Winifred is alone and lost. It is the first day of her sophomore year of high school, and her two best friends (well, only friends) transferred to a private school. Hidden under baggy clothes and behind her shyness, Winifred starts the year alone and friendless.
Sarah Winifred Searle wrote and illustrated The Greatest Thing, a graphic novel based on her own high school experiences that explores mental health and the importance of relationships.
Searle uses beautiful and lyrical text through Winifred’s inner dialogue as she explores her depression, eating disorder, and sexuality. A pattern of wavy lines flows like water over Winifred when she is at her lowest and most lonely throughout the book, but through genuine friendships and the help of a mental health professional, Winifred finds her way back to the surface.
Second to Winifred’s own self-exploration, the relationships between Winifred, Oscar, and April is central to the story. Each one is struggling to find themselves and their place. Oscar is bi and love-sick over a recent ex, and despite his intelligence, he struggles in school when teachers often dismiss what he has to offer. April has parents who are often absent but also controlling. Together they help Winifred accept her body and herself. She still feels alone and struggles with her depression, but the encouragement from her friends gives Winifred the courage to find the support she needs.
The three decide to collaborate on a set of zines. Oscar writes the story through poetry and Winifred illustrates. April then publishes the zine with the help of a photocopier. The zines explore the book’s themes of depression and isolation through the story of a cursed prince who is locked in a tall tower with no means of escape.
The zines look exactly as they are supposed to, something done with heart by talented high school students. Searle also includes a 3-page spread that describes, step by step, April’s process for making a zine.
Winifred is fat and ashamed of her body. She often avoids eating in front of other people, and at one point has a panic attack because someone gifts her sweets and is paralyzed in how to respond. She doesn’t want to be the fat girl excited about sweets. She regularly eats dairy despite being lactose intolerant and gets horribly sick each time: “A dark feeling inside me told me that if I was going to act gross and fat, might as well eat something that would punish me later.” It is not until later in the book that she recognizes these patterns as part of an eating disorder.
Searle has a simplistic illustration style with distinct but soft lines and colors. She uses purple for many of the outlines and shadows, a choice that mirrors her writing. Few things are spoken directly, or drawn with harsh contrast, but instead handled with a light touch. I think the purple lines might also help remind us that things are not as bleak as they feel to Winifred.
This book includes depictions of eating disorders, self-harm, depression, and suicidal ideation. While this book is a story of fiction, Winifred’s pain and experiences are based on Searle’s own high school experience. I am not qualified to speak specifically to the ways these issues are handled, but from my point of view, it felt authentic.
Many of our students and teens struggle with depression, their identity, feelings of isolation, eating disorders, and much more. They might find comfort in Winifred’s story. These stories are important to include in our collections, but it is also important that these stories are told authentically and with hope. I recommend this for high school and teen graphic novel collections.
The Greatest Thing
By Sarah Winifred Searle
First Second, 2022
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Representation: Lesbian, Eating Disorder