Pilu of the Woods – Mai K. Nguyen

  Pilu of the Woods – Mai K. Nguyen. Oni Press, 2019. 9781620105511

Format: PDF

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Genre:   Fantasy

What did you like about the book?  Willow is struggling to keep her emotions under control following the death of her mother.  After a rough day at school being picked on by bullies for crying, and an argument with her older sister Linnea, Willow takes her dog Chicory and goes for a walk in the woods around her house.  The forest is her safe place, where she can wallow in her memories of her mother and let her emotions (which are depicted as little monsters in a jar, that change in shape and size throughout the book) express themselves more freely.  She hears crying, and soon finds Pilu, a tree spirit girl with leaves for hair.  Pilu has fought with her mother and run away from home and the feeling of invisibility resulting from being one of 12 sisters.  They become instant friends; Willow teaches Pilu a lot about the plants and fungi of the forest (her father is a professor), and Pilu in turn shares with Willow some of the magical secrets of the forest. When Pilu reveals that she doesn’t actually know how to find her way home (to the magnolia grove that Willow used to visit with her mother), Willow vows to help her and sees it as a way to conquer her monsters once and for all.  A bad storm is threatening to break out, as are Willow’s monsters, and the girls must call on all their inner strength to safely find their way home.

The narrative of two girls in need of an empathetic friend to help them navigate complex emotions will certainly hit home for many readers, and the warm (eventual) comfort of home is reassuring.  A soft, earth-tone palette, slow-paced panels, and close-ups of the forest scenery evoke the quiet of the wooded setting and off-set the occasional angry outbursts of the characters.  Nguyen makes effective use of onomatopoeia throughout, and Willow’s mother’s words swirl in her head to help steady her when the monsters start to agitate.  Different shaped panels are used to convey when the story is in the present or in Willow’s memory.

Backmatter includes a recipe for Willow’s mom’s mushroom rice, and a few pages of a field journal to keep track of forest adventures.

Anything you didn’t like about it?  I think the monster metaphor will be slightly over the heads of most young readers.

To whom would you recommend this book? Despite the fantasy elements, this story will appeal to realistic fiction readers who enjoy books with a lot of heart and strong emotion, or maybe the more magical books from Katharine Applegate (like Wishtree or Crenshaw).  It might also be a good fit for fans of graphic novels such as Cardboard Kingdom or the Hilda series.  

Who should buy this book?  Public and elementary school libraries

Where would you shelve it?  Graphic novels

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? no

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City and State: Leigh King, Lincoln St. Elementary School, Northborough, Mass.

Date of review: 5/12/2020

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