Many readers will have enjoyed the imaginative stories of California author Mac Barnett (such as Extra Yarn and Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, both illustrated by John Klassen). In Just Because, he pairs a spare text with the pictures of Quebec artist Isabelle Arsenault in trying to answer some of the many questions of a young child, questions that start with “Why?”
Dad stands in the open doorway of a darkened bedroom that is illuminated only by a splash of light from the hall, patiently hoping to satisfy the curiosity of the little girl who is supposedly going to sleep.
Why is the ocean blue? [she asks]
And he answers:
Every night when you go to sleep the fish take out guitars.
They sing sad songs and cry blue tears.
Why do birds fly south in winter?
To fetch new leaves for trees.
The questions go on, obviously not only to elicit information but to defer the moment of having to be alone. Dad eventually comes in to sit on the bedside to continue to deal with the barrage of inquiries (all shown in large speech balloons). Each time we see the bedroom, it is shown in grey tones with a simple backdrop of nightstand and rag rug, with a friendly dog sharing the blankets. The alternating spreads which accompany the father’s answers are alive with images such as those of flying fish swooping over darkened rooftops or dinosaurs plunging through a field of rich foliage. The muted colours of aqua, mustard and lilac, along with the large areas of charcoal grey, hearken back to an older style of picture book production, lending an innocent tone to the work.
In the end, Dad does not resort to the “Just because” of the title, but softens his exit with this satisfying answer to the final question.
Why do we have to sleep?
Because there are some things we can only see
with our eyes closed.
And what things these are: a hen pushing a baby carriage, a jelly bean volcano and two dancing mice, among many other dreamtime delights.
Nothing loud, nothing flashy, Just Because is just a cozy bedtime story for one-to-one or group sharing.
Ellen Heaney is a retired children’s librarian living in Coquitlam, British Columbia.