Pilu of the Woods, the debut graphic novel by Mai K. Nguyen, can best be described as charming. From Nguyen’s graphic use of delicate watercolors to the driving heart of the story, everything is done with the innocent charm of a classic cartoon.
Pilu of the Woods follows Willow, a little girl struggling with her life. She grieves over the recent loss of her mother and is being bullied at school. After a fight with her sister, Willow runs from home into the forest behind her house where she meets the titular Pilu. Pilu is a forest spirit and has similarly run from home. For this reason, the two girls go on a journey through the woods to get her home to her mother.
Along the way, Willow and Pilu bond over their feelings of loneliness. While Willow is struggling to cope with the loss of her mother, Pilu’s family is so big that she feels she never gets any attention. Their feelings literally overpower them when Willow’s grief manifests as an actual monster. After running from the creature, Willow realizes that her sadness is a part of her and that she can only defeat it by treating it kindly.
Despite being Nguyen’s first published graphic novel, she is no stranger to the world of sequential art. Nguyen draws heavily from nature, with a focus on plant life and animals. Much of her work, even before Pilu, features children in natural settings with cute animals and flowers. The loveliest part of the art of Pilu of the Woods is Nguyen’s careful attention to detail. The world is well-lived and well-loved.
Vines wrap around the columns of Willow’s house. Her room is decorated with stickers and hand-drawn posters. But the forest scenes are where the art really shines. Nguyen crafts a world with so many little details, rocks, ferns, and birds, that you get pulled right in. Her delicate linework connects large areas of solid black. This balances the composition and gives the cartoony environments unexpected depth.
Willow and Pilu are exceptionally good character designs. These two are cute, compact, and easily identifiable. I’m biased towards child characters, and love seeing them drawn with chubby arms and chunky ankles. They are pleasantly geometric, with Pilu relying more on round shapes and Willow having angular elements like her messy hair and shorts.
The underlying message of Pilu of the Woods is a poignant one. Throughout the story, whenever Willow is upset, we see shots of little goopy dudes in jars. Their meaning is ambiguous until about halfway through the story when Willow refers to her as “little monsters.” She describes her feelings of frustration and grief as little monsters that rise to the top of her other feelings and make her do and say things she doesn’t mean. She had one such experience with her monsters shortly before her mother died, which has caused her to “bottle them away.” This comes to a head when Willow has an angry outburst, lashing out at Pilu. The monsters escape their bottles and emerge as a real monster and a big one at that. They chase Pilu and Willow through the woods, even capturing Pilu.
But here’s the twist. The moral of Pilu of the Woods isn’t to get rid of grief. It’s to welcome it. To defeat the monsters, Willow apologizes for bottling them up for so long. In recognizing her grief as a part of herself, we get a heartfelt moment of acceptance and self-love not often seen in modern stories. Willow will have to live with the monsters inside of her every day, but she learns that they aren’t monsters at all. Recognizing your sadness and your pain as part of yourself is a mature lesson that not everybody can learn, but Mai K. Nguyen explains it in such a beautiful way that it’s hard not to tear up.
Pilu of the Woods is a heartfelt story about dealing with loss in a healthy way. The tactic of hiding your emotions and suffering silently is what puts Willow and her new friend in danger, and only through emotional intelligence can they make it out. When talking to Pilu about the forest, Willow makes an observation that relates back to herself.
We gotta be real careful not to hurt the things around us because nothing’s really gone forever… not words, not things, not people. Everything leaves a little mark.
Mai K. Nguyen, Pilu of the Woods
This is the closest that Pilu of the Woods gets to a philosophical thesis statement. Everything that has happened in Willow’s life has left a mark and has changed her as a person. Consequently, only in accepting those changes can she blossom into a more complete person.
The Whole Tree
Mai K. Nguyen’s Pilu of the Woods takes a sympathetic look at dealing with grief and does so through a charming story filled with beautiful imagery. The underdeveloped emotions of children fuel the plot, and can only be resolved through compassion and kindness. This is an exceptionally poignant message. In a culture where kindness is commonly seen as a weakness, it’s easy to lose sight of how much strength it truly takes to be kind.
Similarly, the friendship between two girls being a driving plot point is a welcome change from the usual fare. For a debut graphic novel, Nguyen shows a lot of promise. Pilu is an atmospheric and emotional read. The book is filled to bursting with love from its creator, and I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for her.