Experience a ‘Sea Change’ With Frank Viva and Toon Books

Reading Time: 4 minutes

SeaChange

“One summer can change your whole life.”

As a children’s book nerd, I probably more know about books, authors, and publishers than is considered rational. I’ve proclaimed my love for Toon Books before, but it’s my opinion that when one publisher is consistently putting out such remarkably beautiful and original books, you can’t shout the praise loud enough.

So here we are.

For the uninitiated, Toon Books began as a labor of love by husband-and-wife duo Françoise Mouly (art editor for The New Yorker) and Art Spiegelman (Maus). Their mission was to publish high-quality comics designed for children ages 3 and up. To say they’ve succeeded would be a vast understatement.

I’d recommend almost every one of their books, and Frank Viva’s Sea Change is certainly no exception. Sea Change is a bit of a departure for both Viva and Toon Books in that it’s a middle-grade novel–a first for both of them. Toon Books has never been one to shy away from experimentation, and Sea Change feels like a natural progression for them. And I’ll be honest with you: it’s devastatingly beautiful. I don’t usually get emotionally attached to books, but I found myself tearing up toward the end of this book.

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In addition to being a touching and poignant coming-of-age story (in which the “worst summer ever” turns into one of the most meaningful and formative for young protagonist Eliot), Sea Change is also a masterfully designed work of art. Viva is primarily known as an illustrator and graphic designer who is also a frequent cover artist for The New Yorker. Viva designed and laid out every page, most of which include an illustration or playful typography that takes on a life of its own and mirrors the events and emotions of the story. According to him, “I put every little letter in place, all the way down to the position of the bar code on the back.” And it took him two years to create.

This is the kind of book that would be hard to do at a typical publisher. Since the words and illustrations are so intertwined, it would be impossible for the author, illustrator, and editor to be separate people. Viva had to write with the final design in mind, and when he started to lay out the images and the type, he had to edit on the spot so it would flow naturally and seamlessly. In other words, Sea Change could only have been one person’s labor of love.

And we’re all the richer for it.

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Sea Change is Viva’s seventh book, but he had been searching for a way to combine the three things he knows best–illustration, words, and graphic design–into something that was intimately connected. In other words, he knew from the outset that the book was going to look and feel unconventional; that was kind of the point. After failing to convince a different publisher of his vision for the book, he casually mentioned the concept to his friend Françoise Mouly who immediately got it and basically signed it up on the spot. (See what I mean about the brilliance of Toon Books?)

Sea Change takes place in a remote corner of Nova Scotia known as Point Aconi, which is a real place, and Frank Viva did indeed spend his summers there as a young boy, but the characters and story he tells here are entirely fictional. The book centers on young Eliot Dionisi, who is sent away to spend the summer in Point Aconi with his grumpy great-uncle Earl. Point Aconi is a bit of a backwater, and needless to say, Eliot (who is a bit of a spoiled suburbanite) hates it immediately.

But, as has been said… one summer can change your whole life. Eliot quickly becomes friends with a few of the local kids, including the enigmatic Mary Beth (“She was pretty in a way that I never thought pretty could be”). The story of the summer that follows is the beating heart of this book, and by the end, it will have dealt with serious issues of acceptance, abuse, and the bonds of friendship. If you have a heart, it will leave you heartbroken.

As the father of a young girl, the latter half of the book (no spoilers) emotionally resonated with me in a way that books don’t normally do. The secrets that Eliot discovers about Mary Beth–and the bravery with which they face her situation together–hit a bit too close to home. I’m not ashamed to admit that Frank Viva made me cry.

Viva says he can’t remember a time when he felt overwhelmed by the potentially millions of people who would see his graphic design work or a cover for The New Yorker. But he still gets nervous about how his books are received, especially among the intended audience (i.e., kids and young readers). Sea Change is a beautiful, remarkable book that deserves to be read by everyone, regardless of age.


To listen to my conversation with Frank Viva, click below.

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