Real Friends Understands Girlhood Loneliness and Takes It Seriously

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Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Real Friends is a graphic memoir that will take you back to the best and worst parts of childhood and school life. The story follows Shannon’s grade school friendship with her BFF Adrienne, and how the dynamics of that changes when they join The Group, a circle of girls led by the most popular girls in class, Jen.

Real Friends tackles bullying, childhood anxiety, and growing pains in a heartfelt way that’ll transport every woman who went to elementary school back into her days as a young girl. While it’s easy now to think about schoolyard conflicts as insignificant or trivial, the fact is that when you are that age the stakes of becoming isolated or shunned by your friends really feels like the end of the world, and that emotional struggle is something that should be taken seriously. A harsh rumor, an “innocent” prank, or a mean name can be absolutely devastating. Reading Real Friends took me back to memories I hadn’t thought of in years where I’ve been on both sides of that. The ways that young-Shannon’s relationship with her sister Wendy evolves over the course of the book, especially, hit a strong emotional note for me.

Of course, this book isn’t all gloom. It would be a disservice to say this book only examines childhood pain when it also dives into the joys of make-believe games and the ways that creativity and imagination can be a powerful (if challenging) sanctum. Pham’s illustrations of young-Shannon’s imagination, as she overlaps her fictional characters with their real-life counterparts, are a dynamic and vivid way to enter the mind of young-Shannon. I often hear that girls are meaner and more “catty” (urgh) than boys, but the book also shows us the incredible kindness and solidarity that girls can and do display.

Hale spoke about revisiting this time of her life on a Bookcon panel recently, where the Princess Academy writer said, “it was a reminder, when you’re that age, you don’t have the ability to talk about it.” “You’re trying to figure out these social boundaries,” she explains. “Perspective to understand who we are and want to be.” When reading Real Friends, we can understand and easily identify certain behaviors as “bad” and bullying, but doing the same thing as a young person, especially when you might not come from a family life with good examples, is much more difficult.

Real Friends also importantly touches on mental health disorders in kids, with an author’s note at the back that emphasizes the impact this can have, as well as the importance of teaching children it’s okay to set boundaries between themselves and bullies. I’ve been raving about Real Friends to everyone who will listen, because media that understands and validates young girls as well as Hale and Pham’s book does feels fresh and amazing to me.

If you need more convincing, Hale at one point during the Bookcon panel stood up to a room mostly full of young readers and proclaimed, “Teen girls friggen matter and we need to stop belittling them! We try to take you seriously and not sugar-coat so people realize how awesome you are!” That’s a sentiment that I think everyone in The Mary Sue community agrees with. In the front dedication, she also writes, “For you when you’re feeling lonely and worried so you’ll remember that you’re not alone.”

You can grab a copy or read an excerpt here.

(Image: screencap)

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