this was our pact

One of the lovely side benefits of being a Cybils Literary Award judge last autumn was that I tuned into the world of graphic novels in a big way. I got on the email lists of several publishers I wasn’t even aware of before, I started paying attention to upcoming lists, and I’ve upped my graphic novel reading ever since. It’s lovely, because a novel-length graphic novel is easy for me to digest in one sitting – and super useful for recommending books in my future classroom (did I mention over here that I’m changing careers to be a high school English teacher this fall??). That said, I’ve been a fan of Macmillan’s First Second graphic novel imprint for years, and I always have a couple of books each season on my to-read list. Ryan Andrews’ This Was Our Pact made my wishlist right out of the gate for its gorgeous artwork and magical premise.

this was our pact by ryan andrews book cover
It's the night of the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, when the town gathers to float paper lanterns down the river. Legend has it that after drifting out of sight, they'll soar off to the Milky Way and turn into brilliant stars, but could that actually be true? This year, Ben and his classmates are determined to find out where those lanterns really go, and to ensure success in their mission, they've made a pact with two simple rules: No one turns for home. No one looks back.

The plan is to follow the river on their bikes for as long as it takes to learn the truth, but it isn't long before the pact is broken by all except for Ben and (much to Ben's disappointment) Nathaniel, the one kid who just doesn't seem to fit in.

Together, Nathaniel and Ben will travel farther than anyone has ever gone, down a winding road full of magic, wonder, and unexpected friendship*.

*And a talking bear.

Ben and his crew of friends decide to make a pact before their town’s Autumn Equinox festival – they will finally follow the lanterns all the way down the river to find out where they end up. No one has seen or followed the lanterns’ path for generations – so they assume the old songs are myth or legend. But before they get too far down the road, Ben’s friends begin to peel off, one by one, breaking the pact. Soon the only companion left is Nathaniel, who wasn’t even part of the original pact, and who Ben has been avoiding because everyone else thinks he’s a nerd. What will Ben and Nathaniel find on their quest? Well, the first thing is a talking fisherbear. Yeah, and it only gets weirder and more whimsical from there!

This Was Our Pact seems to fit a contemporary mold at the start – after all, who didn’t imagine that they’d be the first to uncover some mystery when they were an intrepid kid explorer/investigator/spy?? But as the boys race along on their bikes and the last few stop and decide to turn back (and only Ben and Nathaniel are left), fantastical elements begin to intrude. But the question is – are they real, or is it a metaphor or a manifestation of their fears? Well, when they meet a talking, walking bear… it seems as though the story is taking a turn into fantasy territory. Andrews has written (and illustrated) an adventure story that reminds me of nothing so much as a Miyazaki film – with twists and turns (literally, even!), magical and/or uncanny creatures, unlikely problem-solving, and learning how to act like a true friend.

This is a book about the stars, and astronomy, and the autumn sky, and magic… and pushing beyond your fears and your worst instincts to do something special. And it is full of epic art to match that grandiose purpose. Andrews’ art of pencils on watercolor pressed paper is mostly done in shades of blue, but it varies as the boys encounter new situations and light sources. It’s gorgeously and lovingly detailed, and focuses a lot on the scenery, unique angles/viewpoints/perspectives of the downriver journey, and the fantastical elements that they cross in their paths. There’s a nice mix of panel sizes, though Andrews definitely prefers several small panels per page (giving you an edited clips feeling, like a film or animation) interspersed with larger, full page spreads every now and again for scope and/or wonder’s sake. I felt like I was INSIDE the book in several spots, as the art is just that good at pulling you into the story.

However, that brings me to my one gripe with the book, as it pulled me out of the story in spots: there weren’t any female main characters, aside from [begin spoiler] one old, somewhat-evil witch-type [end spoiler], which is obviously a stereotype. Andrews actually does a decent job with diversity otherwise, but this is definitely a boys-only adventure and there’s no deviation, even with mentor figures and all of the fantastical encounters between the covers. Maybe it won’t be noticeable to others, but I have my eyes peeled these days, and combined with the traditional gender roles/stereotypes throughout (through tiny mentions/inferences, mind you!), it reads as very traditional, even with the fantastical story. And that’s a bit disappointing.

Still, if you remain unbothered by that nit, and are interested in a really beautiful graphic novel that feels like it could fit inside the Miyazaki canon, then I do recommend This Was Our Pact. I admire its art and whimsy, and I’ll be thinking about Ben and Nathaniel and their journey and the super cool things they came across in their quest for a long time. This story is made of weird dreams and superior visual art, and it definitely made my imagination soar.

Recommended for: fans of Miyazaki animation, readers ages 8+ who like graphic novels and fantastical (magical!) adventures, and anyone interested in stories that tie in to the Autumn Equinox or astronomy.

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