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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

The Greatest Thing by Sarah Winfred Searle

Graphic novels have really come into their own and Sarah Winifred Searle’s new graphic novel The Greatest Thing stands on the shoulders of giants. Yet while there are a number of the tropes of the genre coming through in this publication, there is a strong feeling of freshness and originality coming through from the young writer / artist.

Searle’s narrative is character driven, it is the story of Winifred - perhaps a little autobiographical based on the name? - who is beginning grade 10 in Australia which loosely relates to our Year 11 in New Zealand. It is a time of life where there is monumental change - even for our students here in Aotearoa. Searle plays on this a lot throughout the narrative, placing Winifred in situations that are challenging to her ethos and her ideologies. In addition, Winifred’s two close friends have moved from being at school together, to attending another prestigious private school leaving Winifred a little lost in the woods.

The Greatest Thing then becomes the story of Winifred and her new best friends, April and Oscar. The flaws, the troubles, the triumphs and the mood swings are all laid bare on the page in beautifully artistic form. Of note here is the way that the school environment is captured so vividly. As one may understand quite easily, the high school chaos is one drawn from the sheer volume of students that coexist in this environment, and this is echoed in a large and rather rambunctious cast of characters that sometimes linger for a few pages, and sometimes occupy just a single frame in the graphic novel - much like students in a large school.

As you would expect, the issues and problems that face the cohort are the same as the ones that face high school students now: identity, sexuality, family issues, substance reliance and abuse, and some pretty heavy stuff around eating and mental health. However, the treatment of these issues is one that comes from a place of compassion and support, rather than vilification.

While it is not easy to clarify what is and what is not a LGBTQI+ book, there are definitely elements of this coming through in the story. Again, these ideas are respectfully engaged with and developed in a supportive way for the characters involved. One thing that does stand out, however, is the incorporation of the ‘zine’ culture. A once loved, now almost lost element of youth that was such a joy to reconnect with. Drawing on that activist movement of the 1980s, Searle reignites a passion for these booklets and mags throughout the story. Long live the zine!

Overall, this is a highly recommended dive into the world of young people in our contemporary environment. Searle has really captured so much of the psyche of the times in the pages of this graphic novel.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

Allen & Unwin


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