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The Sea: A Sweet Wordless Story about Pursuit and Surrender, Dread and Desire, Disappointment and Triumph

From the compound to the cosmos, a playful celebration of life’s complementary experiences disguised as counterpoints.

French Canadian graphic designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc is one of the most talented and thoughtful children’s book authors and artists of our time. Long before her masterwork The Lion and the Bird, one of the best children’s books of 2014 and among the very best I’ve ever encountered, Dubuc made her picture-book debut with another imaginative, insightful, bewitchingly illustrated wordless story: La Mer, “translated” and published in English as The Sea (public library) — a kindred tale that laid the foundation for The Lion and the Bird, and yet one that touches an entirely different part of the soul.

The cat casts a mischievous eye on the pet fish, which transmogrifies into a winged creature as it takes flight from the feisty feline. A playful pursuit unfolds — first in the house, then the neighborhood, then the forest, then the stars and the moon. Finally, the two emerge on the other end of town and the fish, no longer winged, plunges triumphantly into the sea as the cat peers wistfully into the sunset — perhaps disappointed to have lost, perhaps missing his unlikely playmate.

What emerges is a parable about complementary experiences disguised as counterpoints — pursuit and surrender, desire and dread, disappointment and triumph — and a reminder that there is a ground layer of existential kinship in even those relationships that appear most antagonistic on the surface.

Dubuc’s greatest point of genius is her mastery of rhythm. She is an artisan of silence as a storytelling device — punctuating the story are perfectly placed pauses and moments of stillness that only amplify the authority of the action.

Echoing Picasso’s incisive dictum that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” Dubuc tells the wonderful Picturebook Makers:

When I’m searching for a new book idea, I usually write continuously in a notebook, as if I were talking to it. It’s a little bit like automatic writing, where you write everything that comes into your mind, without censoring yourself. That is how my brain feels free to create stories.

A master of wordless narrative, Dubuc sees her stories in pictures before she commits them to words in her notebook — in a way, language reverts to how it originally evolved and becomes a temporary translator between thought and image.

In the same interview, invoking what scientists know about why we think with animal metaphors, Dubuc reflects:

I don’t like to draw humans; I haven’t found a way to draw them that satisfies me yet. I think that when drawing animals, I give myself more freedom of interpretation than I do with humans.

The Sea is an absolute masterpiece from cover to cover. Complement it with Dubuc’s follow-up gem, The Lion and the Bird, then see this fascinating read on the psychology of why animal allegories enchant the human soul.

Published April 20, 2015




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