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On A Sunbeam: A Different Kind of Graphic Novel


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Amazon.com: On a Sunbeam: 9781250178138: Walden, Tillie: BooksDifferent medium? New storytelling lessons!

I've never been an enormous reader of graphic novels. Sure, I read Watchmen, Dark Knight, and V For Vendetta, but I was hardly a comic book nerd. Comics always seemed overwhelming to me, this behemoth industry with no clear inroads. Where does one start? Which ones are accessible to the uninitiated, like me? Better to stick with novels.

However, a few weekends ago a friend pressed this book into my hands and told me to just give it a try. And, because I can't resist a heartfelt recommendation, I did.

To my surprise, I very much enjoyed the beautifully illustrated, surprisingly heartfelt, and well-developed graphic novel, On A Sunbeam.

Blending elements of Studio Ghibli, Firefly, and boarding school tropes, this mystical and whimsical story takes place in a universe that is clearly not our own. Its main character, Mia, begins the novel joining a crew who travels around in a giant fish-like ship, restoring ancient floating ruins. Through dual timelines, the reader will come to realize that Mia's tragic past tangles with her current present, pulling her and her newfound "family" across their strange universe to find the love she lost years ago.

On A Sunbeam isn't your average science fiction novel, and not just because it's illustrated. It's very light on the science, almost more of a fantasy set in space, and depends more on characters than concepts to draw you into the narrative. Mia, the troublemaking misfit, and the crew she falls in with are warm, welcoming, well-rounded people. The experience of reading her story is slow, cozy, colorful, and safe, despite the high stakes and tense moments that culminate in the climax. The whole novel felt dreamlike and atmospheric and left me with a lovely, uplifted kind of energy that I appreciated, especially in this day and age.

On A Sunbeam wasn't perfect, of course. There were a few preachy moments that threw me out of the story, and the author's choice to make the entire cast women without ever acknowledging or explaining the lack of men was distracting. But overall, I think that the lesson an author can take from this story is the value of imagery and meticulous attention to the kind of experience you want to provide. In various interviews, Tillie Walden makes it very clear how inspired she is by Studio Ghibli films and how she wants to recreate that experience in her own work. She executes that intention beautifully here, careful to make every element in the story reflect that sort of whimsical, otherworldly charm. Everything from the art to the dialogue has that soft, friendly openness that pulls you into her world and makes you want to stay a while.

So think about what kind of experience you're promising with your novel. Do you want it to be soft and cozy? Hard and thrilling? Epic and raw? Tight and claustrophobic? Contemplate what the reader should expect when coming into your story and then do your best to hit that note on every page.

And maybe read a few graphic novels. Because no one does style quite like comic artists.

What do you think? Do you read graphic novels? Let us know what you think in the comments!

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