by Shannon Hale
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
Fans of Smile, Honor Girl, and This One Summer will find real friends in this new graphic novel memoir. Hale’s words and Pham’s art depict the treacherous world of female friendships that begins earlier than most adults would like to believe. I myself usually peg it as 5th grade, but in this story it’s as young as 2nd grade, and it can be fierce.
Compounding Shannon’s experience is the unpredictability of her older sister, Wendy. Shannon’s mom tries, but her involvement with Wendy only makes Wendy angrier and she eventually withdraws from that relationship, hoping the sisters will resolve things on their own. In the Author’s Note, Hale talks about Wendy’s mental illness struggles, which is worth reading, not only for that but for other insights. Their mom also tries a bit to ask how things are with Shannon’s friends at school, but gets nowhere. Having been labeled a crybaby both at home and school and been brushed off by doctors as just “a worrier,” Shannon soon learns her words will have no effect and gives up trying to get help from adults. It’s a bit unclear the extent of the physical abuse that Shannon endures from her sister, but the psychological abuse from her sister at home, coupled with the denial from others in the family, sounds overwhelming and awful.
Other school friends similarly deny that the ruling group of girls could be as bad to Shannon as she says they are. Running away to cry in the bushes, Shannon meets a younger girl named Kayla. Eventually they do help each other a little bit, but don’t really become friends in the way they might in a work of fiction. “[Kayla’s] situation in elementary school had been so much harder than what I’d been facing. I wonder if I could have seen her loneliness more clearly if I hadn’t been so wrapped up in my own, and if we could have been friends for each other.” Kayla is depicted as a person of color and I can only assume that racism played a role in making her situation worse.
Shannon also never fully reconciles with the meanest of the girls, Jenny. In the afterword, Hale writes, “If this were a fiction, I probably would have resolved the relationship with Jenny, but in real life, it was never resolved. Even though little Shannon really did say ‘no’ when Jenny asked to join the ‘new group,’ it was still hard for me to write it. After all, I believe in forgiveness and redemption. But I chose to include it because I think it’s okay to make boundaries between ourselves and anyone who has bullied us. It’s okay to say no” [emphasis added]. I wish this had been more explicitly okay in the story because I don’t know how many young readers will get the message. In the story, Shannon feels bad saying no to Jenny and understands it as being mean instead of helping herself have healthy boundaries.
I’m just loving all of the issues that Hale touches on and how she deals with them. One more quote from the Author’s Note that addresses much more eloquently something that I’d been thinking about all the way through the book: “Friendship in younger years can be especially hard because our worlds are small. In high school and beyond, I found many supportive, lifelong friends. If you haven’t found your ‘group’ yet, hang in there. Your world will keep growing larger and wider. You deserve to have real friends, the kind who treat you well and get how amazing you are.” Of course, if the damage is extensive enough, you might not be in a good place to let those friends in when you do find them. I hope this book will help.