In Katie O’Neill’s poignant new middle-grade graphic novel Aquicorn Cove (Oni Press), a young girl copes with her own painful loss in a seaside town battered by a recent storm. Exploring how individuals and communities recover from the devastation of the past, O’Neill pairs the central narrative of Lana grieving over her mother’s death with a story about fantastical underwater creatures having their homes destroyed by pollution and overfishing, two threads she expertly ties together to highlight the importance of looking forward and making changes now for a better future.
From the spot-gloss cover art with wisps of algae floating along the spine to the adorable endpapers with a pattern of sleeping baby aquicorns (a perfect wallpaper for a baby’s room), the book’s publication design by Hilary Thompson is totally in sync with O’Neill’s creative perspective. The vibrant pastels and rounded forms of the visuals have a gentle warmth that is very welcoming, and that softness is reinforced by the lack of outlines in O’Neill’s artwork. It’s a style she employed in her Eisner Award-winning The Tea Dragon Society, giving her work a tactile quality that creates the impression she’s layering intricate paper cutouts on the page.
A notable aspect of O’Neill’s stories is that they never situate queerness as other. Her debut graphic novel, Princess Princess Ever After, tells a kid-friendly fairy tale centered on a same-sex romance, and her follow-ups nonchalantly feature queer couples in prominent story roles. In Aquicorn Cove, for example, Aunt Mae’s intimacy with Aure, a femme-presenting humanoid sea creature, is presented like any other romantic relationship, and that love is the source of much of the book’s conflict: Mae knows that modern fishing practices have harmed Aure’s home, but she’s reluctant to make changes to habits that have allowed her small village to survive.
Lana is a young girl coping with the death of her mother, and she’s beginning to experience early signs of depression that she struggles to understand. On some dark days, everyday activities that used to come easily feel like monumental chores, and while she knows that something is different, the how and the why are still a mystery. These feelings intensify when Lana is at her city home, but her disposition is much sunnier in her hometown, where she has a spiritual connection with her mother. There are still pangs of sadness associated with her memories of Mom, but she’s also starting to appreciate the time they were able to have together and the magic of those experiences.
One particularly striking sequence shows Lana and her mother on a nighttime boat ride in the rain, which takes a dreamy turn when a smack of jellyfish swim underneath them, illuminating the water with their golden glow. The yellow of their raincoats visually ties Lana and her mother to these creatures, establishing early on a deep connection between Lana and the natural world that plays a big part in her growth over the course of the book. She finds something small and personal to care for when she finds a lost baby aquicorn, but also gains a larger sense of purpose by embracing an environmentalist point of view. Compassion is what helps Lana work through her grief, and she feels closer to her mother when helping to protect the marine world her mother cherished in life.