MMGM and #IMWAYR: This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews
***Blog news!*** It's the summer now, which means I have way more time to devote to reading books and to blogging! As such, I am starting a new feature on my blog called Thursday Thoughts! On at least some Thursdays, I'll be discussing book-related topics that I have opinions about and inviting you all to share your thoughts in the comment section! Note that these are not book reviews (I will continue to only post those on Mondays), but I hope these can be a new way for me to connect with my readers! (Also, if you want to see these posts in your Blogger reading list, I finally added a Follow button on my blog sidebar!)
***Public service announcement*** I heard some weird things online about people's Blogger posts getting deleted recently. I have no idea if any of that was true, but it seems like a good time to remind you all to download a backup of your blog on Blogger periodically—to do so, go to your Blogger dashboard > Settings > Manage blog > Back up content > Download.
Today, I do have another graphic novel to recommend, which was actually WAY better than I expected, considering I bought it sight-unseen: This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews. (By the way, I promised a talking bear in last week's review, and this book follows through on that promise.)
I only managed to find this book because I went randomly searching for books on the website of graphic novel imprint First Second (which published this book, along with countless others I've reviewed). I don't normally search for books on publisher websites, but First Second's logo shows up so many times on my bookcase that it just seemed like an easy way to find some more graphic novels I might enjoy. (This was actually how I found the utterly amazing YA graphic novel Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden, which is absolutely worth a read!) What's hilarious is that this book has no blurbs, and no one recommended it to me, so I thought I was buying this obscure, nobody's-read-it graphic novel—and then I Googled it and found so many articles about it, including a recommendation of it in the New York Times by—not kidding—Erin Entrada Kelly, the Reigning Queen of Middle Grade Literature (Whose Books I Still Haven't Read Because I'm Ridiculous). Her recommendation is probably more convincing than mine—check it out here!
But back to This Was Our Pact. At the start of this graphic novel, Ben and his classmates are setting out on a journey on their bicycles. Their mission—to follow the lanterns their village sends off in the river every Autumn Equinox. These kids are determined to find out where the lanterns actually end up—except that they're really not that determined, because literally all of them give up except for two. The first? Ben. The second? Nathaniel, the unpopular, "nerdy" kid who Ben's friends make fun of. Ben isn't thrilled about ending up on a journey with Nathaniel, but as the two boys venture forth on an incredible journey, filled with magic, intrigue, and memorable characters, Ben has to figure out what he really thinks of Nathaniel—and the two boys have to discover the fate of their lanterns while making it out unscathed.
Considering the lack of knowledge about This Was Our Pact I had going into it, I was incredibly shocked and impressed by how beautiful, engrossing, and all-around fantastic it was! There's tons of things I want to mention (although I do have to balance the whole not-spoiling-all-the-intrigue thing), so let's dive right in. Before we examine the magic and adventure aspects of this book, I want to take a moment and discuss Ben and Nathaniel's relationship. I know, from my own experiences in middle and high school, that I have been in both Ben and Nathaniel's shoes. Some of those ways are more superficial—like Ben, I can worry myself to death and take the fun out of anything (you should see me on a vacation—I have a nervous breakdown every time), and like Nathaniel, I can rattle off tons of random facts and find all of them super-exciting (in other words, I'm a nerd—which you should have already known, considering I literally started my own blog to excitedly blither about books). But I'm also similar to Ben and Nathaniel in some deeper, more unpleasant ways. Like Nathaniel, I've been that kid who was so loud and excited that I couldn't always get along with other kids. And I hate to say it, but like Ben, I've been that kid who shunned other kids to protect myself. I found the exploration of Ben and Nathaniel's relationship to be imperfect at times—just a reminder that it's not an apology if it didn't include the words "I'm sorry"—but overall, I think the tensions of their relationship within the broader nightmare of childhood friend groups was very well-explored. I felt like I learned a bit about why I made the choices that I made in middle school and high school, and I imagine a lot of other kids and adults would too.
So there's that aspect of This Was Our Pact, but we can't forget all of the magic-and-adventure stuff, which is practically flawless! There is so much crammed into this graphic novel that it is truly amazing. There's towering cliffs and frigid oceans. There's starry skies and fog so thick it's hard to navigate. There's mythology and unusual societies. There's potions and cramped, adorable workshops in which to craft them. There's terrifying monsters, cranky humans, and friendly companions. There's frantic bicycle-riding and sailing the seas. There's a jaw-droppingly-beautiful chapter toward the end of the book set in a gorgeous cave. All of this is made possible by author/illustrator Ryan Andrews's art. While I wouldn't compare this book's writing to graphic novels like Are You Listening? or my all-time favorite graphic novel, The Magic Fish, I would absolutely compare this book's art to that of those two. Quite frankly, I think the art style of This Was Our Pact is what ultimately makes the experience, as just gazing upon some of the frequent and stunning two-page spreads was enough to get me engrossed in this book. Andrews's art has an enormous amount of detail—it's clear that it must have taken a long time to create this book—but it also nevertheless has a simplicity and clarity to it that ensures the story itself is what takes center stage. Besides the beauty of the panels (especially in that cave scene—seriously, y'all, the cave scene is so good), let's see...well, the character designs and facial expressions are pretty much perfect. Also, similarly to The Magic Fish, the art style is color-coded, though in this book, it is different regions of the story that have different colors, whether those are the faded grays of the cliffs and fog, the soothing blues outside the aforementioned magical workshop, or the sharp yellow of the unnerving cellar. (The color-coding also makes it easy to tell what is going on in most panels.) All in all, I did not realize that beautiful art could, even by itself, carry a story to such high heights as it does in This Was Our Pact.
Beautiful art and hair-raising adventures set the stage for Ben and Nathaniel's journey, but it wouldn't be what it is without the characters themselves. Nathaniel's ability to see the bright side (or fascinating side) of everything becomes endearing throughout the story, and although Ben does come across as a fun-killer for much of the book, readers will take a liking to him as well as things go on. And although I don't want to mention too many of the other characters (considering there's only a couple), I do want to mention the talking bear, or the Fisherbear, who is a friendly and eloquent bear that acts as a sort of father figure for Ben and Nathaniel in some parts of the story—although bits and pieces of his behavior irritated me, I ultimately found him to be quite endearing and worthy of mention here. Most of you probably haven't, but if you've ever watched the excellent animated TV miniseries Over the Garden Wall, which similarly blends emotional depth, childlike whimsy, and crazy, sometimes-terrifying adventures through a magical land, you'll feel right at home in This Was Our Pact. Although the emotional development isn't perfect, the overall experience, from the art to the characters to the journey itself, is truly spectacular. Authors and graphic novelists could learn a thing or two from this book about creating a fast-paced, memorable plot, and readers in general will be engrossed in the world of Ben and Nathaniel all the way from start to finish.
My rating is: Really good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!