Ella and the ocean by Lian Tanner

cover image

Illus. by Johnathan Bentley. Allen and Unwin, 2019. ISBN: 9781760633691.
(Age: 4+) Highly highly recommended. Themes: Drought, Families, Farm life, The sea, Dreams, Future. Now and again a book makes me hold my breath, amazed at the way the story is told, astonished at how the illustrations and text coalesce, dazzled by the aptness of the illustrations, drawing me into the power of its theme.
And this is such a one.
From the red hot dirt of the land surrounding the farm on the cover and first endpaper to the warm choppy blue of the ocean on the last endpaper, this book held me fast. About drought and its affect on one family, the book is positive, taking the family to the ocean where they are rejuvenated, ready to go back home and wait for the rain to come.
Ella dreams of the ocean and asks each member of her family in turn about their recollections of the ocean. Each has a different response, tempered by their situation and the dire position the farm is in. Gran has never seen the ocean and determines that they should all go, so they drive and fly to greet this vastness of blue. They frolic and swim, scream and laugh, the water washing away their anguish. Returning they find the farm is the same but different. Reenergised they turn to face whatever comes with a positive outlook, Tanner's words at the beginning of the tale repeated in a way that shows hope and determination.
Bentley's watercolour and pencil illustrations reveal a harsh, drought ravaged expanse of country, red hot and dry, trees stand withered in the background, father staring vacantly into a bleak future, mum battling the neverending dirt which seeps into the house, Ella's brother rolling out the expensive hay to hand feed the cows, with all the family's faces reflecting the hardships they are experiencing. Ella's dreams form a sharp contrast with the reality of the farm, and when the family reaches the ocean, their mood is decidedly changed.
Bentley shows a family in distress: staring eyes, going about their chores with resignation, set against a red, bare landscape. The ocean calms them, changing their perspective, their eyes are larger, their mouths upturned, their shoulders held high, their stance positive and courageous, ready to tackle whatever comes.
Fran Knight