Shannon Hale (writer) and LeUyen Pham (artist)
Genre: Memoir, Graphic Novel
This graphic novel memoir details the growing up of Shannon Hale and her struggles making friends. The middle child among five siblings, she never truly felt she belonged. In kindergarten she meets Adrianne, and the pair become fast friends. Shannon is a natural storyteller, and whether she and Adrianne are pretending to be orphans, princess, or superheroes, they always end up kicking butt and taking names.
But when they get a little older, cliques start to form among the girls at their school. Most notable of these is The Group, a clique run by Jen, the most popular girl in their grade. Adrianne gets pulled into The Group, but Shannon is faced with a choice: don’t join and lose her best friend or join and lose herself.
Juxtaposed on top of Shannon’s friendship woes is her relationship with her oldest sister, Wendy. Wendy’s personality runs hot and cold with Shannon—one moment they’re getting along and helping each other out, the next Shannon is hiding in the bushes to escape Wendy’s wrath.
Growing up is hard enough, but with no reprieve at school or home, is it any wonder that Shannon is so anxious all the time?
Okay, there is quite a bit going on in this book, and I’m not even entirely sure where to start. I suppose the art is a good place, if only because it’s adorable. Phem makes it easy to tell which character is which, too, even as they’re aging up; this helps the reader tremendously, since there is such a large, named cast of characters.
As an author, I know why, chronologically, Hale tells her story the way she does. Shannon’s home life with Wendy affects her interactions with Jen’s group and vice-versa. Having the parallel stories should definitely strengthen both, right?
Well, they do, but at the same time, neither story feels fully-realized. Choosing to tell one or the other would have led to a stronger piece overall. Presenting both stories gives the book pacing issues and doesn’t allow for an in-depth look at what’s really going on in either set. As a result, we end up with two stories whose antagonists (Jenny, Jen’s best friend, on the one hand and Wendy on the other) never get enough page-time to really explore their personalities or their motives. The resolutions for both characters and Shannon, therefore, don’t feel satisfying or complete. This is particularly true given what we know about Shannon herself as a character: she’s mousy and shy and feels left out. The lesson of her story with The Group seems directly at odds with the lesson of her story with Wendy.
Actually, in a prose novel, this storytelling method might have worked better. The characters and their personalities could have been explored with more depth and nuance. Instead, Real Friends is a graphic novel for middle schoolers with all that implies regarding page count. The reader is left with a book that feels incomplete.
On that same token, characters in the book are constantly accusing Shannon of being whiny or bossy, but I don’t really get that impression from her. Sure, she cries, but it’s in reaction to other characters’ treatment, be it physical or emotional. Maybe it’s because she’s always wanting to play imaginary games? But she went along with The Group when they all wanted to play soccer, even though she disliked it…I feel like that whole plot point could have been made clearer.
But it isn’t a bad book, either. The friendships seem really well-done, and all of the side characters showed a high level of craftsmanship. The conflicts, though many, were real, and I appreciated the way they showed us Shannon’s inner turmoil throughout the book. I wanted to give her mom a hug, too—it was obvious she was trying her best.
Actually, I think my favorite part might actually have been the lesson Shannon learned regarding popularity and The Group. Hale explains it more in her author’s note at the end of the book, which I appreciated.
An ambitious memoir that, though missing the mark a few times, will be a welcome addition for its themes and messages.
- Kids in the middle
- People who like true stories that read like historical fiction
- Bullying: characters face bullies both at home and at school
- Lying: characters lie in the story for various reasons
- Mental Illness: the book tangentially explores the effects of anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder
- Religion: main characters are all Christian, and Christianity factors heavily into their lives; descriptions and explanations of Christian rituals and observances
- Mental Health
|Exploration of Conflict||2|
|Consideration of Themes||1|
|Suspension of Disbelief||2|
|Imagery and Description||2|
|Rhythm and Pace of Book||1|
|Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation)||2|