In the opening scene of the film The Princess Bride, a young boy interrupts his grandfather’s storytelling and says, “Is this a kissing book?” Easy to envision a similar scenario unfolding with Harvey, only substitute the word ‘sad’ for ‘kissing’:

Is this a sad book?”

Yes, it is. But the melancholic subject matter doesn’t make it a bad thing. It is, in fact, a human thing. And in the hands of Hervé Bouchard and Janice Nadeau, it’s a deeply moving, occasionally funny, and visually inventive masterpiece. Flat out, Harvey is the most beautiful book I’ve read this year. Maybe longer, I’ll have to check my blog.

Borrowing from the graphic novel tradition, Harvey is nevertheless in a class all its own. Like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, it is a very particular world that Harvey occupies, but less fantastical. This is a recognizable town (albeit 40 years ago judging by the beehive hairstyles), and a recognizable situation. Harvey is a young French Canadian lad who loses his father one early spring day, and attempts to make sense of the grief swirling around him, using the tools available to an imaginative boy. He is obsessed with the movie The Incredible Shrinking Man, a film which permeates his entire world, overtaking it at one point when invisibility seems the only reasonable response to an altered life.

Harvey is a journal of that day in early spring…

Harkening back to the days when after-school activities did not involve vans or facebook, Harvey, his younger brother Cantin, and their friends take advantage of the spring runoff to stage a 500 metre race ‘from heretothere’ using toothpicks as boats. Harvey draws a dot on his toothpick, and calls it Scott Carey, the shrinking man. After a lively race, Scott Carey gets stuck on a piece of ice and is the last to sail down the gutter. With remarkable resiliency (for a disappeared man), he shows up later as a dot on the frame that holds up the bunk bed Harvey shares with his brother.

The priest comforts Mother Bouillon

The participants in the Rue Lapointe toothpick regatta disperse, and Harvey and his brother head home. There is a crowd at the house, and an ambulance. The father has had a heart attack and died. The boys wander around the house, looking for ‘Father Bouillon.’ It’s not real to them. Almost immediately, Harvey is lost in the crush of grieving (and sometimes scheming) relatives. Aunts, uncles, neighbours, every face so sweetly individual it’s hard to imagine that they are anything but portraits, drawn from the memory of the artist. The priest comforts ‘Mother Bouillon’, wrapping her in his embrace. It’s one of the most heart rending and beautifully illustrated passages in the book. Spread over several pages, we watch the people slowly disappear from the page, all the friends and relatives of the family, until it’s just the priest. And then he is gone too, leaving the mother, bent over in grief. Such is life. And death.

At the funeral, Harvey struggles to see his father’s dead body in the coffin:

“I could see the little Jesus balanced on the lid, and the frilly satin, but that wasn’t what I wanted to see. And I also wanted for my father, even if he was dead, to see me.

Ever observant, Harvey takes note of what the funeral attendees are saying about his father, the usual ludicrous things people say at funerals, followed by several pages of hilarious, and occasionally disturbing portraits based on what he’s overheard. He advises his brother Cantin not to watch the closing of the coffin. Instead, Harvey offers to show him, “all the different ways that our Father Bouillon could be using words and drawings and colours and expressions.” Cantin explains he wants one last picture of his father, a real one. Harvey responds:

“But if so many people here are seeing the same man, and if each of them has a different picture, Cantin, that means no one is getting at the truth all by himself. And maybe the way to see for real is to listen to all of them, because maybe each of them is seeing less than they think.”

Cantin does not share his brother’s imagination, or his profundity, and abandons Harvey for the others. An uncle (who bares a strong resemblance to a French Canadian Kurt Vonnegut), opens his arms to his nephew, lifting him higher than everyone in the room. Harvey slowly, slowly begins to disappear from the page. Grief has never looked so beautiful.

The illustrations in Harvey move seamlessly from a kind of 60’s picture book realism, to minimalist and

Harvey and Cantin watch Le Gentil Géant

geometric. The colours are grainy and subdued, mostly sepias, with black and the occasional hit of mauve and sage green. Lines are smudged, merging figures with the air like the sharp/soft memories of youth. Patterns wander off dresses, boundaries are not obeyed. Groups of coloured triangles fall over a shadowy image of Harvey’s father, perhaps a nod to the sparkling radiation cloud that passes over Scott Carey in The Incredible Shrinking Man, altering his fate forever. “Of course, ” Harvey says, “my father Bouillon wasn’t there.” This image is on the cover of the original French edition of Harvey, which most deservedly won the Governor General’s Award in 2009. I think I prefer the English cover, with young Harvey sitting in front of a TV, a tiny, isolated figure. It is, after all, his story, not the father’s. The hand-drawn type reminds us that is a record of events, told in the voice of a boy. A very singular boy.

There is no reason to shield children, or ourselves, from the inevitability of death, the confusion of grief, or a beautiful and complex picture book. Yes, Harvey is a sad book, but the evocative storytelling and the gorgeous, quirky illustrations make the experience exhilarating. It’s not to be missed.

Trained in illustration at the École supérieure des arts décoratifs in Strasbourg, France, Janice Nadeau worked as an art director for various organizations before fully committing to winning every award available for illustrators. In addition to winning the 2009 GG for Harvey, she won her first GG in 2004 for the illustrations in Nul poisson où aller, and in 2008 she won a second GG for her illustrations in Ma meilleure amie, giving this talented illustrator a GG hat-trick! Originally from Gatineau, Quebec, Ms Nadeau currently lives in Montreal.

A novelist, and professor of literature at the Cégep de Chicoutimi, Hervé Bouchard’s won a Governor General’s Award for Harvey, his very first children’s book. He has also picked up the Salon du livre du Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean’s 2009 Prix littéraire Récit. Hervé Bouchard was born, and still lives, in Saguenay, Quebec. He and Ms Nadeau are working on a sequel to Harvey. I’m guessing it will not be about squirrels.

Harvey by Hervé Bouchard and illustrated by Janice Nadeau, to be published on September 25th by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2010. Originally published  in French by Les éditions de la Pastèque, 2009  ISBN: 978-1554980758