Pilu of the Woods

Illustrated by Mai K. Nguyen

“We gotta be careful not to hurt the things around us, because nothing’s really gone forever… everything leaves a little mark”

Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen is a fantasy graphic novel about Willow, a young girl who is struggling to cope with the complex emotions that come with growing up. When experiencing difficulty managing and expressing her emotions, the child seeks refuge in nature, where she feels calmer. During one of her escapes into the woods, Willow encounters Pilu, the spirit of a tree, a childlike creature with anthropomorphic features. Despite their differences, Willow and Pilu share the struggles of growing up: Pilu feels lonely as the youngest of many siblings, and her invisibility within her family causes her sadness and anxiety. Willow offers to accompany Pilu home and the trip provides a chance for them to express their fears and to support each other even when faced with Willow’s physical manifestation of emotions—little monsters that, as the girls quickly learn, should be handled with respect, rather than defeated.

Pilu of the Woods offers insights into the interconnectedness of humans and the environment and, in contrast to books on similar topics, does it without showcasing the destroying or harming of nature, but by offering an indirect warning. For instance, Willow’s father, a botanist, instructs her to observe and respect the planet, emphasizing that “everything leaves a little mark” (65). The book indirectly provides reflections on the necessity of an ecological civilization that reconsiders the paradigms underlying the relationship between the different species of the planet, moving beyond an anthropocentric perspective. The natural environment is depicted in a simple yet impactful manner through vignettes and panels that provide detailed glimpses of the forest and its inhabitants, including trees, plants, rocks, rivers, animals, and spirits. Onomatopoeias are used to give voice to the natural sounds of the environment, such as the river, rain, and wind. The narrative is realistic but includes some slight fantastic elements, such as the presence of Pilu. However, these elements do not affect the realism of the story, but rather offer an animistic approach to nature, which is portrayed as endowed with spirits. The human characters are portrayed in a non-hierarchical and environmentally friendly relationship with the planet. Pilu, with her long green hair and bare feet, symbolizes an even more intimate contact with nature, a connection between the human and wild world. Moreover, through the character of Pilu the book emphasizes that even when we are immersed in nature and inhabit it, we may not be sufficiently and empathetically aware of it. Pilu notes that Willow knows the environment much better than she does because the spirit has been deprived of the opportunity to explore it by her family.

©2024 ClimateLit (Dalila Forni)

Publisher: Oni Press, 2019

Pages: 160

Lexile Score: GN530L

ISBN: 978-1620105634

Audience: Ages 8-13

Format: Comics and Graphic Novels

Topics: Animism, Anthropocentrism, Ecocentrism, Ecofiction, Ecological Civilization, Individual Action, Interconnectedness, Nature, Nature's Voice, Plants, Resilience, Wilderness