Young adult graphic novel, written and illustrated by Ryan Andrews and published by First Second Books in 2019.
When I picked this comic up, I didn’t have a lot of expectations for it one way or the other -- I'd never even heard of it before, and the flavor text on the back cover was pretty vague. This definitely ended up working in the book's favor.
It starts pretty simply. It's the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, and the whole town always sets paper lanterns loose to float down the river. No one's ever tried to see where all those lanterns end up -- floating into the sea, broken up on rocks, soaring into the sky to become stars?
But this year, a group of young friends are going to take off on their bikes and follow the lanterns all the way to their final destination. And they make a solemn pact: No one turns for home, and no one looks back.
But pacts by a bunch of junior high kids aren't the most reliable things. And it's not long before there are only two kids left: Ben and Nathaniel -- ugh, Nathaniel, the nerd no one wants to be around. Does Ben really want to go through with this? Nathaniel's nerd unpopularity might rub off on him. But a pact is a pact, and so on they ride.
So far, so predictable for a coming-of-age story? But it's not really a coming-of-age story. Because there are things in the woods. There's a huge friendly bear in a warm coat and scarf who's going to catch fish for his family. There's an impossibly immense cliff in the middle of nowhere. There's an old woman (with a giant dog and giant crows) who sells potions. There's a giant cellar filled with curiosities and a cave filled with stars. And there's more than anyone could possibly believe...
And I worry I've already spoiled too much of this story, but I want to make a point: this is not a normal, humdrum story about kids riding their bikes at night. This is wonderfully imaginative and magical.
I kept seeing parallels to other stories, too, while I was reading. If you've played computer games like "Night in the Woods" and "Kentucky Route Zero," this has a lot of the same feel, like exploring the liminal spaces in the middle of a forest at night. Almost mundane tales, until something inexplicable shows up -- and even then, it's treated as no big deal. Tempered awe, wonder out of the corner of your eye. There are times the story almost approaches some of the wilder of the Studio Ghibli films.
Even then, the weirdness wouldn't work without Ryan Andrews' gorgeous, simple, evocative artwork, and the skill that goes into making Ben and Nathaniel just great characters.
Do you need some wonder and magic in your life? Pick this one up for a nighttime ride in the woods you'll never forget.