The overarching grand concept behind Brenna Thummler’s Sheets is that ghosts are real, and they look exactly like kids dressed up: white bedsheets draped loosely over the head, with eye holes cut out so they can still see out from underneath. But it’s also a simple hook on which to hang a charming and disarming story about a young girl, Marjorie Glatt, who finds herself desperately trying to hold her family together after the death of her mother.
Marjorie’s father has retired to his bedroom, leaving Marjorie to run the family laundromat, look after her little brother and still try to get through school. She withdraws into her work, shying away from the few people who still notice and care about her. Her father, consumed by his grief, seems oblivious to the fact that she’s only a young teenager, drowning in the responsibility.
In the wings, a predatory businessman sees an opportunity in the laundromat and can smell the potential weakness in the Glatts’ situation. Mr Saubertuck is a pantomime villain, a self-styled yoga entrepreneur who’s actually done nothing more than fritter away an inherited fortune. He needs to stiff the Glatts out of their property to stop his own dreams collapsing into bankruptcy.
It’s at this point that Wendel turns up. Wendel is a ghost, who died as a young boy but doesn’t get on well with being dead. So he finds himself escaping to the laundry and befriending Marjorie, bumbling his way through ghost hood, and trying to help in his own awkward way.
Thummler has illustrated Sheets in a light, breezy style. The colours are bold but saturated, giving the story and the town that it’s set in a sort of worn-out feel, which fits the background perfectly. Like Marjorie’s life, everything in the story isn’t quite as bright and perky as it ought to be.
Some of the action takes place in the Land of Ghosts, which is devoid of colour altogether, relying instead on a monochromatic palette. It’s a parallel universe where the ghosts live separate lives, well away from the living. They go to group counselling sessions to help them come to terms with their new situation.
The light-hearted appearance of the ghosts helps lift the spirit of the otherwise dark story, giving the supernatural element a slightly absurd edge. That and the slightly ridiculous villainy of Mr Saubertuck works well to balance out the bleak mourning that engulfs Marjorie and her family.
Despite this light relief, Marjorie’s story is treated gently and carefully. It’s a heartbreaking tragedy to lose a parent and be dragged so forcefully into the world of grown ups, even if you have a ghost friend to help you through. Brenna Thummler’s story and illustration treat the tragic subject matter with warmth and compassion, making for a wonderful book that’s well worth a read.