Ella and the Ocean by Lian Tanner and illustrated by Jonathan Bentley is a moving story about the power of the imagination, believing and sharing dreams. This is also a story that sensitively explores the human impact of isolation and living in the harsh outback during drought.
The front cover sets the scene as the reader sees Ella looking bold and adventurous standing on her rooftop, wind in her hair, as she peers out over her barren, parched land that is drought stricken and covered in red dirt. What is she looking for?
One night Ella has a vivid dream about the ocean and this sets her curious mind alight with questions about the appearance of the ocean and how it behaves. She is filled with awe and wonder about this. With her curiosity piqued, Ella asks each member of her family about the ocean and if they have ever seen it. Interestingly, her Dad, Mum and brother, Ben, all say they have seen it a long time ago and seem to recall it without any real fondness. Their explanations about the ocean are vague and are recalled as they are busy and preoccupied with the day to day running of the farm.
Ella has another dream about the ocean. This prompts Ella to ask her Gran if she has ever seen the ocean. Unlike the rest of Ella’s family, her Gran has never seen the ocean, but has also dreamt about it in all its magical glory. Ella shares with her Gran that her own dream has sparked in her a deep desire to see the ocean. Gran believes in the power of realising dreams and convinces all of the family, as reluctant as they are, to take a trip to the beach. It is here that the transformative journey is fully realised and the true beauty and magic of the beach transpires.
This is a powerful story to share with children as the prose and illustrations capture the harsh reality of life in the outback. It highlights the resilience and indomitable spirit farming families possess. It also beautifully captures the power of realising a dream and how a new experience and memory can evoke a sense of hope. A fulfilled dream can breathe beauty into monotonous routines, open ones eyes to the beauty that surrounds them and fuel one to continue in hard times.
Jonathan Bentley’s detailed illustrations add another layer to the text as they deftly capture the emotions Ella’s family are feeling and reveal information about life on the land. There is so much to “read” in the illustrations which give important clues about where Ella lives. The contrasting colour palette for the two scenes, the outback and ocean, is striking. One depicting a dry, desolate landscape in desperate need of rain and the other bursting with vitality and joy. Note in the illustrations the reactions of each of the family members when they arrive at the beach? Some people share a similar reaction and other family members have a very different reaction. How do you account for this?
Ella and the Ocean was listed as a CBCA 2020 Notable Book and won the 2020 Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature for the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.