#IMWAYR: The Greatest Thing by Sarah Winifred Searle

Update (6/19/2022): I made a small correction to this post.

Hello everyone! Today, I am so excited to be recommending a spellbinding YA graphic novel: The Greatest Thing by Sarah Winifred Searle.

Just a heads-up, this book is a young adult (YA) novel, and it contains mature content.

Also, I am quoting the content warning from the beginning of the book: "This book contains depictions of self-harm and disordered eating."

Add it on Goodreads or preview the illustrations!

Let's start off with the publisher's description of this book:

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It’s the first day of sophomore year, and now that Winifred’s two best (and only) friends have transferred to a private school, she must navigate high school on her own.

But she isn’t alone for long. In art class, she meets two offbeat students, Oscar and April. The three bond through clandestine sleepovers, thrift store shopping, and zine publishing. Winifred is finally breaking out of her shell, but there’s one secret she can’t bear to admit to April and Oscar, or even to herself―and this lie is threatening to destroy her newfound friendships.

With breathtaking art and honest storytelling, rising star Sarah Winifred Searle delivers a heartfelt story about love, friendship, and self-acceptance.

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(One note about the publisher's description: I left out the blurb saying this is perfect for fans of some MG graphic novels who are "ready to graduate to their first teen graphic novel," because as powerful as this book is, I think it's probably too heavy for someone just starting out in YA. Just a heads-up!)

One thing I can confidently say about this book is that it's gotten me thinking. I just flipped through it for what is probably the umpteenth time, trying to get a better sense of it after reading the whole thing on Saturday. And flipping through it just now, I noticed even more subtext and reconceptualized the main characters in a way that makes the story truly make sense to me. I don't think this book is flawless, and considering how close to home it hits on an emotional level, I am pretty confident that I can't discuss it in an objective way. But what I can say is that this is a startlingly complex story that captures something so real about the human condition and the teenage condition, and I am so excited to discuss it with you today!

This book, a fictionalized memoir based largely on the author's own experiences, is, at its core, a book about mental health. Winifred is not a good place in this story—she descends into spirals of anxiety and depression, and the interactions between her physical characteristics (like her weight or lactose intolerance) and society's view of them only lead to more difficulties. (Winifred is kind of a living example of the biopsychosocial perspective of mental health.) I imagine many readers will relate to Winifred's specific difficulties, which are captured with evocative art, sensitive narration, and immense honesty. But for me, what I related to most is Winifred's overall emotional state. This will probably sound dark, but I saw myself (if in a more severe way) in how Winifred's life seems to be on the up-and-up, yet she's still stuck in feelings of pain and isolation. I am grateful that this book captures the difficulties of teen and young adult mental health in such a truthful, relatable way.

Another thing I wanted to bring up with The Greatest Thing is the idea of support structures. We see in this book how support structures can be immensely powerful (if not a cure-all) for one person, yet not be the solution for others. School provides Winifred with a sense of purpose and adult figures who challenge her to succeed in such beautiful ways—yet we see how other characters are left behind in its rigid system. And Winifred's mom is a wonderful, compassionate human being who honestly deserves her own book—yet we see how parents are, in some ways, the cause of other characters' difficulties.

The support structure that probably does the most for Winifred, though, is the one on the cover—her new friends, Oscar and April. These two are some of the most compelling, fleshed-out friends I've ever seen in a story, and together, the three friends have such powerful moments together—like when the three play truth-or-dare in the sunroom on the cover, or when Oscar and Winifred quietly listen to a powerful song together, or when April channels her energy into tailoring the perfect dress for Winifred for the school dance. I cannot express to you all how much I loved Oscar and April.

But importantly, despite all the foreshadowing (a recurring theme with this book is that I missed so much foreshadowing), it took the ending to make me realize that Oscar and April are complex—really complex. And what I think their characters bring to the forefront is the strange paradox of social relationships. If we are hurting too deeply, we cannot make room for the pain of others and support the ones we love—yet the best way for us to reduce our deepest pain is to love anyway, and to be loved and learn that we are worthy too. I may be wildly misinterpreting a specific scene with my own biases, but I think we see in this book how two people who are hurting and are willing to admit it can support each other in beautiful ways—but if just one of them is struggling too much to admit how they feel, then the two people may just hurt each other more. There's room for interpretation here, but the fact that this book captures such deep truths about human nature is really something.

And the last major topic of this book I want to touch on (before a quick note on art) is communication. And if you noted the mention of zine publishing in the description of this book, well, this is the place where comics and zines come into play. We're all humans, so I'm sure we all know that some feelings and experiences are hard to talk about. But what Winifred figures out in this book is how storytelling—comics in particular—allows her to express her deepest wishes and fears in a way she simply couldn't verbally. The zines that Winifred, Oscar, and April make are actually included as part of the story. And I won't say too much, but I implore you to pay close attention to them, at least after reading the book if not during—because I didn't realize until after the fact just how much subtext and communication between characters is contained within those seemingly-tangential comics. Now that I understand it, I can safely say that it's brilliant.

Before I close out this review, I am obligated to discuss this book's art (lest I wish to incur the wrath of the graphic novel gods). Sarah Winifred Searle is clearly an amazing storyteller, as you can see from my review above, yet they are also an amazing artist. The artwork in this book is clear and crisp in a way I don't typically gravitate toward, but it works so well here—it prevents confusing panels or strange facial expressions from pulling your attention away from the story. The full-color yet largely-neutral color scheme, the immensely evocative facial expressions, and the aforementioned visual representations of anxiety and depression all combine to create a graphic novel with art that is as meaningful as it is accessible.

This book didn't just pull me through from start to finish—it pulled me back, to tie up my mental loose ends and ensure that I understood the parts of the story I might have rushed through. Earlier today, I would have said that the ending of this book is clunky, but now I realize that I simply didn't have a grasp on the aspects of the story that were present but unstated—with those in mind, the ending becomes the perfect lesson that the book was angled towards all along. With gorgeous art, a sensitive touch, and plenty of hope and love to carry readers through the difficult parts, this book captures something uniquely meaningful about the teenage experience, while giving readers the knowledge that it always gets better. In short: this book really is the greatest thing. (Literally.)

My rating is: Stunning!




My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 4!




Comments

  1. A very comprehensive review. Sounds like this book touched you in a deep way. Always the goal of authors!

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    1. I definitely connected with this book on a deep level, which is always what I hope for as a reader too! Thanks so much for stopping by, Carol!

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  2. I haven't heard of this graphic novel before, but it sounds amazing! It sounds like the characters are very three-dimensional and complicated, and that's what I love the most in great story-telling. I will definitely have to check it out. Have a great reading week!

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    1. I hadn't heard much about this book before I read it either—I actually just pulled it off the shelf at Barnes & Noble! But I'm glad I could introduce you to it—the characters are definitely very rich and realistic. Thanks so much for stopping by, Wendi, and have a great reading week as well!

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  3. Before I even read your review, I went to see if this graphic novel might be available at my local library. So sad that it isn't. I hoped my other library might have a digital copy, but no luck there either. After finishing your review, I am certain that I need a copy of this book. What I really noted as I read this today, is how much richer our understanding of story becomes with additional readings. I also made a connection to Lunarbaboon, one of my favourite cartoons who deals with depression. https://tinyview.com/lunarbaboon

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    1. I'm sorry you couldn't track this book down at your libraries—I hope you're able to find a copy of it soon! And I agree, I think almost all books would benefit from more than one reading, but I'm rarely able to find the time for that when other books are beckoning! The nice thing about graphic novels is that I can skim through them before writing the review and "re-read" them in a sense, because they're not too long. And I just looked at a few of the Lunarbaboon comics, and they're wonderful—thank you for sharing that! Thanks so much for stopping by, Cheriee!

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  4. Another great graphic novel recommendation. I know what you mean about multiple readings. The first time through, I'm often snagged by the story but the second time through is guided by a desire to see how all the pieces fit together. I love the story-within-a-story structure (or perhaps the graphic-novel-within-a-graphic-novel). I think you've successfully appeased the graphic novel gods. As always, I am a fan of the way you write about art.

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    1. That's a great way of summing it up—on subsequent read-throughs, you can pay more attention to individual parts because you already know the rough gist of the plot! And the graphic-novel-within-a-graphic-novel structure is very cool—I've seen that in a few other books (Truly Tyler by Terri Libenson and Just Pretend by Tori Sharp come to mind), but this is by far the best execution I've seen. And I'm glad my writing about art works for you! Thanks so much for stopping by, Linda!

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  5. This sounds like a great graphic novel with insight into the human(teenage) experience. I appreciate your note about the publisher's description. It does sound very heavy and complex.

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    1. I'm glad this book sounds good to you! It's definitely heavy in some ways, but there's also enough levity that you never feel like you have to put the book down—it's just probably too much for younger readers. Thanks so much for stopping by, Lisa!

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  6. Thank you for the content warning. I'm overly cautious with my collection but frequently recommend things for students to get from the public library!

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    1. That's very smart—you don't have to buy books that only a few students will check out, and you don't have to worry about kids accidentally getting ahold of something that might be emotionally painful for them! Thanks so much for stopping by, Karen!

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  7. Wow! Your reviews are always thorough and make me want to check out the books myself. Since summer vacation is days away, I will see if this book is available at my local library. Too mature for my elementary students but I love reading YA.

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    1. I always try to capture as much of a book as I can with my reviews, so I'm glad they are convincing! And I hope you can track down this book and enjoy reading it—thanks so much for stopping by, Laura!

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  8. This sounds fantastic. It's interesting that the cover art doesn't depict any of the tough issues contained within.

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    1. That's a really good point that I hadn't noticed before! It honestly didn't bother me, because Winifred's relationship with Oscar and April is so essential to the story and so hopeful that just showing a happy scene of all three of them seemed very reasonable as a way of summing up the book. (The cover actually references a specific scene early in the story, which is nice!) Thanks so much for stopping by, Helen!

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  9. Glad that you liked this so well. Very comprehensive review. I hardly ever read either YA or graphic novels, but it's good to know about this. Thanks for the post.

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    1. That's completely fair, but I'm glad I could bring this book to your attention regardless! Thanks so much for stopping by, Rosi!

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  10. I hadn't heard about this one yet - it sounds really amazing! I love a book that tackles so much emotional complexity, and it sounds like the author/illustrator does that very well here.

    Thanks for the review!

    Sue
    2022 Big Book Summer Challenge

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    1. I'm surprised there's been so little buzz about this book, to be honest! I'm glad I could introduce you to it—it definitely has a lot of emotional depth. Thanks so much for stopping by, Sue!

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  11. I feel like I've been so out of the loop for the last few months, but I'm glad I've come back in time to learn about this title. I'll be very interested to see how they handled discussions of self-harm as that's a realistic issue that today's teens are facing (and something I knew nothing of back in my younger years). It sounds like it's quite complex and will be an important mirror. Thanks for an excellent review, Max!

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    1. It's great to see you here as well, Shaye, and I'm glad I could introduce you to this book! The discussions of self-harm definitely don't get into all of the details, which I appreciate, since the emotional weight comes through regardless. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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