At first glance, This Was Our Pact looks like it treads the same ground as The Goonies and Stand By Me, telling a coming-of-age adventure about a gaggle of kids testing the bounds of their parents’ control. But only at first. Writer and artist Ryan Andrews imbues this kind of story with a sense of wonder and a plot that moves beyond the average coming-of-age tale, bringing his This Was Our Pact into the territory of Studio Ghibli films like Spirited Away and When Marnie Was There.
The book opens on a celebration where the entire town gathers to drop paper lanterns into the river, lighting up the night. It’s a beloved tradition for locals, one that’s woven into the legends of the area. Five friends have made a pact that this year they will follow the lanterns on their bikes to find out where they end up, and in these early pages This Was Our Pact establishes itself as a nearly universal experience: children pushing past the limits of what they’re supposed to do, daring each other to go farther from home in order to gain some vague knowledge they don’t really need.
Andrews, who created, wrote, and illustrated the book, deviates from the tropes and familiar trails. Four of the boys peel off and head home, despite their promises not to, and Ben is left with hanger-on Nathaniel, who appears to think their friendship is more deeply rooted than Ben wants it to be. Ben proves to be the worst sort of teenager, surly once his friends have left him and sullen at the first sign of a roadblock. Undaunted, Nathaniel’s enthusiasm and positivity carry the book into the the adventure of a lifetime for them both. The plot unwinds slowly before crossing back on itself, featuring a jovial talking bear, a woman who is probably a witch and definitely doesn’t give out favors for free, and a group of mysterious people called the Enlightened Ones.
The imaginative and immersive world Andrews creates elevates This Was Our Pact beyond standard middle grade reading. Ben needs to learn a lesson about real friendship and self-reliance, not to mention an attitude adjustment. And the visual appeal of this book can’t be overstated. Andrews did most of the initial illustrating by hand in pencils, with a very limited color palette of blue shades and a rare amber-orange highlight. It gives the book a moody, textured feel, like a real late-night adventure in dim lighting. The landscapes are vast and stunning as the boys follow the lanterns, and a journey into a cave system gives Andrews a chance to feature both tight spaces and a seemingly endless universe of a nearly pitch-black space. His character designs are flexible and cartoony enough to be immediately attractive, but he also understands the anatomy and physics required in order to bend those laws just the right amount. Above all, this book is fun to read, even as an adult, beautifully drawn and compellingly written. It’s perfect for fans of shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe.