It’s the start of sixth grade and Shannon is looking forward to being one of the biggest kids in the school. And, now that she’s told mean Jenny that she can’t be in the group anymore, Shannon thinks her friendship troubles are over. But having friends and keeping friends are two different things. What happens when your friends just don’t seem like a good fit anymore? Sequel to Real Friends.
Best Friends joins a long list of middle-grade graphic novels tackling the issues of bullying and changing friendships in middle school. Young readers who enjoy works like Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl or Terri Libenson’s Invisible Emmie will find much of the same here. The similarity of Best Friends to some many other recent titles may be its greatest struggle. However, Shannon Hale’s touching depiction of growing up, combined with LeUyen Pham’s cute illustrations, make Best Friends a winning graphic novel, despite its similarities to other works.
At some point, the market will presumably not be able to bear any more middle-grade novels about the same theme. Currently, however, books inspired by Smile are flying off the shelves, so we will presumably see many more in the future. I suppose the young readers for whom these books are meant do not care that so many titles read like variations on one another. Best Friends, for example, reads like a cross between Libenson’s Just Jaime (about a girl finding out she’s part of the mean girl crowd) and Raina Telgemeier’s Guts (another memoir about having anxiety and stomach issues while growing up). Even so, it is one of the most hotly anticipated graphic novels of the year.
Best Friends manages to feel like a somewhat different reading experience because of its characters. Hale clearly remembers what it feels like to be growing up, questioning your friends, and wondering if you belong. She acknowledges how good she felt being part of the “popular” crowd, how being mean could make her feel powerful (but also sick), how she struggled trying to figure out if her friends were friends worth having, especially when she had to work so hard to keep them. Sixth-grade Shannon comes across as likable and sympathetic, even when flawed. She comes across as real.
Pham’s illustrations, meanwhile, play a key part in giving meaning to the text. She empathetically renders Shannon’s anxiety as a black cloud that hovers over her, but sometimes swirls, threatening to overwhelm her. And she adds nuance to Shannon’s memories of what happened. In one key scene, Shannon remembers feeling popular, included–she is part of a human chain only certain people are allowed to join. But the faces of the other children, angry and upset, suggest that Shannon’s feelings of inclusion mean that others are excluded. The illustrations help Shannon’s story come to life.
Best Friends may seem like an unnecessary addition to a market full of middle school friendship graphic novels. Fans of Hale, however, will likely automatically add this one to their read lists, as well those who admire Pham’s work. Teachers, librarians, and parents of middle schoolers will likewise see Best Friends as an automatic purchase. As for everyone else? Those who enjoy sympathetic depictions of growing up and moving on will enjoy Best Friends, as well.