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Review: Bug in a Vacuum by Mélanie Watt

bug in a vacuumA bug flies through an open door into a house, through a bathroom, across a kitchen and bedroom and into a living room … where its entire life changes with the switch of a button.

Sucked into the void of a vacuum bag, this one little bug moves through denial, bargaining, anger, despair and eventually acceptance — the five stages of grief — as it comes to terms with its fate. Will there be a light at the end of the tunnel? Will there be dust bunnies in the void?

A funny, suspenseful and poignant look at the travails of a bug trapped in a vacuum.

When I first heard about this book, I had the same reaction as many others: A 96 page picture book? About the five stages of grief? Really? Considering the book was coming from Melanie Watt, I shouldn’t have worried; with her considerable talents, she has managed to weave a fantastic story that combines her trademark humour and beautiful art into something that teaches young readers ways to handle change in their lives.

Even before book begins, Watt gently informs readers that this won’t be your ordinary picture book. A brief definitions page reminds readers that a bug (buhg) is an insect, but also an unexpected glitch, while a vacuum (vak-yoom) is a void left by a  loss in addition to a cleaning machine. Each page thereafter is filled with a wealth of tiny details, from the writing on innocuous household products that prelude each of the five stages to the side story of dachshund Napoleon, who loses his favourite toy to the vacuum. The bug himself is a character; like Chester or Scaredy Squirrel, this is a bug of merit, with a big personality for his small size. Full of puns and self-observations, younger readers will love his dialogue (“No more Mr. Nice Fly!”).

There’s enough humour in the story to keep things moving (the section on Bargaining begins with a soap box that ask “Ready for a clean slate? Want a brighter future?”) but while the jokes help with the narrative flow, they don’t devalue the message. Additionally, the visuals present a silent narrative that compliments the bug’s written journey – I am constantly amazed by how much emotion Watt can portray in a single pair of drawn eyes. It’s the attention to these little details that allows the young reader to take in each concept as it appears, and for older companions to start a discussion about times when their child might have had similar feelings. I appreciated that the book did not dwell on grief solely as a result of death, but rather of loss in general. For children, the loss of a treasured toy or pet, or the loss of familiarity with a family move or change in the parent’s relationship triggers the same emotional response as death does for an adult.

Each book Watt creates has its own signature style, and this continues the trend. The illustrations, mixed media that was manipulated with PhotoShop, have a throw-back feel, with retro kitchen and living room furniture, and a long canister vacuum that echoes the shape of the dachshund in its sleek styling. Watt has a brilliant eye for colour, and the earth tones manage to imbibe even the dark and dusty interior of the vacuum with a variety of focal points.

This is a brilliantly developed picture book, and one that deserves a place in libraries, classrooms and bedroom bookshelves alike. Watt has managed to deftly merge the seriousness of Kubler-Ross’ five stages with her own trademarked humour and unique narrative style. The result is wonderfully rich, and a book that is worth spending time exploring and discussing with the young reader in your life.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase as of August 25 from your favourite online or independent bookseller. ISBN: 978-1-77049-645-3, 96 pages.

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