Review of the Day: This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews
- This Was Our Pact
- By Ryan Andrews
- First Second (an imprint of Roaring Brook – Macmillan)
- ISBN: 9781626720534
- Ages 9-12
- On shelves now
Do kids quest anymore? I mean in books, of course. Kids in real life don’t have a great track record on real world quests, after all. From a literary standpoint, a children’s book seems like a natural place to put a quest. Whether it’s Bilbo Baggins setting off for a dragon’s lair in The Hobbit or the two nameless heroes finding all the colored crayons in the picture book Quest by Aaron Becker, there’s nothing like a good quest to keep your spirits up, eh? Trouble is, a quest has a built in end point. Oh, you can extend it a bit, if you like. Your hero can continue on to other adventures (or even just try to make it back from where they’ve been) but at the heart of it, a quest essentially stops when the hero reaches their destination. And yes, I’ve heard the phrase “the journey is the destination” but insofar as I can tell, that only works if the quest changes en route. Take the case of This Was Our Pact. I mean, it’s right there in the title. Our hero makes a pact, the pact is the quest, and then along the way the destination changes to the journey itself. And what makes it all work is that the book isn’t bogged down with family back stories or inner motivations or even, really, logistics. What you see is what you see. What you seek is what you seek . . . until it isn’t. And as dreamlike, mesmerizing stories full of vistas and giants and magic go, there are few self-contained comics to compete with what Ryan Andrews has accomplished here. Journey. Quest. But don’t bother with the return.
Every year it’s the same. The people of Ben’s town will take their paper lanterns to the river during the Autumn Equinox Festival and drop them in. And every year Ben and his friends want to know where they’ll go. This year, they make a pact to follow the lanterns on their bikes. Follow them as far as they go, never stopping, no matter what. Only, one by one his friends drop out, till he’s the only one riding. Him and that weird kid from school Nathaniel. But a strange companion is better than none at all, and soon enough Ben realizes not just how much he needs Nathaniel’s help but also his friendship. Full of talking bears, flying fish, huge birds, dogs that can walk on water, and countless marvels, creator Ryan Andrews creates a world that is at once familiar and wholly original, where travel and escape are synonymous.
According to his biography, Ryan Andrews is “currently living in the Japanese countryside.” As such, it’s inevitable that he’d be compared with Miyazaki. Look through the online reviews of this book and I guarantee the name “Studio Ghibli” will pop up more than once. All well and good, but I think it’s prudent to remember that not all Miyazaki films are exactly the same. For example the innocence of Kiki’s Delivery Service is heads and tails different from Princess Mononoke with its occasional severed limbs. So where does This Was Our Pact fall on the sliding Ghibli scale? Gotta go with the classics on this one. Though it lacks its mild horror elements, tonally I think Spirited Away is the soul mate to This Was Our Pact. What Andrews does so well is that he makes room in his narrative for adventure, interpersonal relationships (and discussions of those relationships), and wonder. It’s the wonder part that’s the hardest, as far as I can ascertain. Miyazaki has music on his side, after all. Andrews has only ink and words on a page. Yet on multiple occasions he is able to conjure up points in the storytelling that stop the narrative cold and ask only that you feel a sense of awe. The attempt is gutsy. The follow through, gold.
I used to run a book club for 9-12 year olds and overwhelmingly the kids (and remember, this was close to a decade ago) wanted fantasy novels. Not just any fantasy novels, though. “Nothing with a number on a spine,” they said. Which is to say, they wanted standalone fantasies. Now, if you know anything about the publishing industry, fantasies published these days follow the Harry Potter model pretty closely. Why make money off of a single book when you can make gobs of money off of lots of books? And series are just easier to write anyway. You don’t have to tie up all the loose ends. You can end a book on a mysterious or creepy note and not feel bad about it. Standalones, in contrast, are wickedly hard to pull off if you want them to actually be any good. That’s probably why I respect books like This Was Our Pact as much as I do. Oh sure, it’s possible that Andrews has a sequel somewhere up his sleeve. The ending to this book certainly leaves itself open to further adventures, after all. But I take heart when I look at its spine and I don’t see that telltale number. No loose ends. A satisfying finish. I’d say that’s the hallmark of the standalone genre and I like it!
I want to double back and think a little bit more about something I mentioned about quests and how they can change in the course of a story. At the beginning of this book the quest is crystal clear. Ben makes a promise and then is the only one to follow through, though he’s joined by Nathaniel. As the story progresses, this pact bears the bulk of the narrative drive. Without that goal in the distance, the boys could just give up and go home. Then a bear joins them and its quest merges with their own. It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment when the boys realize that the journey is what they’ve actually been pursuing all along. Is it when the bear has left them? Is it earlier in the process when they’re floating in the sea under the stars? The last sentences in the book are “Never turning for home. Never looking back.” So often, a children’s book ends when the hero returns home, for good or for ill. Dorothy and Alice and Wendy. Even Harry Potter (though “home” is not a happy place for him). The idea of just going, with a never ending supply of Rice Krispie treats to support you along the way, there’s something really engaging about that. A freedom to it that a lot of children’s books don’t even attempt. And to a generation of kids hounded by helicopter parents, it may just be a clarion call.
Oh. And he can draw.
Hm? You would like me to elaborate on that a little? Sure. He can draw real good. Purdy like. His style, for the record, isn’t manga. I’m no expert but I know my way around a Ranma 1 ½ so I tried to see if there was any kind of influence at work here. That’s a big old nope. The man may live in Japan but he was born in California and it’s tricky tracking down his influences. He harbors a lot of love for Eleanor Davis (so consider pairing this book with her Secret Science Alliance if you feel a yen). But for the most part the man seems to exist in his own little world. Lots of ink washes and delicate pen-lined details. When I place the book down and don’t look at it, I remember his style as being somewhat sketchy and free flowing. Then I pick it up again and marvel at the intricacy of his line. Look at that page where a large black bird named Margaret draws a map for our heroes. A two-page spread opens, displaying hills, valleys, craters, and what is probably the most accurate rendering of our heroes’ journey you could hope for. I can already picture a certain kind of kid poring over this map, lining up each twist in the river or bridge or canyon with what happens in the story. The colors are digital, which makes sense when you think about it. The hues don’t have the gut punch beauty you’ll find in fellow 2019 graphic novel Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis, but they get the job done and don’t detract. All told, it’s a visual feast. As good a match for the writing as any you could hope for.
If kids yearn for quests of their own, little wonder. We, the parents, watch them like hawks, desperate to avert even the slightest sign of danger or pain. They can’t walk around the block. They can’t dash off on an adventure. But they still have their bicycles. They still have the ability to whiz down the streets, albeit for short, safe distances. For them, a book like This Was Our Pact might have a special significance it wouldn’t have had even twenty or thirty years ago. Here you have kids making the decision not just to quest but also to keep on going. They’re not going home to family and safety. Family will be there. Safety is inconsequential. There’s more out there to see and to do. Ben and Nathaniel are going to circumnavigate the globe. Don’t be surprised then if you detect a note of longing in the eyes of the kids that read this book. Thick with adventure, chock full of awe and beauty, this is what they mean when they say comics are an art unto themselves. The finest of the fine. Questing done right.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2019, Reviews, Reviews 2019
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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