Most dreams are good – after all, how else would anyone get anywhere in life? But some dreams become nightmares, and dreamers can become stuck in them. Thank goodness for The Sleepwalkers, an ephemeral group of dream-savers and nightmare-vanquishing friends standing by ready to help defeat the horrors. They also headline the first full-length graphic novel by writer/illustrator Viviane Schwarz (with a character/concept credit to fellow writer/illustrator Alexis Deacon), a gentle and wildly imaginative adventure about characters becoming themselves through trial and error, through patience and respect.
This somnambulant group is initially a trio of mysterious sheep, aided by Buddy the dog, endowed with the ability to conjure new friends and apprentices from specific objects, each taking on elemental characteristics of its host object. Among the new recruits are Bonifacius Bear (i.e. Bonno), summoned from a 100-year old blanket, and Amali Monkey, begat from a wool-stuffed sock puppet. Sophia, a bird raised from a fountain pen, can only communicate by writing in inky letters on whatever surface is available.
New friends will replace departing ones, and only experience will help each new apprentice learn what’s necessary – and important – to rescue those from mechanical dinosaurs, throngs of mice, underwater darkness, or even the terrors of being “N.I.P.” (Naked in Public). Each one is different from the rest, and there’s an appreciable quality in watching the unsure Bonno gain confidence, or the restless Amali overcome her own doubts (appearances can be and often are deceiving). Throughout is the sense of inevitable transition; that for every beginning there must be an ending, much like the dreams and nightmares themselves.
Schwarz, best-known for her series of semi-interactive pictures books about our rats, pajamas, lobsters, as well as felines favorites There are Cats in this Book and the follow-up There Are No Cats in this Book, takes every opportunity afforded by her larger canvas, expanding ideas in every direction, often crafting entirely new ones along the way. Panels are as small (or larger) as they need be, even filling out entire pages when some wild new concept demands it.
There’s even nods to her previous work (and current, Welcome to Your Awesome Robot), as The Sleepwalkers includes two pages of fun DIY projects, “How To Make A Sock Monkey” and “How To Make A Banana Milkshake (To Get You Through Tough Times)”, the latter suggesting using any type of milk to make your shake, but not from animals you don’t know. It’s good advice.
Schwarz brings this dreamy world to life in wonderfully messy, vivid pencil sketches enhanced with digital paint that evoke their own dream-like surrealism, with radical shifts in color and tone that feel utterly appropriate. Despite the novel-like format there’s a conscious effort to break from conformity as the panels expand and twist at will, or simply abandoned altogether. Text, while plentiful, is easy to read and knows when to make itself scarce, graciously allowing the full power of the artwork speak for itself.
But more than anything, Schwarz treads confidently with a story that demonstrates a profound respect for readers, regardless of age, one that never underestimates or speaks down to them. Beautifully illustrated in both style and substance, The Sleepwalkers is not padded with shallow feel-good affirmations and over-populated with stock characters, which may frustrate those with a need to have everything spelled out for them (or their younglings). It rewards those who give in to its infectious sense of optimism in discovering one’s own place in the world. It would be a mistake, given the author’s previous work, to think this a story only for younger readers. This is a special book, written and drawn by a special person, intended for everyone.