.
Which, for Marjorie, is still a pretty big bummer. Dad is depressed, Owen is unhelpful and her classmates, especially Tessi Waffleton, are mean. To make matters worse, Mr. Saubertuck is determined to buy the laundromat from Marjorie's family so he can demolish the "tragically ugly pink house" and build his "five-star spa and yoga resort" on the lot. Taking advantage of the fact that a 12-year-old is running the business, Mr. Saubertuck starts an intimidation campaign that includes both actively ruining the laundromat's reputation and breaking-and-entering. He and his methods are creepy, and Marjorie escapes into golden-hued memories of her mother to soothe herself.
And then, as night falls, Wendell finds his way into Glatt's Laundry. There is little more a ghost who is literally a sheet could want than what he finds in Glatt's. Wendell gets to work steaming (ghost sauna) and ironing (ghost massage) himself and, before long, has made an outstanding mess. He acts out, knocking things over and wakes Marjorie, who goes down to the laundromat only to find... a ghost boy named Wendell.
As one would expect, the two bond. But the ways in which they help each other--Wendell helps Marjorie battle the evil Saubertuck, Marjorie helps Wendell come to terms with his own death--are unexpected and complex. Girl and ghost are both in very real need and their mutual empathy helps them begin to take responsibility for their own (after) lives. Thummler's illustrations are full of motion and subtle expressions, Wendell's destruction of the laundromat given the same care as emotions running across Marjorie's father's face. The upsetting is balanced with the silly, the sad with the funny, and Sheets is as touching as it is charming. --Siân Gaetano