Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Sheets by Brenna Thummler

Some books you read because you get a specific recommendation - an award win, a glowing review somewhere, it's made into a movie. Some you decide to read because it just feels like you've seen it too many times not to.

I think Sheets was Brenna Thummler's first book; it came out in 2018. I think I've been seeing it since then - maybe a list of recent YA graphic novels here, maybe personal recommendations there, maybe a display at the library...things like that. No one big burst, but it's been around; I keep getting the sense that a lot of YA readers have been finding and loving this book.

So I picked it up, even though I haven't been a Young Adult for a long time. And it is a little first-book-y, and has a few elements that seem particularly YA, but it's got a great soft color palette supporting clean confident art and a strong story told quietly and honestly.

Marjorie Glatt is holding her family together in the wake of a tragedy, as so many other girls have before her. I've seen some descriptive copy saying that she's thirteen, but I didn't see that in the book: she's clearly in middle school, and taking on more responsibility than she probably should, but the book itself is a bit vague on her age. Her family has a laundromat, by the lake in some small American city - my guess is somewhere on the Great Lakes, Michigan or Pennsylvania or thereabouts.

Marjorie is running the laundromat single-handedly, rushing after school to open it and take in laundry from customers and working into the night to get it all clean. It was her mother's shop, but her mother died quite recently. The details don't come out until nearly the end of the book, but her father is devastated: he seems to be capable of getting her younger brother to kindergarten and feeding the family, but that's about it. It's not clear what he did when his wife was alive, but he's doing vastly less now.

An obnoxious local, Mr. Saubertuck, has grandiose visions of building a spa on the waterfront in this town, and he seems to have seized on the idea of forcing out Glatt's Laundry, taking over their building, and getting the family to work for him for free in the new spa that he will have built... somehow. All of this, apparently, without spending a penny. That's the most YAish element here: the unpleasant adult whose badly-planned ideas might happen just because he is an adult. In a book for adults, Saubertuck's crude sabotage and transparent flattery of the locals would have no chance of success, without some financial chicanery underlying it - but, in a book for tweens, that adults will stick together and screw over kids is always plausible.

Meanwhile, in the land of ghosts, there's a relatively new arrival, a boy named Wendell. He tells a lot of transparently untrue stories about his past, and he's not really fitting in. I don't think I've seen ghosts handled this way before in graphic fiction, but it's brilliantly obvious: they are sheets, like in Charlie Brown cartoons and a million quick Halloween costumes, that define and enclose the energy of a dead person. They all look mostly the same, with accessories and flair to make them distinctive. Wendell has not been cleaning his sheet, so he's getting dingier and dirtier. He's not happy, and we're not sure why: every conversation he has is filled with his extravagant lies.

He takes a train back to the world of the living. He finds his way to Glatt's Laundry. And the combination of his goofy playing around and Saubertuck's sabotage nearly puts them out of business - but Marjorie does meet Wendell, eventually, and that's the beginning of some hope for her and for the business. That's where the main plot comes in, and I don't want to talk about the plot.

Sheets is a book about grief, at its core. About the kind of grief that's so large that you can't even say the word, so huge that it knocks almost everything else out of the world. Marjorie is grieving less than her father, maybe even grieving her mother less than Wendell is grieving himself, but she's still grieving all the time. But it's not an "issue book," not something just for librarians to give to kids that are grieving. It's a story about these people, and that's where they are: that's what's most important in their lives right now. Thummler threads that needle deftly to tell the story of a girl with a lot more on her shoulders that she should have, and who is almost able to handle all of it.

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