Will and Whit coverIt’s true—you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. This week’s featured book is a great illustration of that adage. Readers either looking for or trying to avoid a stereotypical teen romance will be equally disappointed by relying on the cover of Laura Lee Gulledge’s graphic novel Will & Whit. Below its title, the cover prominently features the silhouette of a young couple sitting on a log sharing a sunset—his arm around her shoulder, her head leaning against his. The title itself sounds like a couple’s name. (Romeo and Juliet anyone?) It’s just the title and the couple and the sunset, so what could it be but a teen romance?

Ah, readers, open the cover and you will find a treasure of whimsy and delight and fear and concern and caring and crushes and envy and heartbreak and discovery and all the bittersweet messiness of life with a smidge of young love on the side. This is a story about the pain and the beauty of life with a capital “L” told with equal effectiveness in words and pictures.

One-half of the title duo is Will—short for Wilhelmina—a 17-year-old with an old soul, lingering shadows, and an abundance of creativity. The other half—Whit, short for Whitney—is a hurricane just powerful enough to knock out the electricity and slow down Will’s hometown in Virginia for a while. The title characters cross paths late in the summer before Will’s senior year in high school.

Will lives with her aunt Ella in a house next door to the antiques shop Ella inherited from her parents. Ella runs the shop with help from Will who spends the rest of her time making lamps and hanging out with her equally creative friends. For the past year, Will has been afraid of the dark. Almost a year ago, Will’s parents died in a car wreck. Since then, she has been creating light—literally and figuratively—to keep away the shadows. As she gets closer to the terrible anniversary, Will tries harder and harder to avoid thinking about the accident. Distraction appears in the form of an “arts carnival” which allows Will and her friends to flex their creative muscles and to meet some new people. Along the way Will’s friends embark on their own journeys—a little sister comes into her own as she becomes a teen; two longtime friends recognize their attraction to each other; a smart, self-assured young woman loses sight of herself when she falls for a crush; a gifted cook ponders the future seemingly laid out for him. The tiny crack Will has created in the doorway of her grief is blown open by Hurricane Whitney when the storm causes the lights to go out. Only then can Will face her fear of the dark and truly make it through her tragedy.

Laura Lee Gulledge’s illustrations are in black and white, but her characters and settings are vibrant enough that it felt as if I was looking at Technicolor. Gulledge uses light and shadow in both her text and her drawings to great effect. She conveys the subtle, pre-dawn hours when Will chases away a nightmare by working on a lamp with the same attention to detail used in showing the gathering hurricane, a sunny summer afternoon spent rafting, and a performance space lit only by candles and flashlights. Gulledge’s characters appear lifelike, full of movement and emotion in just the right measure. I heard the splash of a raft turning over, felt the sun on my face, and smelled cookies baking as I read. The author’s dialogue may be limited in amount by the graphic novel format, but her concise, realistic word choice combined with her drawings made me come away feeling as if I had read a text-only novel. Graphic novels offer both the artist and the reader so many opportunities to engage with and to explore the story. Gulledge takes full advantage of the format’s possibilities. In particular, her treatment of Will’s “shadows” was amazing. As Will’s emotions change, so do the drawings of her shadows; there is an entire story just in those illustrations. Gulledge even uses the page borders to convey the blackout. In the end, she shows the real story behind the cover art. Will & Whit offers more riches each time it is read; this is a book to be savored—just like Life.

With some lightly mature language and gentle romance sprinkled amongst the very real grief depicted, this book is an accessible entry to graphic novels for most teen readers and for adults. Will & Whit is available at the Joplin Public Library.