This semi-autobiographical novel follows a girl named Shannon as she grows up in the late 70s and early 80s. A sensitive kid lost in the middle of a big family, Shannon still manages to find a great friend in Adrienne, another girl in her kindergarten class. Time passes, and in third grade Shannon and Adrienne become part of The Group, a set of girls in the same class who all want to be friends with a charismatic girl named Jen.

Life in The Group is hard for Shannon, because shifting social dynamics between Jen’s followers keeep everyone’s popularity level in flux. Jen’s best friend, Jenny, targeted Shannon for a type of sly, insidious bullying. Shannon says, “I felt trapped on a stormy sea…up, down…at home too.” Shannon’s older sister Wendy, an unpredictably moody teen, also contributes to Shannon’s feelings of instability. Shannon starts to count things and create other compulsive rituals, and feels “yucky” if she didn’t do them.

Hale does an amazing job of showing the enormous emotional effects of seemingly small social cues and gestures. The “trapped on a stormy sea” observation is preceded by a conversation between Shannon and Adrienne, when Shannon says, “Jenny is telling lies about me to Jen.” Adrienne replies, “Why would she do that?” Shannon says, “I think she’s mean.” Adrienne counters, “But she’s nice to me.” This short, seemingly simple conversation has enormous emotional effects, as Shannon is forced to question the dependability of her friendship with Adrienne.

Another thing this graphic novel does well is interweave Shannon’s home life, where her efforts to earn positive attention are viewed as “obnoxious” by her older sister, her life at school with The Group, and her struggles with counting and stomachaches. Scenes from all three plotlines are interwoven to form a continuous emotional arc. For example, in one three-page sequence, Adrienne and Shannon are at Shannon’s house when Wendy says, “Tell the truth, Adrienne. Don’t you think Shannon is obnoxious?” Adrienne hesitates, and then says, “Well…sometimes.” Shannon runs to her room crying, pursued by Wendy, who continues to berate her. Later, when Wendy is gone, Shannon emerges, but she and Adrienne can’t look at each other. The very next panel is a scene at the doctor’s office, where Shannon’s mother is describing her symptoms, and the doctor, misdiagnosing her, recommends taking Shannon off dairy.

This sequence in the book is close to when things are the very worst for Shannon, but readers will be relieved to find her (and the other characters) in a much more positive place by the end of the story. The emotions are so clear and so raw throughout the book that the reader can’t help but experience them along with Shannon.

Pham’s artwork does a great job of contributing to the clarity and intensity of this emotional journey. The copy I reviewed is an ARC mostly done in black and white, but even without color all the subtleties of facial expressions and body language are rendered in fantastic detail. Pham also illustrates metaphors beautifully. Shannon says of Wendy, “It felt like living in a house…with a wild bear” and Pham’s illustration of Shannon sitting at the table next to an enormous, hulking grizzly bear, doing its nails and scowling, is quite striking.

Fans of realistic graphic novels similar to Raina Telgemeier’s work will love this book. Real Friends will be especially appreciated by fans of Jamieson’s Roller Girl, for its sensitive portrayal of friendship-related social turmoil.

Real Friends
by Shannon Hale
Art by LeUyen Pham
ISBN: 9781626724167
First Second, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

  • Kristen Lawson

    Past Reviewer

    Kristen Lawson is the Youth Services Department Manager at the Roselle Public Library in Roselle, IL. She has worked with children and teens in public libraries since graduating with her MLS from UIUC in 2006. Now she is working on making more space for kids’ graphic novels, in addition to other duties that fall under “making the library awesome.” Though very picky about movies and music, she has a wide range of reading interests and is constantly on a mission to read all the things.

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