Shannon Hale explores the power and pain of childhood relationships in autobiographical graphic novel.
Newbery Honor-winning Utah author Shannon Hale didn’t have the kind of terrible childhood that lends itself to memoir, but she didn’t have a terribly happy one, either — due in large part to struggles with friends and fitting in at school. “Real Friends,” out Tuesday, details the hope and heartbreak of childhood friendships in graphic-novel form, with art by LeUyen Pham, who also collaborates with Hale on the best-selling “Princess in Black” series.
Hale, who will read from and sign her new book later in May in Salt Lake City, discussed her inspirations for “Real Friends” and what she’s learned about friendship and herself in the process. (The interview has been edited for brevity.)
All of your books are different — you’ve written in different genres for adults, children, young adults — but this one feels the most different. What inspired you to write it?
I thought memoirs were for famous people and people who have dramatic and tragic lives. So it just never crossed my mind to do it. But these things happened in elementary school that I kept retelling. One time I went to [speak at] an all-girls school out of state somewhere, and they were all the ages — fourth, fifth, sixth grade — the ages of [myself] this book. I was chatting with them and telling them these stories from when I was their age, and I got such a strong reaction. Everyone goes through tough times in their childhood. But there was something different in my telling them about it because they were fans of my books, and so no matter how sad or hard the story was, it automatically had a happy ending — there I was in front of them, as someone they read and admired and considered themselves a fan of.
Friendships are so often painted as idyllic in children’s literature. But the ones in your book and in your childhood — there’s a lot of heartbreak. Are those struggles more realistic experiences?
It my experience it sure has been. And as people have read this book, instead of talking to me about specific events that happened in the book, they want to tell me about what happened to them. Which I love — it’s this wonderful starter for thinking about and processing our own friendships. A lot of books for younger readers focus on [positive friendships]. And for some people it may be true. But I never found lifelong friends until I was in high school. And it was luck of the draw. Your world is so small in elementary school. Your world is who’s in your class — in Utah, you’ve got 30 people to choose from, in some states 15! And if there’s not just the right person, or people or group, boy it’s a long lonely year. I feel like the wider your world is, the better chance you have that you’re going to find that somebody.
Why is it that the experience of a friendship — or the breaking of a friendship — is something that’s so powerful and long-lasting that it stays with someone their whole life, even if the people involved don’t?
I think our relationships in this life are the most important things about it. What really matters more than the human relationships that we form? And I think sometimes we forget that relationships with friends can be as important as a romantic relationship. We get it when someone has a heartbreak after a divorce, but we don’t give that same kind of care and understanding if someone loses a best friend. Losing a best friend as a kid is as huge as divorcing as an adult, no question.
Are you in touch with Adrienne, your first best friend?
As I got older, I didn’t stay friends with any of the people in the book. While I was writing it, I did catch up with her and took her out to lunch. I wanted to run some memories by her. I didn’t show anyone the manuscript who was represented by it. I changed all the names. I wanted to make sure my memory was right — I read a lot of letters and journals and checked with people — but for the most part I wanted to distance myself. I have no doubt that other people who read this would have different memories from me. That’s how memory works. But that’s not what’s most important. Other people may not have had the exact same incidents as me, but they may have felt the same thing. And that’s where a story connects with readers.
Young Shannon prays when she’s having a hard time, and mentions Jesus, which is unusual in mainstream children’s literature. Was it important to you to preserve the religious part of your childhood in this book?
Religion was a big part of my childhood. I prayed a lot. And I felt like my most important relationship that I could have was with Jesus, from both my church teachings and just how I felt. It’s very rare to have religion in a children’s book — in any book. Religion is such a touchy topic. It’s so polarizing. I was nervous that I was going to upset everybody — I’m going to get him wrong for most Christians, or they’d think it was disrespectful, and then people who are not Christians would feel distanced. Ultimately I felt that it just made the story stronger, it just felt more real. I feel like we sometimes make the mistake of trying to make something nonspecific in order to help it find a wider audience. But then it becomes bland. I don’t think you need to either be Christian or have the same view of Jesus that I did as a kid in order to understand what that felt like and what that might mean.
Even after I wrote it, I was real, real nervous about what I’d done, especially one particular frame. Little Shannon has a lot of imaginings, a lot of fantasy sequences, and in one she’s feeling sad and her friends are making fun of her, but she imagines Jesus is there. And Jesus says, “Well, I like you,” and Little Shanon says, “Thanks, Jesus.” I was really nervous about that particular moment more than anything — until I got the art for it, and I saw LeUyen Pham just nailed it. It’s perfect — sweet and sad and a little bit funny. That was the miracle of this whole book for me — LeUyen Pham. It’s like she went into my brain and drew exactly what it looked like and how it felt. And she read it and felt like I had stepped into her brain and connected with how she had felt as a kid.
How do you make friends now? Is it easy for you?
I don’t have any friends, it’s really sad, I’ve just never … [laughs]. Yeah, I don’t have any trouble with friends. As soon as I hit like high-school age, I always had a lot of friends and got along with people. It was a weird thing to discover because my understanding of myself was that I was always getting in fights with people, like my sister and my friends, so that must be who I was, how I dealt with people — in an unhappy way. When I gained maturity and had more options of people to interact with, it took a while for that to sink in and be like, “Wow, I’m actually good. I can have healthy relationships!”
My best friend from high school I’m seeing tomorrow — 28 years after we first met, we’re still very close. My husband and I went to high school together, and we still are very close with our group of friends from that age, who are just a fantastic group of people. And I feel like, “Ah, I found them! And I’m never letting them go.”
Anything else you want to say about “Real Friends”?
I’m very happy with how it turned out, but I’m also very nervous. With other books, if someone doesn’t like the main character of the story, it’s like “Whatever, not every story is for everyone.” But with this book, if they don’t like the main character, they’re rejecting me at my very most vulnerable. Part of me is like, “I’m a mature 43-year-old, I’m fine, I can take it” and part of me still feels like, with this particular book, I’m 10 years old.
Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
Pages • 224
Price • $12.99
Reading with ‘Friends’
P Shannon Hale will read from her new graphic memoir “Real Friends” and sign copies.
When • Saturday, May 20, 5 p.m.
Where • The King’s English Bookshop,1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Free; places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of “Real Friends” from The King’s English. To pre-order, call 801-484-9100 or visit www.kingsenglish.com/event.
More information • www.kingsenglish.com/event/shannon-hale-real-friends