Mai K. Nguyen’s Emotional Journey Through Pilu of the Woods

Two young girls play with flowers

When Oni Press opened their submissions back in 2015, hoping to find fresh, diverse stories from up and coming creators to add to their lineup and broaden their network, Mai K. Nguyen’s Pilu of the Woods was a stand out for good reason. Her all-ages story was selected by editor Robin Herrera, who had this to say about Nguyen’s submission:

“The first thing that caught my eye was Mai’s artwork. She sent in page samples from a scene from the beginning of the book, where Willow dreads going home after getting in a fight at school because she knows she’ll be in trouble. As someone who got in trouble a lot as a kid, usually due to my own anger, I really resonated with that. Mai’s story had just the right amount of complexity and simplicity. On its surface, the plot is straightforward: A girl, Willow, runs away from home, finds a tree spirit in the woods, and helps to get her back to her own home. However, Mai layered in one heck of an internal plot and made the story really stand out. It’s not just about friendship, it’s about emotions. What happens to our emotions when we try to tamp them down, keep them quiet? I thought the message was especially resonant for kids today, who are dealing with a lot. This was a book I wish I’d had when I was younger, and now I hope it finds its way into the hands of readers who need it today.”

Pilu of the Woods tells the story of a young girl named Willow who struggles with her emotions, dealing with loss, bullying, and the other trials that come with being a kid. The woods near her house mean a lot to Willow. They are the place that she finds the most comfort, thanks to long explorations there with her mom, and it’s where she runs to when the going gets tough. In her attempts to escape the turbulent emotions that plague her and cause her to be mean and do bad things, she runs away, and finds herself in the company of a lost tree spirit named Pilu, who has run away from her home, too. Realizing the error of her own ways, Willow is determined to make up for her mistakes by taking Pilu home, but is frustrated by Pilu’s indecision. Willow’s frustration bubbles up in monstrous ways, forcing her to finally confront the feelings she’s tried so hard to tamp down.

The story stemmed from a scene that played out in Nguyen’s mind back in 2012. “Someone runs away into a quiet forest (sunbeams streaming through the trees), to find a lost girl blending perfectly into the foliage,” she explains on her website. “Of course, this girl would have leaves for hair, and through those leaves, you would see her wide, tearful eyes.” Over the next few years, the story of Pilu and Willow slowly evolved through doodles and text, starting off with characters who looked like this:

Sketches of a short-haired young girl named Willow and her friend, a young girl with leaves in her hair.

And ending up where we are today, thanks in large part to encouragement from her sister, Ila. Outside of her work as an interdisciplinary designer, Nguyen’s publishing experience was limited to self-publishing her cozy, dreamy stories. This lack of experience made her hesitant to pitch her story to Oni Press because she didn’t feel qualified to work with a publisher. Her self-publishing writing process typically involved figuring out the story details as she went along. “The whole process of outlining, scripting, etc., was very intimidating and new to me,” Nguyen explains in an interview with WWAC. But with Ila’s insistent nudging, Nguyen worked up the courage to take on this new adventure. “She basically just bugged me about it until I gave in. It helps that she’s also a comic writer and artist herself, so she gave me a lot of feedback before I submitted my pitch.”

The cover of Pilu of the Woods, featuring a young, dark-haired girl named Willow

In the book, Nguyen spends a good amount of time letting Willow teach Pilu and the reader about botany. Though she doesn’t consider herself an expert beyond the Botany 101 class she took in college, she says that the fun facts that are featured in the book are things that she learned herself in the class. Plus, she loves drawing plants. “When you really love some activity or topic, it can keep you afloat even during the most difficult times in your life. That’s what drawing and making comics is to me. Willow’s love of learning and being immersed in nature is what grounds her and connects her to the people she loves.”

Being able to work with an editor opened up unexpected storytelling possibilities for Nguyen. Pilu of the Woods contains more than just a story. It’s presents an opportunity for readers to interact with Pilu and Willow’s world, as well as our own through additional pages for doodles and botanical research. “This was my brilliant editor Robin Herrera’s idea,” says excitedly. “She wrote all of the copy for it too, and I provided the spot illustrations. I’m an absolute novice when it comes to publishing; and working with Robin has been an eye-opening experience. She’s got such talent for creating a really engaging experience for the reader. From teaching me some basic rules about sequential art (… that I was oblivious of until she came along!), to just adding these really charming extras in the back of the book, are all reflections of Robin’s expertise in understanding the audience and how to craft a really enjoyable book.”

Pilu of the Woods also includes a very personal piece of backmatter, which comes in the form of a recipe for “Mom’s Mushroom Rice.” The recipe has significance to Willow, and to Nguyen herself, and the added touch of personal warmth makes the book even more endearing. “The mushroom rice is Willow’s memory of her mother that’s grounded in her day-to-day, and it still exists in some form in the present day. It contrasts against her memory of the magnolia grove, which has become this blown-up, pristine treasure that she puts on a pedestal. But the mushroom rice is this humble, cozy, everyday memory of Mom that even Linnea tries to keep alive for her little sister.”

Going into detail on the origins of the recipe, Nguyen explains that it is derived from her mother’s kinoko gohan, with some tweaks to make the recipe more accessible to a wider audience,”since the first step was to soak some dried sea kelp to make a broth!” Like Willow, Nguyen is half-Japanese. Weaving such details into the background of the book was a very necessary part of the storytelling. “As someone who grew up with home-cooked dinners being the center of family bonding, this personal touch was really important to me.”

Pilu and Willow’s character designs have evolved a lot since Nguyen’s initial doodles, and the final style that she settled on differs from her other works, while still sharing distinctive elements. The changes are a reflection of finding the right style to suit her comic-making process, as well as the organic changes as she develops as an illustrator. “For example,” Nguyen notes, “The girls’ big eyes make drawing a variety of expressions a lot easier than just simple dot eyes. I use an ink and brush to draw my comics, and this medium can be quite forgiving and just as dynamic as a character’s facial expression.”

“For me, comics is such a labor-intensive process that it’s been all about finding the right balance of efficiency and storytelling—how many shortcuts can I take while still portraying the physical and emotional journey? I think in the future, as I take on bigger stories, I want to continue exploring a style that can tell as much as possible without hindering me from actually completing that story.”

That emotional journey is something Nguyen has always enjoyed exploring in her creations. “A lot of my stories start with a core visual image paired with some emotional vignette, and I sort of weave the details around it until it feels like an actual story. So naturally they tend to lean a bit more heavily on a character’s inner conflict while the physical or fantastical world is a stage for that.” In the case of Willow, whose inner demons spend a lot of time fighting to get out, Nguyen admits that she does share some personality qualities with her protagonists. “Like Willow, I grew up being pretty lousy at managing my emotions, and like Pilu, I can be quite stubborn and insecure. I was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to discovering self-acceptance and compassion, so I find myself trying to incorporate those themes in my stories pretty often. It’s almost like a love letter to my younger self … it’s like saying, ‘Mai! These are the things I discovered as an adult that I want you to know as a ten-year-old!'”

The reality of her work being released in this new way hasn’t quite hit home for Nguyen just yet. “It’s just been such a long journey with these ebbs and flows in its process that I sometimes forget this isn’t just another hypothetical situation brewing in my brain as usual.” Despite the pride she felt after receiving printed copies of the book back in January, she says, “I also still can’t wrap my head around the fact that there exists multiple copies beyond the one I’m holding!”

Now that Pilu of the Woods has been released to the world, Nguyen promises that there is much more to come. “I’m hoping to pick up some old projects I’ve put on hiatus many years ago! This book has been such a huge learning process for me about both comics and publishing. I’ve always had a bad habit of abandoning projects, but being able to finish my first graphic novel has given me a bit more confidence in what I’m capable of. I’m really looking forward to polishing my writing skills and telling bigger, more exciting stories.”

So are we!

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.