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Pilu of the Woods cover by Mai K. NguyenPilu of the Woods

Creator: Mai K. Nguyen
Publisher: Oni Press

If you want to read a graphic novel that will make you cry today, I highly suggest Mai K. Nguyen‘s Pilu of the Woods. The story follows Willow, a young girl who runs into the forest with the family dog for solace after she gets in a fight with her big sister. Willow meets a forest spirit named Pilu who has also run away from home and gotten lost. Together, the two work to return Pilu to her grove. This story is a sweet exploration of new friendship and building trust, but it is also a heavy examination of grief and, through a certain lens, mental illness.

Throughout the book, Nguyen slowly reveals that Willow and Linnea’s mom died, complicating their relationship even as they try to maintain the promise they made to always be there for each other and to act with compassion. It was a pact they each made with their mom, making it feel all the more important now that she’s gone. Unfortunately, as so many of us can attest, sometimes our emotions get the better of us. We say cruel things to people we love. And if we struggle with mental illness, which can often feel like monsters living in our heads and crowding out everything else, it can seem even harder to be kind.

Willow’s monsters are real, though it takes some time for her to realize that. After she meets and befriends Pilu, she begins to re-examine her thoughts, feelings and relationships. Pilu, a sapling with 12 sisters, often feels invisible in such a large family. While Willow feels that her big sister cares too much, Pilu feels like her mom and sisters care too little. As these new friends talk about their lives, they both come to significant realizations in a series of incredibly emotional panels. It’s not that either of their feelings are wrong; it’s just that seeing things from a new perspective helps them move forward.

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Pilu of the Woods is deeply moving and Nguyen’s storytelling shines. The script itself is stunning and the art is gorgeous. Nguyen employees muted colors and varying palettes to differentiate between current timelines and flashbacks, without detracting from the overall aesthetic of the story. Likewise, the layout of the book is as involved in the storytelling as everything else. Lettering plays a major part, but so does panel positioning, borders and backgrounds. This middle-grade graphic novel will appeal to readers of all ages, but its aesthetics are firmly rooted in the perspectives of its characters, which is utterly delightful.

Frankly, Pilu of the Woods blew my expectations out of the water. I knew going into it that I would likely enjoy it, but I didn’t expect to feel so passionately about the characters and their world by the time I finished reading. I also didn’t expect to cry so much. This book is a definite BUY. I suspect it will make its way onto plenty of “Best Of” lists at the end of 2019.

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