There is a moment in everyone’s life, hopefully a moment that happens sooner rather than later, where one must to come to terms with their emotions. It is a process, learning to walk the line between embracing feelings without letting them take control. It is a struggle that, especially when you’re young, can feel almost insurmountable. “Pilu of the Woods,” follows a young girl named Willow as she struggles with this exact challenge. Adding on top of that forest spirits, fun mushroom facts, and a very cute dog, and you have some sense of what awaits in “Pilu of the Woods.”
Written, Illustrated, Colored and Lettered by Mai K. Nguyen
A heartwarming story about complex emotions, friendship, and finding your way home, from debut author/illustrator Mai K. Nguyen!
Willow loves the woods near her house. They’re calm and quiet, so different from her own turbulent emotions, which she keeps locked away. When her emotions get the better of her one day, she decides to run away into the woods.
There, she meets Pilu, a lost tree spirit who can’t find her way back home — which turns out to be the magnolia grove Willow’s mom used to take her to. Willow offers to help Pilu, and the two quickly become friends.
But the journey is long, and Pilu isn’t sure she’s ready to return home yet — which infuriates Willow, who’s determined to make up for her own mistakes by getting Pilu back safely. As a storm rages and Willow’s emotions bubble to the surface, they suddenly take on a physical form, putting both girls in danger… and forcing Willow to confront her inner feelings once and for all.
The first thing that jumped out to me while reading “Pilu of the Woods” was the texture of the colors. The colors, though they are more saturated and solid than actual watercolors, give the pages a really solid physicality. It’s something that comes through even in the digital copy of that I read, making the book feel real and physical, and giving that texture to the environments the book portrays.
One of the wonderful things about a book created by only one person is how cohesive everything can feel. This isn’t always true, of course. And there are certain creative teams that also feel like they can approach this level of cohesion. With “Pilu of the Woods, Mai K. Nguyen has created a book where everything, the art, the story, and even the tiniest details all come together to create something that feels whole. Everything, from the lettering, to the texture of the colors, to the cartoony art style and the story that this book tells feel like they belong together.
It almost makes it hard to write about the specifics, when each piece of the comic creating puzzle fit together this well. Even when a work is wholly made by a single creator, there is often a part of it that stands out as slightly less accomplished than everything else around it, even while still fitting aesthetically with the rest of the work. With “Pilu of the Woods,” every part of this book’s craft is in perfect harmony with the rest, and is done to the highest level.
The story, like the artwork around it, is perfectly crafted. When people talk about perfectly structured stories, they usually bring up the variety of comics that are working off a nine-panel grids. Ones that have conspicuous structures. Flashy, moody stories that draw attention to themselves. “Pilu of the Woods” is none of those things but is probably one of the most tightly crafted graphic novels I have read in a long time.
Every moment, every panel, perfectly follows the one before it, and perfectly achieves what it intends to. On a bigger, story wide scale, “Pilu of the Woods” does a fantastic job of slowly rolling out information, while never feeling like it is purposefully keeping anything hidden. There is a darkness looming over Willow and her family. We know from the opening that something has happened to her family. But the way the information is slowing revealed over the course of the book make the entire story come together perfectly.Continued below
Even more then the information about Willow’s mother, there is the visual metaphor used to represent Willow’s emotions throughout the story. For a good portion of the story, this metaphor will just appear, taking a panel every couple of pages to show how Willow is feeling emotionally, without any explanation. As the story goes on, the connection between the representation and Willow’s emotions become more and more clear until, by the time you pretty much know the connection, it is made explicit. The pacing of the information and the story as a whole make this reveal, and everything else in this story, work amazingly well.
On a less craft focused note, “Pilu of the Woods” is also a really sweet story. It’s an emotional story, wrapped in an extremely cute package that keeps it from being too depressing. The friendship that forms between the main characters, Willow and Pilu, is really heartwarming. There is an almost instant chemistry between the characters. Their first meeting highlights what kind of character Willow is. Even while Willow is struggling with her own problems, as soon as she meets someone else in need, she immediately wants to help them.
“Pilu of the Woods” is billed as a middle grade book. And I think it would be great for that age range. The themes in this book are pretty close to the traditional middle grade themes of finding oneself, coming to terms with who they are. But this is a book that is worth reading for anyone. “Pilu of the Woods” is a fantastic book, impressive in everyway a comic can be. The art is beautiful. The way the book is perfectly structured without drawing attention to that structure. And all of that works together to tell a sweet story about coming to terms with one’s emotions, learning to accept them, embrace them, but not let them control you.
Over all, “Pilu and the Woods” is a book I would recommend to almost anyone. From middle grade readers, to anyone that wants to see an almost perfectly constructed book, “Pilu of the Woods” works. If you love comics, this is a book that is worth checking out.