Leo: A Ghost Story

This book popped into my life yesterday.  I was at The Harvard Book Store in a state of severe frustration.  The world was not going my way– oh, please don’t worry, it will all be fine, I was simply in a mood where I wanted the world to be more interesting, you know.  I wanted September’s Green Wind to come along already.  So I did what I always did: I went to the bookstore.  But I was still whiny: I’d read everything, I wanted something new… I was completely insufferable, even to myself.  Then I turned around.  And Leo popped up.  “Oh, hello,” I said, a little surprised.  “I’m happy to meet you,” he said politely, offering me mint tea.  I accepted, a little dazed, my frustrated mood completely vanished.  “Excuse me,” I said, “but I didn’t see you a moment ago.  Where did you come from?”  Leo hesitated.  “Are you afraid of ghosts?” he asked, tentatively.  I smiled, “I’d love to meet a ghost, but I never have!”  Leo smiled back at me, then vanished.  I was left with this book in my hands: Leo: A Ghost Story, by Mac Barnett, pictures by Christian Robinson.

Leo

As I said, Leo came home with us yesterday.  We have already read him through several times together, the Changeling and I.  Some books just grab you like that, and this one has.  I’ll tell you why I think that is: a) It makes you feel special; b) It makes you feel seen; c) It understands you when you don’t feel seen.  I hear you grumbling: I’m telling you fairy tales and abstruse philosophy, you’re muttering, when you want to know what’s going on here.  Very well: let’s have a look at the story.

Leo is a ghost who lives in a house in a quiet sort of way.  Not everyone can see him– although you can.  One day, a family moves in and he’s excited for the company.  They, however, don’t see him, although they do see a floating tea-tray with mint tea and honey toast zooming towards them.  They make it clear that they don’t appreciate having a haunted house, so Leo leaves.  (I hope you feel sorry for Leo: I feel awful for him whenever I read that bit.)  He goes to the city he used to know, only it’s changed.  He roams along the noisy streets, unseen by anyone, until one day a little girl named Jane looks right at him and they become friends.  She thinks he’s an imaginary friend, and it’s clear that she can see him (as we can) because she’s ready to see things, unlike the unimaginative family which took over Leo’s home.  (I love that.)  Leo, still sore at being unseen and disliked, lets her think that until the night Leo saves Jane’s house from a robber and she realizes he must be something more.  Leo confesses, worried she’ll be scared of him, that he’s a ghost: “Jane, I told you a lie.  I am a ghost.  I said I was your imaginary friend, but I’m not.  I am just your real friend.”  Jane says that’s even better, and they go to the kitchen to have mint tea and honey toast.

It’s a real hefty story for a picture book, isn’t it?  I could imagine it amplified, filled out, and padded to become a slim novel– Roald Dahl-level, but with actually likable characters.  And yet Mac Barnett demonstrates yet again (we’ve met him before, you may remember: Extra Yarn) that he can pack a hell of a lot of story into a really slim space.  It’s so good as a picture book you don’t even find yourself wanting the novel version.  (Well, not much, anyway… oh, who am I kidding?  Mac Barnett, want to try your hand at writing a novel version of this book?)  More than that, he again demonstrates, as with Annabelle, that he can pack a hell of a lot of character into few words.  You saw that little dialogue with Leo I wrote above?  Well, how often do you feel that you’ve gotten to know a character from a picture book so well in just a few readings that you could imagine a full conversation with him?  I read a fair number of picture books these days, and the number of really fleshed-out characters I meet are slim indeed.  This isn’t to say anything against the more limited characters (often they’re wonderfully slim and flat, doing other work instead), but getting a rich plot and full characters is a pleasure.

One of the best parts for me is watching my Changeling relate to a full story and full characters.  “I want to read Leo!  Please will you read me Leo before we leave the house?” is what I heard right after breakfast this morning.  I asked her to bring me the book and she trotted up with it: “Tell me about the girl!  I like her.  Her name is Jane.”  This is what I hear over and over again.  I asked her why she liked Jane, and she paused and said, “Jane is so nice!  She’s a very nice girl.  She’s my friend.”  Remember, please, that my daughter isn’t yet three, so full character analyses aren’t what I would call her strong suit.  What’s clear, though, is that she’s really picked up on Leo’s loneliness, and Jane’s kindness in accepting him for who he is.  Jane means friendship, and the Changeling responds to that.  I think, although I can’t be sure, that the Changeling also responds to Jane’s imagination: there’s a glow in my daughter’s face as we read about Jane’s games (the Knights of the Round Table and hunting a dragon) which makes me think that she does get the imaginative brilliance in Jane’s character.

But I’m not fulfilling my role quite yet.  I’ve let a key aspect of the book stay invisible: forgive me.  You can, I hope, see the richness of the text, the richness of the characters.  But you can’t yet see the richness of the art, or how the art and text work together.  Mea culpa.  Dear readers, I’ve told you about Mac Barnett before and his skills probably don’t surprise you.  But Christian Robinson!  His work was new to me, and now I have to go find everything he’s ever done, and I’m thrilled.  His wit and sympathy come through perfectly in these acrylic and construction paper cutout illustrations.  They’re a perfect match for the text.  The illustrations are all in shades of blue, really drawing out (forgive me) the themes of imagination, invisibility, visibility, and the fading boundaries between them.  All are blue, but Christian Robinson uses clever tricks to delineate the distinctions between what and who is seen and what and who is unseen.  Leo is in outlines whereas other characters are solid colours.  Leo can sometimes interact with what is solid, but others may not see or feel him.  The illustrations reflect that cleverly as he sometimes appears, and sometimes doesn’t, pulling the reader’s eye around the page to find the little outlined figure.  “Oh, where’s Leo?” is a frequent exclamation from my daughter as we read.

Altogether, I think this is one of the most attractive, interesting, and clever new books I’ve read this year, and I don’t say that lightly– you know well, my dear reader, how many excellent books I see.  But this one came to me at the right time, just when it was wanted, and in the best way (thank you, Leo!), and I’m happy to read it as often as my daughter wants me to, and that’s quite a lot.  I think I’ll be keeping Leo visible on my shelves.  Don’t worry, little ghost, you’ll never go unseen around here.

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