#IMWAYR: On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
Before we get to today's post, I'd like to mention that I shared another original poem this last Thursday, "On summer"—check it out if you're interested! Also, I have the winners of the Summer 2021 Book Giveaway to announce! The winner of Everywhere Blue by Joanne Rossmassler Fritz is...
The winner of Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is...
The winner of the signed copy of Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson is...
And the winner of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden is...
Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks so much to everyone who entered! Moving to the review, I'm excited to have a review today of a ridiculously fantastic YA graphic novel, On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden!
This book has somewhat mature content as well as complex themes that would make it a better fit for YA (young adult) readers than MG (middle grade) readers.
|532 pages (not the 544 I thought|
in my original post, but close!)
I'm excited to have read my very first book for the Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by #IMWAYR's own Sue Jackson at Book by Book! All you have to do to participate is read one book over 400 pages, so make sure to join! And you can learn about my goals for the challenge here. Graphic novels count for the challenge, and at a hefty 532 pages, On a Sunbeam definitely qualified! I discovered that I owned this book back in December when I realized I had put it in the totally-wrong bookcase, but before reading this book, I read a different book by Walden, Are You Listening? (one of the books I just gave away!). That book was so jaw-droppingly, stunningly brilliant in every possible way that I had ridiculously high hopes for On a Sunbeam, and it may be no surprise considering Walden's sky-high reputation as a graphic novelist that my hopes were exceeded!
Before I continue, I think it's important to note that two publishers seemed to publish On a Sunbeam—I read the version from First Second, which I think is the newer, more current version. But also, this book was actually first published as a webcomic, so you can read it all COMPLETELY FREE—and legally so—online here!
On a Sunbeam is comprised of two separate plotlines, both set in a universe where humans have learned to live in space and have built all kinds of interstellar buildings and mechanisms for travel to get around. In a plotline set five years in the past, the story's protagonist, Mia, is plodding along through her life at a space boarding school. She puts in not-quite-enough effort on schoolwork, she grapples with school bullies, and she spends time wishing she could play on the school's Lux team. When Mia meets another student, Grace, they form a strong connection that ultimately blossoms into romance—but suddenly, their relationship comes to an end when Mia isn't ready. In the other plotline set in the present day, Mia is out of school and joins a crew of people who restore and renovate space buildings for a living. Mia works to get the hang of the job and starts to connect with her other crew members, Alma, Jules, Char, and Elliot. As Mia learns more about the crew members' pasts and they learn more about hers, they are spurred into going on a perilous journey, where—if they make it out alive—they all might find the closure they need for their pasts.
On a Sunbeam is, no question, one of the best books I've read all year, up there with books like the aforementioned Are You Listening? (also by Walden). And that's not as much of a surprise as it might seem—as I learned after reading Are You Listening?, Walden's reputation as one of the best graphic novelists today is well-deserved. But even knowing what to expect from this story, I was still blown away by how brilliantly Walden crafts this story in so many ways. Before we dig too far into the details of the story, I think it's important to recognize that, at least in the two books of hers I've read, Walden has this incredible ability to make the reader think and feel exactly what she wants them to. Reading On a Sunbeam feels like Walden has simply transplanted her brain into your head. Virtually every single element of the story she wants to convey comes through to readers perfectly, and the few minuscule flaws left remaining couldn't be more easy to ignore. As I mentioned in my review of Are You Listening?, at least when I attempt to write, I have an idea in my head of what I want to convey, and then whatever comes out on the page is typically not even close to what I wanted. With Walden's books, one of two things is going on. Either every single thought she has about what the story should be like is right there on the page, or her vision for the story is so ridiculously ambitious and otherworldly that even what ends up on the page is still miles and miles, leaps and bounds away from any other book you've seen. In general, when it comes to Walden's talent, I am grateful that she sticks with the YA genre when she could easily leave that genre behind for a successful career in adult books any time she wanted.
On a Sunbeam's characters are unbelievably well-developed. It is a rare author that creates a character so real that you feel like you could meet them in real life—and Walden does that with practically every character in this story. And not just that, but every character is likable—lovable, in fact. You can't help but root for everyone, and Walden takes you on a tour of each and every character's wonderful abilities, and deepest pains, and darkest secrets, and courage to push past them all for the people they love. The story's protagonist, Mia, starts off in the earlier plotline at boarding school as somewhat immature, which is fair for a 9th grader. She's impulsive and gets in trouble, and she doesn't do well in school. But there's also a beauty to her behavior, a beauty lost on most people dealing with teenagers—Mia is fierce, and she puts her impulsivity to good use in caring for those she loves and not letting anyone mess with them. As we see Mia in the later plotlines, though, Mia's fierceness evolves into a more reasonable determination, a determination to succeed, to keep going, and to love—her capacity for caring for others stays the same as ever. And it's not just Mia who is that well-developed. Let's look at the restoration crew (and de facto family) Mia ends up with. We have Alma, the strong-willed de facto leader of the group with more heart than she lets on; Char (short for Charlotte), the shy actual leader of the group who finds strength as the story continues; Jules, the young, sassy, brave member of the group who befriends Mia; and Elliot (also known as Ell), who doesn't speak at all but finds ways to make their presence known and to be there for others in spite of the secrets they must keep. If those characters don't sound totally awesome to you, then honestly, I don't know what I'm doing wrong! And of course, there's Mia's love interest, Grace—but I'll keep details about her quiet for now, so that there's still some intrigue for you left in the story. (Though even with the characters I've mentioned, there are SO MANY layers to them all that I've hardly spoiled a thing—talk about characters that aren't just a single personality trait.) Walden is quite intentional about giving every single character their time in the spotlight—actually, the spotlights, plural, whether those are the spotlight of whimsy and jokes, the spotlight of deep, dark pain, or the spotlight of growth and understanding.
So we've been through characters. But what of plot? Or setting? Because those are somewhat inextricable, I'll spend some time on them now. On a Sunbeam is obviously set in space, and its world is richly developed. There's mysterious space buildings, fish-shaped spaceships that people use to get around, worlds with caves and canyons, and even a bit of interplanetary conflict. Without drowning you in details, Walden nevertheless gives you enough details to understand this strange world—and hints that there's a lot more to it than fits into even this book. Looking at plot, this book can largely be separated into the chunk before the perilous adventure I mentioned in the synopsis and the chunk during. (Honestly, each of those chunks could be a book in and of itself—have I mentioned this book is long for a graphic novel?) The events before the perilous adventure are pretty much what I described in the synopsis—but to be clear, Walden juggles so many details, about Mia's school life and teenage angst and her new job and the people she meets along the way that it is incredibly impressive. And to spotlight one particular area, I want to mention that Mia and Grace's romance is incredibly compelling—although both characters are young when they fall in love, their connection is genuine and they are both truly committed to being there for one another and learning from one another as well, which is wonderful to see. But looking at the perilous adventure itself—well, if you didn't think things could get even better, you're wrong. I can't say much for fear of spoilers, but here's the general gist: just as she does in Are You Listening?, Walden uses the adventure as a stress-test for her characters. She takes everything from them and pushes them to the brink of death or emotional collapse (or both), but if they are capable (and if they survive), they bounce back from the situation with a renewed understanding of what and whom they actually care about, and what is just emotional baggage they need to let go of in order to truly live their lives well. It's all about the emotional development, but it's also all about the adrenaline and craziness—just like in a well-executed movie, Walden zips back and forth between different characters' points of view, emphasizing the simultaneous crises and chase scenes and emotions of each individual character. In this section of the book, you'll be unable to put it down—I could barely do it myself except for some scheduled events I couldn't miss. I'm trying not to give away too much, but I hope I've made clear that this book juggles emotional development for everyone and total adventure/fantasy/sci-fi craziness really, really well.
And now for a short speed round of random fabulous stuff. Walden's art style is so ridiculously gorgeous that I can't even believe it—the vivid colors, the balance between immense details and wondrous abstraction, the grandeur of some scenes and intimacy of others. It's amazing. Another note: On a Sunbeam has no male characters whatsoever (all characters are female except for Elliot, who is non-binary), and it doesn't really matter at all except as just an impressively brave choice on Walden's part to feature the characters she wanted to feature—and no one else. And while race relations in a strange space world are obviously quite different, I nevertheless appreciated Walden's inclusion of characters of different races and skin tones. There are two moments in the story I still remember vividly and wanted to give special mention to. In one, a character basically gives the eloquently eviscerating mic-drop rant we've all wanted to give to every person who has ever wronged us, and it is so cathartic, oh my goodness. And in the other moment, Walden manages to depict even the boarding school bully as a layered, complex character in less than 5 pages—she's practically bragging at this point about how well she can write characters. And lastly, despite some of the heavier themes of this story, On a Sunbeam has numerous light and happy moments that are just as powerful, and with its reduced focus on trauma compared to Walden's Are You Listening?, it might be an easier book of hers for readers to start with.
Sorry for the endlessly long review—but honestly, when it comes to books like these, a long review is warranted. On a Sunbeam is basically every single thing you could ever hope for in a book, all combined into one single book. It's well-written and well-plotted, the art is gorgeous, the world-building is vivid, and the characters are memorable and lovable. If I didn't think Walden was one of the most skilled writers/illustrators I've ever seen after reading Are You Listening?, I certainly think it now. If you're a fan of graphic novels, well, you don't know how much more of a fan of graphic novels you'll be after reading this book. And if you're not a fan of graphic novels, then perhaps this book will spur you into trying out the format—you might be surprised by how much you've missed out on.
My rating is: Stunning!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 2!