Staff Picks: On A Sunbeam

Reviewed by Sarah B., Materials Handler

Inclusiveness

Tillie Walden’s graphic novel On A Sunbeam is a stunningly colorful and heartwarming space opera. Walden describes her art as being influenced by Studio Ghibli artist Hayao Miyazaki, and this novel reflects his influence not only in her art style, but also her fascinating, strange, and beautiful world-building. The story alternates between different points in time and Walden utilizes alternation between different stunning color palettes corresponding to each setting. Each setting is fascinating visually and conceptually: stunningly vast visuals of a spaceship restoration crew traveling from planet to planet, restoring abandoned sites, and an innocent and youthful depiction of one member’s high school experience in a futuristic version of the world.  

With all women and non-binary characters, the novel strongly features tender queer love. Frequently, representation of queer love in fiction depicts it as a rebellion against the norm. This is an important and real aspect of the experience of being LGBTQ, but this graphic novel provides a contrasting and comforting depiction of queer love (specifically between women, in this case) simply as love, as the average experience. This graphic novel displays queer love completely separately from any lens of outside observance, it simply exists. The romance in this book is a large aspect of the plot, but in the way that straight couples commonly see themselves depicted in literature: as a grand and beautiful thing but not one that has to be inherently subversive. 

The novel does still challenge the microaggressions that trans individuals in particular face through a non-binary character Elliot and a minor character who “forgets” to use their pronouns or gender neutral language around them. Every other character uses language respectfully and naturally, so this bigoted character’s disrespectful, chosen ignorance stands out. Characters that are respectful of Elliot try to remind her to use the right language at first, and then over time become less tolerant or “polite” with her ignorance. These interactions are an example of how kindness and respect do not always mean being nice and polite to every individual no matter what—if someone taking hateful and harmful action does not respond to gentle nudging in the right direction, sometimes the kindest action is to be more blunt and make it known that their harmful opinions and choices are not always acceptable, and that someone’s identity and existence are not up for debate. 

This novel sweeps you up into its black, cosmic backgrounds in contrast with beautiful, symbolic colors, its fascinating interplanetary world-building, and the tender, grandeur love between women it depicts. I would recommend this book wholeheartedly, especially to queer women and binary people hoping to see themselves represented, fans of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, or to anyone who enjoys clever, strange, and beautiful world-building. 

This is review is part of the Finding Value series, inspired by the eleven core values central to the Library's mission. Tune in as Library staff review books and movies that highlight the values accessibility, civil discourse, inclusiveness, integrity, intellectual freedom, lifelong learning, literacy, respect, safety, service, and stewardship.