All-ages books, despite the genre’s name, tend to be thought of as simple and fun, but not offering much else. They are silly stories with simple morals for children to enjoy or learn a lesson. However, the truly excellent all-ages stories provide adept storytelling with rich themes for every reader. This is where Mike Walsh, Dee Cunniffe & Clayton Cowels’ The Oates & The Elphyne finds itself.
The book follows the Oates children, Ben, Lynn, and Beth, whose family moves to Newfoundland after the death of their uncle Mike. The kids find the move to be a chore at first and aren’t very sensitive to Mike’s daughter, Jen, whose wounds from her loss are still fresh.
On top of this, Ben and Lynn are constantly bickering; Lynn making fun of Ben’s love of fantasy and timid nature, and Ben refusing any help Lynn offers. This conflict causes them to lose their younger sister in the woods.
Against their parent’s wishes, they go searching for Beth in the night and stumble upon the Elphyne, a magical land somewhere between Earth and the afterlife full of magical creatures and the marvelous fae. The residents of this world explain that a “corruption” has been spreading throughout the land and only Ben and Lynn can save them.
The story begins deceptively simple. At a first glance, the plot seems to have retread well-used tropes but offers some new fantasy elements. When readers get towards the end, however, it becomes clear that The Oates & The Elphyne is a deep, intimate story about coping with loss, family, and empathy.
Underneath the fun fantasy elements and epic journey of rescue are some incredible symbolism and character development. Through their quest in the Elphyne, Ben and Lynn both have to experience a kind of loss through giving up objects that have great meaning to them. Their losses make them grow tremendously and they become closer and more empathetic.
As a parent, Ben and Lynn’s journey tugs so many heartstrings for reasons I can’t fully explain without spoiling the story. Imagining a life where I’m not in my kids lives is deeply emotional and this book tackles this in a touching and respectful way. By the end, I was nearly sobbing as Ben and Lynn gained empathy and lost a bit of innocence.
The book seems to argue that the only way to get over a loss is through our interactions with loved ones. It’s important to walk in someone else’s shoes to gain as much understanding as possible and help each other heal in times of crisis.
The world of The Oates & The Elphyne wouldn’t be nearly as impactful without the fantastic designs by Walsh. Dragons, crab men, and teddy bear knights all grace the pages of this story allowing the imagination to roam free.
Walsh and Cunniffe opt for a paler palette which assists the illusion of this being a simple fantasy tale. They stick to mainly cool blues, pinks and purples for most of the book making it light on the eyes and covering the story in a haze of melancholy while giving any deviation, such as a red dragon or the shadowy black corruptions, greatly stick out.
Veteran letterer Cowles manages to make each balloon and sound effect feel like a natural part of the environment. It is a smooth reading throughout.The Oates & The Elphyne is truly a book for everyone. With a quality story for young readers and some subtle nuances for older comics fans to chew on, it is the perfect comic to sit down and partake in with the young readers in one’s life.