Monday, June 17, 2013

Review: The Sleepwalkers by Viviane Schwartz

I don't want to say that the concept of The Sleepwalkers, by Viviane Schwartz, is better than the execution.  It's more like the execution is just really melancholy and full of the fear of death.

The concept is this: three superhero-esque sheep enter children's nightmares and rescue the children by turning the dreams around according to their own logic. 

Brilliant, right?  Don't you wish you thought of that?  The possibilities are endless!

But the particular part of the sheeps' tenure that this graphic novel focuses on is the end--the part when the sheep train their proteges and retire from their Sleepwalking ways.

The first weird thing about the book is that it takes a long time for the main characters--the ones on the cover--to enter the story.  The story starts with one girl going to sleep, putting a note under her pillow, and being rescued by the Sleepwalkers.  Is the girl the main character?  No, she wakes up and disappears from the story.  So are the sheep heroes the main characters?  No, they want to retire.

So on page 18 (out of less than 100), the sheep perform a ritual that turns an old quilt into a bear who becomes one of the sheep's proteges.  They raise other curious creatures out of old objects and take these somewhat reluctant new heroes into the field before abandoning them by walking through a door that leads to the waking world.

So most of the book is about these new Sleepwalkers learning the ways of dreams, and can I pause here to say: the dreams are stunning.  And the experienced Sleepwalkers treat them like new geography, studying the flora and fauna in fine 19th-century-explorer style.  Schwartz's scruffy pen sketch style is most effective during the dream sequences.  The illustrations rupture their panels and explode across the page, sometimes changing color scheme to a dramatic skeletal black-and-white or forcing the reader to turn the book sideways and read up-and-down while the characters fall through the sky.

However, these kick-ass dream sequences are followed by sad, lonely passages in which the proteges feel abandoned by their mentors and unprepared for what comes next.  For example, consider this dialog between the former quilt, Bonno, and a former sock monkey, Amali:
A: Bonno?
B: Yes?
A: I'm still sad.  If I keep being sad, I will have been happy only one day of my life.
B: Not necessarily.  Yesterday was only sad in the afternoon.  So you've had one and a half happy days our of two.  At that rate, you'll be mostly happy.
A: True.  You know more than me.  What's it like to be older?
B: From what I can tell, it's mostly terrifying.  So far I've been frightened every day of my life.
Hits you in the gut, right?  This book is powerful like that, but it's also sad like that, and part of me wished for a more kick-ass, reassuring, happy story.  When the older Sleepwalkers walk through the door to the waking world, it feels like they have died.  So the book itself feels like a meditation on how to live your life when you have no idea what will happen next or how long the people you love will be in your life.  In other words, how to live your life. 

It's a lot to take, and I don't know how kids will react to this book, but it's one worth reading and rereading.  It's also one that inspires you to rewrite your own nightmares and mine your deepest fears for great art.  And the conclusion, which is both eerie and cosmic, feels very right. So this is a good title for children who relish the work of Joann Sfar and Neil Gaiman, and those who are thoughtful, serious, odd, and tough.

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