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Interview: Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham on ‘Real Friends’

Real Friends

I’m a sporadic social networker. On the rare day, when I have a few minutes of down time, I will go online and try and catch up on either Twitter or Facebook. So the other day, when I had a few minutes (read: procrastinating), I realized that the release date of Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s new graphic novel Real Friends was fast approaching!

I was able to read an advance copy and was glued to the page. I was engulfed in the world of Shannon Hale during her early and mid-elementary years. And while our lives weren’t identical, let me tell you the emotions practically were!

For a quick overview that cannot do this book justice: This is a memoir of Shannon Hale’s early years as she navigates friendship. It talks about cliques and making new friends. It talks about family and difficult relationships. It talks about real life in a thoroughly entertaining but real way.

I had the opportunity to send Shannon and her collaborator LeUyen some questions about the book.

Shannon, this isn’t your first graphic novel, but you generally write fantasy stories or fairy tales. What made you decide to write a memoir, and why in graphic novel form?

Shannon Hale: My oldest daughter. She is a reader because of books like Smile and El Deafo.

On Twitter, you posted:

Hale: Oh there are SO MANY FEELINGS for one thing. Bringing any new book into the world evokes a mixture of excitement, pride, fear, etc. But this time, it’s personal. Like, really, really personal. Like, so personal that after reading it, people look at me differently and seem unsure whether to blush in embarrassment for me or hug me or hide from me. And it’s scary to put myself out there so blatantly and so directly—this time if readers don’t like the main character they’re basically rejecting me personally, but not just me now but me at my most vulnerable. Which they have every right to do! Because no reader has to like or care about every book! BUT STILL! And also I just suspect that this particular book is going to matter to certain readers, perhaps in a profound way, and I am eager and anxious for them to find it.

Real Friends 2 - left

How did it feel to see a part of your childhood come alive on the page?

Hale: Look, it’s time the world knew: I’m 90% sure that LeUyen is a witch. Maybe a sorceress, possibly related to some Muses. I was going to be okay with the illustrations not looking exactly like my life in memory. I thought the difference would give the book some distance from real life, which might be a nice buffer. But then Uyen crawled into my brain and started sketching directly from my memories. Apparently. Since the book looks exactly like I remember it. And I’ll tell you, that’s both transcendentally wonderful and downright eerie.

The emotions evoked in this book are very raw—in large part because of how the artwork and the text worked together. LeUyen, how did you go about capturing, not just the text, but in essence the layers beneath the text?

Real Friends 3 The GroupPham: Shannon’s story felt immediately real to me when I read it, so to be honest, it wasn’t much of a stretch to show the layers because they were there in the silences. She writes very much with the illustrator in mind, I think, and I’m sure her visual ideas are as strong as her written ideas, but generous writer that she is she leaves me a lot of room to breathe and play with her words. Mostly, though, I just really understood her story, having had a very similar experience with friends growing up. I just knew what those faces should be emoting, because of course I’d gone through it too. What was hard, though, wasn’t what the emotion should be, but the rendering of some of those scenes, which could be emotionally brutal. My goal was to keep it in close ups, so that you felt the emotion directly through Shannon’s character, instead of forming your own opinion from a distance, so that you could view it directly as a kid. But in doing that, I had zoom in on faces and show anxiety and fear and love and uncertainty from a really tight angle. There was no escaping for me.  As someone who usually makes picture books which look more on the positive and happy side of life, it got tough at times.

This book has a very universal theme. Although my own childhood sounds like it was vastly different from Ms. Hale’s, I felt like I connected to this book in many ways. Were there parts of this book that you connected to? If so, how?

Pham: Absolutely! Who hasn’t had mean friends? I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest that anyone who has the slightest inclination toward artistic life has most likely suffered under some friend in this way. If I hadn’t experienced these same things, I don’t think I could have done the book.  What’s hard, though, is drawing it as an adult, where you might know better why someone behaves in such an awful fashion, and I was tempted many times to draw the character of Jenny in a more sympathetic light. But that’s the trick, there’s a balance to these things, an understanding of who’s story you’re trying to tell. If I lent more weight to Jenny’s expressions, it would be a different story.

What story about your childhood do you think about capturing for a wide-audience?

Pham: Wow, there are lots. I think one of the defining aspects of my life has come from the fact that I really did come from a very impoverished background. Being immigrants and poor is the stuff of great literature, no? Some day I’ll write my modern day version of Great Expectations.

Real Friends 4 - right

What was the collaboration like?

Hale: LeUyen was the first person to see the manuscript! She illustrates the Princess in Black series that my husband and I write, and we’ve known each other for over a decade. So when I wrote this graphic novel script (my third, but first memoir, which is a whole other ball of wax let me tell you), I wanted an illustrator’s feedback. I honestly didn’t send her the manuscript to fish for her as the illustrator—I assumed she was way too busy—so imagine the joyous screams when she offered to do it. As far as the process went, I saw her illustrations at each stage but tend not to give much feedback. 1. There was no need, she was brilliant, and 2. I think the illustrator needs room to do their part of the storytelling without me breathing over their shoulder. Basically this is how our phone calls went: What you did was brilliant! No, what you did was brilliant! But I love you more! No, I love YOU more! Like, the most sincere cheese fest you can imagine.

Pham: Collaboration? What do you mean collaboration? We did not collaborate; we just fused our brains and hearts together a little bit. No just kidding. Or not. Shannon knows what she’s looking for, and is really clear on what she sees on the page. That’s a great jumping point for any illustrator, because the base is so strong, you know your art will start from a strong place because of that. And I don’t know if its just me, but when I read Shannon’s manuscript, whether it was in how she wrote it or how strongly I felt about it, I just immediately know what it was going to look like. That doesn’t always happen to me with manuscripts, sometimes it takes some teasing out, but this one was right from the get-go. I’d love to take credit for that and say it was my brilliant artistic skills come to play, but no, I’m pretty sure it was just very good writing and more importantly, good vision. So yeah, Shannon is right, cheese fest all around. (I DO love you more!)

Real Friends 1 - left

How do you go about working on a daily basis? Do you work from home? Do you have a separate studio? You both have children, so do you have set hours or work through the night?

Hale: Yes I’ve always worked from home. I don’t like to waste precious writing time commuting somewhere. Over the years, my writing time has been when babies are napping or babysitters are present. This year for the first time all my kiddos are in school—no more babysitters! Except when I’m traveling. And the past three years my husband Dean has been home writing fulltime too. We work in separate rooms but lunch together and go on “plot walks,” holding hands and looking like an adorable commercial for a retirement community. I can’t work through the night. My brain just quits on me after a full day, so I have to use my time well.

Pham: I think writing requires more brain power than illustrating, so unlike Shannon, I can work until all hours.  Truth is, if you think too much, you’ll ruin a good drawing or painting. So it’s not uncommon for me to be up until 1 or 2 in the morning working. But yes, I work from home, or else I could never pull that off. And I work every day, more often than not on weekends as well. I’m a little machine. That being said, because I work from home, I always take breaks with my family, pick up my kids after school, have meals with my husband. I’m in the fortunate position of having a very supportive husband who is also an artist, and while we are wildly happy together, people assume sometimes we’re divorced because we split childcare so evenly. Seriously, it’s either Mama day or Papa day, as the kids call it. They know not to bother us too much on days we’re supposed to work.

On Twitter, you had a thread about whether or not Real Friends is for a girl audience or it will appeal to both genders…

Hale: It’s a simple concept and yet I find quite often people haven’t thought about it: just because a book is ABOUT girls doesn’t mean it’s FOR girls. Can you imagine if you’d only ever read books that reflect our own personal life experience? And yet we try to do that to boys—if it’s about girls then it can’t be for boys because HOW ON EARTH WOULD THEY RELATE??? Of course books can be mirrors and they can be windows. As adults, we need to get out of the kids’ way and stop telling them what they shouldn’t be reading.

Pham: Ditto that. And honestly, I think the graphic novel medium helps to eradicate that idea a bit. I think graphic novels have been traditionally considered a boy’s genre, so maybe there isn’t the same stigma attached? Whatever the case, I know as many if not more boys who have read books from Raina Telgemeier or Jenni Holm, without questioning whether it’s written for them. A good story is a good story, and especially books that are reveal the navigations of elementary school relationships are necessary for either boys or girls.

What advice would you give kids today as they navigate friendship—especially with all the added tensions of the online social life kids have?

Hale: I’m not great at giving advice. I’m better at giving hugs and telling stories. Hopefully kids can figure out the rest.

Pham: Ughh! Stay off social media, seriously. FaceTime should literally be face time, one person in front of another. That’s where friendship really starts.

Thanks so much for not only sharing this wonderful book but sharing your thoughts!

Real Friends 3

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Esther Keller About Esther Keller

Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. Her collection is also the model for all middle school libraries in NYC. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library, and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 3 and regularly reviews for SLJ, LMC. In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.

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