By Dustin Cabeal
Real Friends is probably the best title you can come up for this story, but unfortunately, it has very little to do with real friends. Maybe more in line with finding real friends or even figuring out who to spot real friends, but then you’d never be able to find the title for the story. My point is, don’t think that you’re going to read a happy story about “real friends” finding each other and going on great adventures. Not that this story isn’t happy, but it’s a lot like life in that everything comes in waves.
The story is autobiographical and follows author Shannon Hale through her first childhood friendships. What’s particularly great about this true story is that Hale acknowledges that it’s the truth to the best of her memory and that others may have a different story because everyone’s memory is different. After all, it’s set in elementary, and I would be hard pressed to remember this many details about those years myself and so my hats off to anyone that can remember this many details and structure it as a cohesive story.
As for the story, well it’s a familiar one in that it might have happened to you. Shannon makes friends with a girl named Adrienne, her first and best friend. Life pulls them apart, but luck brings them back together. A new school year begins, and Adrienne is friends with a girl named Jen from church, and so now Shannon finds herself in the precarious situation of having to share her friend. Eventually, a group forms and you’re either in the group or out. Jen is the leader of this group, but as the story goes on, it becomes clear that this is kind of a position that’s forced upon her due to her popularity with the other girls.
Shannon goes through a lot of ups and downs with the group, from not understanding her role in the group to being ousted for having too much fun with Jen. Shannon encounters bullies at school, but then also at home with her older sister. The sibling relationship is an interesting part of Real Friends because it shows how siblings can affect each other how that carries over to their friendships.
Without sugarcoating it the story is more sad than happy, but it does an incredible job of capturing the isolated feeling of loneliness that school seems to create. There’s no other experience that I can think of that can put you in emotional pain day in and day out, with no real way of fixing things. You almost need someone else to pull you out of despair or the courage to talk to someone about what you’re going through, and frankly, when you’re a kid, neither of those seems like viable options.
There are two great things about this story. The first is that it stars all female characters and never once delves into romance. The subject matter is friendship, and that’s where the focus stays. For that reason, it’s a great story for young girls to read and relate to, especially at an early age. The other great thing though, is that it’s so well-written and the experiences are universal that anyone can read this story and relate to it.
Bringing Hale’s story to life is LeUyen Pham’s wonderful illustrations. Pham’s artwork provides the tone of the book, and she does a wonderful job of bringing out emotions from the characters with facial expressions. You will truly feel Shannon’s loneliness, her job, her despair. More importantly, though, you’ll feel. You’ll be feeling the entire time, but you’ll root for Shannon, and a lot of that comes from Phan’s artwork. It’s clean, not overly detailed and perfect for the story. It’s great cartooning in that it’s complex in what details are added and subtracted. I’ll probably never find the words to describe that properly, but it’s something that hopefully makes sense when you see the artwork.
If you’re a parent of a young child that’s maybe not old enough to know the concept of friends, then this book might scare the crap out of you. It did for me because it made me remember what my childhood was like and realize that it’s a cycle that keeps ongoing and that my son could likely experience something similar. At least now I have a tool at my disposal to show him a better way to deal with things and let him know that it’s okay to talk about it.
Real Friends is a book all kids should read, but even more so a story that all parents should read with their kids. Which isn’t to say that no one else will enjoy Real Friends, quite the opposite. If you were a child once, which were you, then you’ll find that this is universally relatable and an entertaining story for all.
Writer: Shannon Hale
Artist: LeUyen Pham
Publisher: First Second Books