Pretty much every one of us can admit that growing up, we had the boogeyman of a ghost thrown at us to get us to go to bed. Personally speaking, this tactic was effective as hell on me; my mom used to throw in some sound effects to boot and that usually got me to give in and sleep. But I doubt many of us stopped to wonder what life was like for those ghosts. Did they have their own societies? How did they travel? What did they do for fun when they weren’t haunting us kids? These questions are all answered in Brenna Thummler’s incredibly endearing and heartbreaking Sheets, which uses this cute exterior to mask grief, economic hardship, isolation and many other issues that children of today are dealing with in ways they didn’t have to before.
Marjorie Glatt, our protagonist, is one of those children. Only eleven years old, she has been forced to become the household breadwinner in the wake of her mother’s death and run the family laundromat as her dad descends into misery. Chief among her worries is generating enough revenue while neighborhood eccentric Nigel Saubertuck eyes the laundromat, hoping to swoop in and turn it into the home of a future spa and yoga resort. While she has to deal with all of this and take care of her toddler brother, her peers are able to enjoy gossiping about boys, parties and generally enjoy life. On the flip side, Wendell the Ghost had his entire existence cut short and lives out his days in search of something better. Having originally attempted to live amongst his fellow ghouls, he decides that he just doesn’t fit in and, breaking the rules of his society, makes his way to Marjorie’s town and decides he likes it there, settling in.
As things seem to get worse and worse for Marjorie, she finally crosses paths with Wendell who it turns out is the source of her troubles, having inadvertently caused issues with her laundry and therefore costing her the trust of her customers. A hilarious, improbable series of events ensue with Majorie, Wendell and Saubertuck before we hit the dark point of the book — Marjorie finally gives into Saubertuck and gives up on the laundromat, what she considers the last tie she has to her mom. Then she blames Wendell and banishes him from her sight. What follows from this point is an incredible sequence of regret, self-reflection, forgiveness and acceptance that we can all relate to.
The characters in this story are incredibly well developed. In fact, all of the major characters have some sort of ironic twist to their background. Even though Marjorie is just a kid, by no means does Thummler make her into a perfect person. She comes dangerously close to succumbing to the same cruelty and meanness that she is a victim of. As for Saubertuck, he covets the Glatt laundromat while at the same time is on the verge of losing his own home. Wendell the Ghost causes people to run away, all the while running away from his own people himself. Even Colton, the heartthrob, is longed for and sought after by many when in reality there is only one person he has eyes for. Perhaps it’s the passage of time and the slow, patient build that allows these characters to feel so fleshed-out (speaking of which, the book shows the passage of time in a way that very few comics do, with multiple sunrises and sunsets showing up).
The look and feel of this story is meant to be minimalist, with simple figures (ghosts are nothing more than sheets with holes in them!), only a few primary colors, and no “action” shots per se. This is touted as a children’s book, after all. But despite this low-fi style, the grief on Marjorie’s face is palpable and lingers. If you’ve ever lost a loved one before, if you’ve ever been depressed, if you’ve ever been alone and isolated, you will instantly recognize Marjorie’s detached look and deadpan expression that she carries for the majority of the story. This sounds super heavy, but Thummler knows how to balance things extremely well and she uses the quirky personalities (and appearance) of Saubertuck, the Waffletons and Mr. Duncan to add some much-needed humor to the proceedings. Usually, Marjorie’s interactions with these people leads to her revealing a loveable sense of sarcasm and irony that is way beyond other kids her age. My personal favorite: “Tessi Waffleton always looks like a spring holiday gift basket.”
This is a story that shows humanity at its worst, even in mundane everyday scenarios, and on the surface, it makes you think the author has a bleak worldview. Dig a little deeper though, and you find a wonderful tale that celebrates the goodness that’s hidden in all of us, that sometimes needs a bit of a nudge to truly come out.