Middle school can be tough and with big changes in her life, Willow clings to the familiar: her love of learning and what her mother taught her about nature, including everything she knows about her mother’s favorite magnolia blossoms that grow in their backyard.
But there’s still a lot to deal with and one day she runs away into the woods where she meets Pilu, a nature spirit who lives in the very magnolia grove that Willow’s visited countless times. Will helping Pilu find her way home and reconcile with her mother help Willow deal with the hurt inside herself? Find out in Pilu of the Woods.
Published: 16 April 2019
Publisher: Oni Press
Category: Sequential Art/Fantasy/Middle Grade
A heartwarming story of friendship, loss, 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.
Rating: 4 Stars
CW: bullying, death of a parent
The art, first and foremost, sets a wonderful tone for the book. It’s beautiful rendered from the humans/humanoids creatures in the book to the various nature scenes. Combining that with seamless scientific facts regarding the plants that Willow encounters along her journey with Pilu, such as how mushrooms grow and how a fairy ring is formed, was really interesting.
The tension was very real between Willow and her older sister, Linnea. Their relationship reminded me a bit of Lilo and Nani what with the sibling dynamic, though their father was around and spoken of often by Willow, such as how he taught her about nature. Linnea’s caretaker role, though, and her scenes with Willow highlight the early stress that the family is feeling before the first page due to her behavior, how she was trying to keep the stress of Willow’s school problems their father, and she reacted to yet another phone call from Willow’s teacher regarding her punching a bully.
This segue into Willow’s running into the forest, meeting Pilu, and starting her journey to bring Pilu home, to learning more about herself, was heartbreaking even as it was a necessary catalyst for the rest of the story.
I like the conversation the book brings up about “little monsters” (bad thoughts/feelings). Willow and Pilu have an important conversation about how they (the monsters) can be so loud, “louder than your heart”, and can be set off by anything and only brought back by saying terrible things. That feeling might be familiar to many readers because who hasn’t said something in anger?
Talking about emotions, being open about the things that made one upset, whether it is loneliness or a significant loss, and giving a sort of embodiment to them, became a starting point of realization for how to deal with feelings for Willow and Pilu. This situation, the monsters and the keeping them bottled up, was an analogy that is a good one to translate to the real world and talk to young readers in a way that makes sense to them, especially if they don’t understand outbursts or why they feel angry.
There’s an enjoyable re-readability quality to Pilu and I look forward to reading it again in the future when the finished copies are published. The artwork, the prose, all of it deserves a place on shelves and in hearts.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Quotes included are from an advanced reader copy and may not reflect the finalized copy.
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