Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated buy LeUyen Pham is a graphic novel memoir that left me with a powerful, "You were not alone," feeling that comforted me, and, I have no doubt, will comfort many readers, young and old. And Real Friends will have many, many readers. In a superb interview with Hale and Pham that ran in the L.A. Times in September of 2016, Hale talked about her impetus for writing Real Friends. Between book contracts, Hale was thinking about what she wanted to create next, and she found herself thinking about elementary school, particularly her experiences with friends in elementary school. She also thought about her daughter, who,
didn't consider herself a 'reader' until she discovered graphic novel memoirs like Smile by Raina Telgemeier and El Deafo by Cece Bell. I saw that power in that kind of book, and I thought maybe there were readers who might feel less alone if they could read and see how alone I had felt at there age.
Hale, bravely, decided to share her struggles with making, keeping and getting along with friends in elementary school in a graphic novel memoir. In Pham, she found the perfect partner. Of Real Friends, Pham said,
Shannon and I are some sort of kindred spirits. When I first read the story, I kept thinking that she was actually writing about me, because her story is so similar to experiences I went through as a kid.
Why do I use the word "brave," when talking about the story Hale and Pham tell in Real Friends? Because, while the shelves are rife with stories of girls, friends and struggles with friends, none that I have read have the immediacy and impact, and power to give comfort, that Real Friends has, largely because of the fact that readers know this is a "true" story. Hale is a gifted writer and easily could have made Real Friends a work of fiction but, by choosing to write a memoir, and a graphic novel memoir, she assured that her story would reach so many more readers and have a greater meaning for them.
And, it was brave of Hale to write a memoir because this whole friend stuff can bring up some really icky feelings for girls/women. Of the writing process, Hale noted that,
This was the toughest book emotionally I've ever written. At times I had to really fight not to get drawn back into that hole of anxiety and loneliness I felt as a kid. At other times, I let myself fall into it so I could really remember how it felt in order to communicate that in the graphic novel script.
Pham also shared that,
What was very difficult was having to tap into those old feelings and manifesting them onto paper without going through them again. There are scenes in the book that are as real to me know as when they happened to me as a kid, and reliving it could really take its toll.
I can remember back to first grade, some forty-plus years ago, vividly the moment I first felt betrayal and jealousy in a friendship. From then on, there were challenges every year, with the biggest coming in fourth grade then again in sixth and seventh grades. It never got much easier for me, and I wonder how much my struggles and my feelings that I was the only kid in school who was having friend troubles, were actually shared by so many others? Real Friends is a book that young readers will turn to over and over, because it doesn't always get easier, and they will find comfort and maybe, hopefully, even some direction. In fact, Hale's dedication in Real Friends reads,
For you when you're feeling lonely and worried so you'll remember that you're not alone
Hale divides Real Friends into chapters, naming them after the friends, frenemies and family in her life, starting in kindergarten and ending just before sixth grade. In 1979 in Salt Lake City, Shannon starts kindergarten where she meets Adrienne. The middle child of five, Shannon felt left out at home, but that all changes when Adrienne arrives on the scene. Then Adrienne is gone and Shannon feels alone again. But, in third grade, she returns and she has a new friend, Jen.
Jen is one of those effortlessly popular kids others gravitate to, including insecure mean kids like Jenny. Adrienne is well liked enough by Jen that she can bring Shannon into the group (in fact, they refer to themselves, and their classmates refer to them as "the group," and there is even a boy "group.") But, Shannon is just insecure enough, or weird enough, or independent enough, or creative enough (WHAT is is that makes one kid unable to fit in smoothly with the rest of the group? I was that kid too - included by proximity, but excluded for reasons I never really grasped) that she hovers on the fringes of "the group," sometimes in favor with Jen, sometimes undermined by Jenny, sometimes on the outs for reasons she just can't figure out. Through all this, Shannon copes with her loneliness and anxiety by counting the bricks on the wall between classrooms or the trees on the side of the road and has more than a few sick days and undiagnosable illnesses.
Then, there is Wendy, Shannon's oldest sister. One of the things that I, as an adult, a parent and a person who works with children, greatly appreciate about Real Friends is the author's note where Hale shares the undiagnosed behavioral health disorders suffered by her older sister and her own undiagnosed mental health issues that were "probably symptoms of anxiety disorder and mild obsessive-compulsive disorder." There are plenty of big sisters (and brothers) like Wendy in children's literature. They are suffering and they take it out on younger siblings in one way or another. Wendy, who has her own struggles with real friends that readers glimpse throughout the novel, lashes out by hitting and bullying Shannon. It was especially hard for me, reading Real Friends and knowing that it was a memoir, seeing the pain, frustration and sadness suffered by Wendy that was then passed on to Shannon. But, in her author's note, Hale lets readers know that the real "Wendy" (although a memoir, Hale changes all names save her own) became a real friend to Shannon as a teenager and as adults, she is a "devoted, loving, brilliant mother," and great friend. It's so helpful for readers to know how things turned out for the people on the page.
Shannon suffers through her "friendship" with Jen and Jenny until fifth grade, when she is put in a combo class with none of "the group" and intimidating sixth graders. There, she becomes friends with sixth graders Zara and Veronica who are, surprisingly, nice to other people. They are a safe harbor for Shannon, who slowly opens up and shares herself, her imagination and her creativity to welcome partners in play. Eventually, "the group," Jen in particular, takes notice of Shannon and her new friends. Jen tells Shannon she is tired of all the jockeying for her attention in "the group" and asks if she can start a new group with Shannon. This group is welcoming and open, until a pivotal, crucial moment in Real Friends when Jenny asks to join in. Shannon tells her "no." I wanted to cheer out loud for Shannon, and I also wanted to cry for Jenny, who, as a bully and a liar, was probably being treated the same way by someone in her life. I especially appreciate how Hale addresses this moment in her author's note, saying that, as a believer in forgiveness and redemption, this was a hard moment to write. Hale shares that if Real Friends was fiction, she would have resolved the friendship with Jenny in the story but, in "real life, it was never really resolved." However, she chose to include this hard moment that has no forgiveness and no resolution because, "I think it's okay to make boundaries between ourselves and anyone who has bullied us. It's okay to say no." As a woman and the mother of a daughter, this is something we need to hear over and over, say out loud to ourselves and repeat to our daughters. It's okay to say NO. It's okay to not be someone's friend if s/he hurts you. It's okay not to be someone's friend if s/he wants you to be mean.
Stories of friendship, especially friendship between girls, is a common topic for children's literature. However, I think that it is uncommon to see the challenging aspects of real friendships portrayed with such honesty and the truth in a children' book. Sometimes, in real life, there is no resolution to conflict between friends. Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham have presented this and other realities in Real Friends, making this an invaluable book.
Source: Review Copy
(BUT, I will be purchasing my own full-color copy when it is released and will also purchase 5 copies for my school library when I get my book budget next fall)