From the author of Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack comes another graphic novel of a different sort. Real Friends by Shannon Hale is a memoir that shows the friendship struggles Hale experienced in her early school years. Hale’s experiences are surprisingly relatable, from the fun moments of dress-up and story-writing with friends to the struggle of wanting to be popular or part of the group one’s best friend is in. Additionally, LeUyen Pham’s artwork suits the style of the story, and I appreciate some of the themes Hale incorporates. For instance, Real Friends shows the importance of kindness and reminds readers that sometimes they should avoid certain relationships if they are unhealthy. I also like Hale’s honesty in not trying to sugarcoat the story, even though she admits in the afterword that she was tempted to change the ending. Hale’s overarching goal is to let children in similar circumstances know that they are not alone and that they can make it through their own struggles. However, while Hale’s intent with Real Friends is admirable, I think the book’s purpose overshadows the actual story and probably pushes away her target audience.
I have noticed that graphic novels tend to be a tough medium for serious stories, retellings of classics, and nonfiction. Often, the result seems contrived, with choppy transitions and wooden dialogue. Further, sad stories tend to make the whole graphic novel dismal, with no sunshine to break through the clouds. Like other novels I’ve reviewed that fall into these categories, Real Friends has some merits, but I think Shannon Hale might have been more successful with a regular book instead of a graphic novel.
When I finished Real Friends, I happened to look at the back cover and started perusing the reviews. That’s when I realized that all the rave reviews were written by adults. “What do actual children think of the book?” I wondered. After all, children are the best judges of whether Real Friends was a success. Though I can’t speak for other children, I do know I wouldn’t have wanted to read a story that sad when I was a kid. I would have chosen a fun book every time.
Note: I just discovered that Real Friends was apparently successful enough to merit a sequel. Best Friends was released two days ago and appears to pick up where the first book leaves off.