Shannon Hale (writer), LeUyen Pham (illustrator), Hilary Sycamore (colourist)
August 27, 2019
Shannon Hale’s Best Friends is a graphic memoir of her elementary school experiences. The sequel to 2017’s Real Friends, it covers everything from body image issues to crushes, and all the emotional turmoil in between that is the life of a preteen heading into grade six and the struggles to fit in with the “Group.” This is obviously intended for a younger audience; it wasn’t written for me, a 40-something woman. However, this book was also totally written for me, the 40-something mom of a preteen (and a teen—please send help).
Since around grade four, there have been many days when I’ve come home to find my daughter ready to chat for what seems like hours about the drama that preteens can get up to. And, while the subject matter might seem trivial to me, I have to remind myself that yes, disagreeing over the paint colours for the lava on a group projects is, indeed, a massive event that requires this much emotional commitment. There have been as many happy and funny moments as there have been tears in her accounts of her day and her interaction with her “Squid Squad” of friends. There were even tears so bad that I finally decided to contact one of the moms in question, only to find that she was just about to do the same. Together, we struggled to determine how best to mend the rift between our daughters in time for an upcoming Squad member’s birthday party, only to find that the next day—poof—the problem was gone and they were BFFs again.
That the cover image for this book features a roller coaster could not be more fitting, because that is exactly what parenting a preteen—as well as a new teen—well, parenting in general—feels like. And it’s no less so for the preteens themselves. Here, Shannon must navigate the ins and outs of friendship to ensure that she maintains her place in the Group, which is lead by Jen, the cool girl. Shannon’s interactions with her classmates are often punctuated by inner monologue narration which includes her understanding—or lack thereof—of the “rules.” She’s forced to figure out these unspoken rules of engagement and disengagement through observation and experience and often finds herself saying the wrong things, which includes lying. Best Friends does reference Real Friends from time to time, particularly around the areas of bullying, where, Shannon discovers, sometimes, it’s very easy to lie and be mean in order to protect yourself from being the one ousting from the Group.
Often, when Hale has her on-page Shannon dealing with something particular difficult, Hale interjects a fantasy tale that stars an older version of Shannon as princess and heroine of her own story, which Shannon is writing herself. Gone are the heavily inked lines during these pages, with LeUyen Pham and Hilary Sycamore delivering softer, more ethereal images and colours to suit the fantasy.
Shannon’s relationship with her family lies on the outskirts of her struggles. She has an older sister that she confides in from time-to-time. I’d have liked to see more time finding comfort in her parents’ words, but that’s the parent in me talking who fears the day when my kids no longer feel the need to come to me with their problems. Though they don’t feature prominently, Hale takes the time to show a few poignant moments, such as a much needed hug that Pham illustrates with the space and emotion it needs to convey the emotions bound up in a little girl on the cusp of being a big girl, and a mom who knows that being there to give those hugs is so important.
Though the book relates to me on this level as a parent, it also does bring me back to my own awkward childhood, as well as the ’80s nostalgia invoked by the music and TV and movies mentioned. Despite the dated references and clothing, it’s clear that this experience of self-discovery spans every generation.
Best Friends certainly isn’t a solution for the ups and downs of preteenhood, but it does very well as a story that reminds us that we’re not alone in these ups and downs. Sometimes, there’s comfort in simply knowing you’re not the only one who’s been through these things. Especially when you’re a preteen for whom every little things feels so big and scary and wonderful and awkward and weird and…
Or you’re their parent or caregiver just doing your best to guide them through it all.