Friendship is surely one of the trickiest areas that sixth graders navigate through, as they begin to leave elementary school behind and step into the middle school world (even at my school, where our sixth graders are still physically in an elementary building).
Writer Shannon Hale, with illustrator LeUyen Pham, dive into this world of young girls with compassion, humor and confusion in their two graphic novels — Real Friends and Best Friends (which just recently came out).
Both books are based on Hale’s own life as a young girl with significant anxiety issues that made her entry into friendship circles trickier than most, fraught as they are with shifting allegiances, cultural connections and more. In these two graphic novels, we come to understand how the world is viewed by young girls, and as a male teacher of sixth graders who often has to untangle friendship issues between girls (and boys), I found these books highly entertaining and highly informative.
The first book — Real Friends — is set in elementary school and the second in sixth grade, the start of the middle school years. Shannon is the main character and narrator, and many of the characters from the first book come back in the second book — Best Friends — and there are plenty of unresolved issues among the characters, which Shannon (author, and character) reminds us is natural — sometimes, friendships don’t survive because people who think they are good friends, real friends, are not made for each other, and it all falls apart. That may be true for school friendships more than anything.
I was attuned to the way the young Shannon, particularly in Best Friends, is driven by a need to be in the loop with pop culture, from the music that her peers are listening to, to the television shows they watch at night. Today, it would be the apps that people use and the YouTube channels they watch. The technology changes, but the desire to fit in remains as strong as ever for many adolescents.
An author’s note at the end of Best Friends was beautiful, as Shannon Hale writes of where her story came from, how one teacher helped her see herself as a writer when others did not, and how anxiety still lingers for her, today, and that understanding it and having strategies for it was the thing that has helped her cope with the crazy world unfolding around her. All good lessons, bound up in two entertaining graphic novels.
National Public Radio did a nice piece on Hale and Pham (who are close friends) that I found informative.
Peace (among friends),