Review of the Day: Real Friends by Shannon Hale, ill. LeUyen Pham
The autobiography assignment. I don’t pretend to know precisely why teachers give it out or what they hope child readers will get out of it. About ten years ago, when I was a children’s librarian in New York City, it was to be feared. A small child would walk into my room, belly up to the reader’s advisory desk, and ask for an autobiography. You mean a biography? No (of course not, silly librarian). An AUTObiography, see? And there, clear as crystal, was the printed assignment. So like any good librarian I’d take the child to the biography/autobiography section and we’d start to hunt and peck. As it happens, middle grade authors of books for kids really like writing autobiographies. So depending on the age of the child I’d load them down with Knots in My Yo-Yo String by Jerry Spinelli or Marshfield Dreams by Ralph Fletcher or maybe one of the Beverly Cleary ones like A Girl From Yamhill. Not like there was a lot to pick and choose from. Then, like magic, something changed overnight. Authors started writing more autobiographies and, glory be, they were done in a graphic novel format!!! Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier, Sunny Side Up by Jenni Holm, El Deafo by Cece Ball, and The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley. Sure, there aren’t a ton of these books out there, but they sure pep up the autobiography assignment, I can assure you of that. Now Shannon Hale joins the illustrious crew with a book that zeroes in a single topic: friendship. The good. The bad. The seriously-why-is-this-so-freaking-DIFFICULT!?
When you’re really little, making friends is easy. You sit next to someone in Kindergarten and suddenly they’re your best friend for all time. For Shannon, Adrienne was that friend. Yet when third grade rolled around, things started to change. Suddenly Shannon, Adrienne, a popular girl named Jen, and a whole bunch of other girls are in The Group. That includes Jenny, Jen’s best friend and a dyed-in-the-wool bully to Shannon. Figuring out if she’s out or in can be exhausting for Shannon, and that’s before you even consider her violently unpredictable older sister Wendy or her own OCD. But that’s the thing about true friends sometimes. They sure as heck don’t come easy.
In her Author’s Note at the end Shannon says that “Real Friends it he story I’ve been telling myself about my elementary school years,” yet also acknowledges that “memories aren’t 100 percent accurate.” She mentions that the idea of writing a memoir was a relatively recent one considering the fact that from a drama perspective she had a pretty stable home life. That, naturally, is the allure. With Real Friends Hale zeroes in on a single aspect of childhood: friendship. It’s something a lot of kids have to contend with. In her own Author’s Note, artist LeUyen Pham says her heart, “is still convinced that somehow you [Shannon] crawled inside my memories and handpicked all these events and feelings and insecurities from my childhood and called them your own.” I think that’s the true allure of the title. This is a mirror for a lot of kids who are struggling with friendships. They’re going to see what LeUyen saw and feel it too. There was a movement not too long ago where people on YouTube let teens know that “it gets better”. Shannon’s message is the same. As she puts it, “If you haven’t found your ‘group’ yet, hang in there. Your world will keep growing larger and wider. You deserve to have real friends, the kind who treat you well and get how amazing you are.”
But how do you do it? How do you take faulty memories and etched-in-stone feelings from the past and turn them into a book? On a recent episode of the podcast RadioLab, a lot of discussion was made of the fact that to even access memories, a person needs a lot of imagination. The same could be said of conjuring up memories for a graphic novel. Hindsight may be 20/20 but memory is 3/10. Sometimes it’s necessary to plug the details up with creativity. In a way, Shannon probably had a lot of this book mapped out in her head already. Dwell on something enough and you turn it into a story, complete with dramatic shifts in tension and morality. I particularly appreciated the moments when Shannon, the character, was in the wrong. This book doesn’t usually break down into “good” and “bad” people, but rather into the casual indifferent cruelties of childhood. The off-handed comment you don’t even remember saying that burned a small hole into your friend’s soul. The fact that Shannon’s just as capable of this as anyone gives the book a bit of extra weight.
There’s one other aspect of the book that sets it apart from the pack. Heck, sets it apart from pretty much every children’s graphic novel from a trade publisher I’ve ever seen: religion. Shannon grew up in a Mormon household and so religion is just a regular event in her life. We see prayer, Sunday scriptures, and the occasional Jesus cameo when Shannon is feeling particularly down in the dumps. The only other middle grade graphic novel (comics for 9-12 year olds) I’ve ever seen from a large publisher that incorporates worship as seamlessly would be the books in the Hereville series by Barry Deutsch, and that was Hasidic. Someone once commented that the only sitcom you see on your television these days where a family regularly goes to church is The Simpsons. In children’s books that topic is almost entirely regulated to small religious presses. So I appreciate that Real Friends doesn’t shy away from something that, for a lot of people, is a regular part of life.
And now, a word in praise of LeUyen Pham. Pham and Hale are hardly strangers to one another. For years now they’ve collaborated together on the delightful Zorro-esque Princess in Black series. That said, I haven’t seen Ms. Pham do a graphic novel since she worked on the far older Prince of Persia back in 2008. They take a bit of time to do, after all. What’s more, all the autobiographical graphic novels I mentioned at the beginning of this review were written and illustrated by the same person (always excepting Sunny Side Up which is a brother/sister team). If you bring in an artist to basically illustrate your life, you want someone you can trust. Good thing Ms. Pham is a stickler with accuracy. When she illustrated the nonfiction biography about Paul Erdos The Boy Who Loved Math she went so far as to clarify in her Illustrator’s Note at the end that she had to imagine the physical appearance of the boy’s nanny. Real Friends isn’t nonfiction in the strict sense of the word. Characters are combined, timelines are moved up, and names are definitely changed. Still, just looking at the setting you really feel you’re in the 1980s. Pham’s attention to detail is given full reign, whether you’re checking out the computers, the clothes (oh the clothes, the clothes, the clothes) or even the furniture. Not that it’s all coke bottle glasses and Thompson Twins. There’s enough pretend and imagination in these storylines to allow Pham to really stretch her muscles and engage in spy sequences, fantastical journeys, and even the occasional Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader.
In many ways the book Real Friends feels the closest to in terms of content and tone is El Deafo by Cece Bell. Both books are quests for true friendship. Both take place in the past (though Bell’s is probably set eight or so years before Hale’s). And both are autobiographical memoirs that look at bad friendships, hurt feelings, and the ultimate reward that all kids can relate to: a good friend. A fun strong book to show kids that even when you haven’t got a real friend in the world, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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Cute little book trailer for this one too:
And, of course, the original cover. I’m glad they got rid of that subtitle.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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