#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."
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Let's start off with the publisher's description of this book:
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.
(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!