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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist – Real Friends

realfriendsShort List Title:  REAL FRIENDS (Titles on our short list will be included in the live Mock Newbery in Oakland.)

In our earlier discussion of REAL FRIENDS, I mentioned that I struggled to evaluate the book using Newbery criteria.  I was stuck on: “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text.”  With my recent re-read, I tried hard to think more broadly.  In that earlier discussion, Leonard noted “that an author both conceives and executes, and these are both literary acts that should be considered.”  Yes!  That’s what I had not really been able to get my head around, and it’s helped me a lot.  So I tried to focus less exclusively on the words on the page and more on the way the story was told (by words or art), how characters were revealed, how themes came to fruition.  And to give credit to author Hale for conceiving those elements, even though illustrator Pham sometimes carried an equal or heavier load in the execution of many key moments.

The relationship between Shannon and older sister Wendy is one example where that author’s role in “conception” really shines:  We learn about the sisters’ conflicts gradually, and as more is revealed, their relationship becomes truly central to the story, and we realize that the “real friends” title doesn’t just apply to Shannon and her school friends and enemies.

We get a first glimpse early on, when Shannon’s mother brags about Shannon’s grades on the phone, then says:  “Wendy on the other hand…mumble…mumble…” (p 13)  But the focus of the story is still squarely on Shannon’s friendship with Adrienne.

Later it’s Wendy nagging Shannon to walk faster, with the narration below:  “Wendy didn’t have neighborhood friends to walk with…” while the illustration shows three girls about Wendy’s age walking ahead, ignoring her. (p 25)  So she did have girls her age in the neighborhood…but not friends.

When Wendy is getting scolded for a bad report card (58), Shannon responds:   “I knew how to make things better. ‘Look at my report card, Daddy!’  She gets the hug and Wendy gives the glare, with no text, but it’s the conception of that scene that provides insight into their complicated relationship.

The visually powerful bear sequence (77-83) is one that I used as an example of a scene that relies on the illustration for impact the first time through.  So this time through I reminded myself to think of Leonard’s “author both conceives and executes.”  And I do see it differently.  The concept itself, plus the way it plays out in the contrast between Shannon’s desperate, but unheeded words and those of her parents and sister, really is the heart of the sequence.  I still think these particular illustrations convey the power in highly effective manner, but they need the concept in order to do that.

Later scenes with Wendy’s heartbreaking party (178) and the stories about her from Mom (180+) help to change Shannon’s perspective.  As she gets older she’s able to look at Wendy with more empathy.  But readers get to that empathy earlier, realizing that Wendy’s struggles with friendship are as hard, or worse, than Shannon’s.  And the ending, in which the sisters finally have a good conversation, followed by the last of Shannon’s imaginary stories, where Wendy gets to be a hero, is very satisfying.  And again, I respond most directly to the pictures, but recognize the author role in setting it all up and carefully developing their changing relationship so effectively….while also weaving in Shannon’s many other relationships.

I think I’m slowly learning how to give graphic novels their fair due in Newbery terms.  I’m still not ready to put REAL FRIENDS at the top of my list yet, but am open to being persuaded…

Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. I continue to struggle with this, especially in cases like this, when the author and illustrator are different people. In this book so much of the emotional heft is done by Phan it seems to me and so it seems unfair that the award would be only given to Hale.

    • Monica, isn’t that the same issue as the Caldecott only going to the illustrator? Not fair, but I don’t anyone would rather a book they were part of not win an award just because they won’t get the award too. (Though I wish Caldecott would go to both!)

  2. One strong memory of the book I have are those moments when Shannon is in the bushes with the other outcast — so visually powerful and the result is due to Pham as much as Hale.

  3. Sara Coffman says:

    Pham and Hale have done multiple interviews detailing their working relationship, and Pham makes a clear case for how her illustrations work so well BECAUSE of the clear vision, the strong writing, the emotional world created by Hale. Their comments seem to indicate this is not always the case, perhaps not even common, so that may help reluctant committee members to see this as a distinguished example of the graphic form in literature. This article in particular ( explains how Hale writes the story panel by panel, so the creative weight might lie more heavily on her side than with other writers of graphic novels? Pure speculation here. Just throwing ideas out.

    • Yes, but then it speaks more to my question as to how you can give the award only to the writer in such a case.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Thank you Sara for the link. Here is Shannon’s quote:

      “I wrote the story panel by panel: what’s said, who’s there, the feeling, the action, kind of like a screenplay. I did it that way to make sure what I was asking the illustrations to convey could be done in a single static image.”

      Monica, I would make this analogy. The screenplay to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, written by Rowling herself, is available as a book. That book has lots of non-dialogue text. It starts “Ext. somewhere in Europe–1926–Night. A large, isolated derelict chateau emerges from the darkness. We focus on a cobbled square outside the building, shrouded in mist, eerie, silent. Five Aurors stand, wands aloft, tentative as they edge toward the chateau. A sudden explosion of pure white light sends them flying.”

      We shouldn’t think of the Newbery as giving the Best Picture Oscar to the “movie”, Real Friends. We should think of the Newbery as the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Even though we only have the final “movie” version of Real Friends at hand and not Hale’s “screenplay” version, we have to imagine it as something similar to the Rowling example above in our evaluation.

      REAL FRIENDS as a whole is great, and Pham deserves recognition, but I don’t think the Newbery rules allow for it, and so I think something like the exercise Steven and I describe is the way we have to go.

      • What I’m reading is that assessing a graphic novel as a “concept” in a Newbery conversation would allow for the text and illustrations to be discussed together. I’m not sure the Newbery criteria allow for the excercise you and Steven have laid out though.

        It specifically says in the criteria: “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.

        I’m not sold on the comparison of the concept of the book to a screenplay. At least, not in a Newbery conversation. This works in a general conversation about literature and graphic novels, sure, but the Newbery criteria still states that the committee is supposed to makes its decision primarily on the “text.” Your exercise kind of conflates “text” with “concept” whereas the Newbery criteria states “text” as its primary indicator and lists “illustrations” and “concept” as gray area that “could be” considered along with the text. Assuming there are distinguished elements present in the text.

        Does that make sense?

      • But the Committee isn’t reading Hale’s comic script — they are seeing the finished piece of art. I’ve evolved in my thinking on this after Roller Girl got an honor, but so far both gn honors (Jamison and Bell) were both writer and illustrator. I’m struggling to see how this works when it is two different people.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Jordan, I admit to a little sleight of hand here, but I think it is still arguable.

        But first of all, I interpret “overall design of the book” perhaps incorrectly but based on how book people seem to talk as referring to “book design” which has fairly specific meaning in the craft, not “concept” the way you and I are using it.

        So I would argue my screenplay approach *is* textual. Hale, by her own testimony, “wrote the story panel by panel: what’s said, who’s there, the feeling, the action, kind of like a screenplay.” My sleight of hand comes from the fact that we don’t have that text available the way we have Rowling’s but then saying that doesn’t mean I don’t have any idea what was in Hale’s “screenplay” and can’t evaluate what I know had to be there. Sure you can reject this, but I am hoping I am offering a path to those who are trying to make this all work. In a movie, the final product is very collaborative, and so you can’t give Best Picture to the screenwriter. But there is an award you can just give to the screenwriter, who does contribute a lot more than just dialogue to the final product, and that’s what I’m proposing we do with the Newbery with respect to graphic novels.

      • Ok, I get what you’re saying now about the screenplay. Since Hale’s panel by panel rough draft isn’t what was published and under consideration, I think I have to go with Monica on this one. (But I think you do too, you’re just trying to find a way for this and other graphic novels to fit within the criteria.)

        I think your use of concept does fit under “overall design of the book.” And I still think the criteria specifically states “text” and then actually goes on to acknowledge things like illustrations and overall design but I’m inferring from the criteria that those run secondary to distinguished text. So to judge Hale’s “concept” as her “text” would be giving her an advantage that I’m not seeing allowed in the criteria because the criteria lists text and design as two separate things, and ranks text much higher in importance. They are not the same thing and I don’t think they can be discussed as the same thing.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        But don’t you think you can make a judgment about the quality of the screenplay for a movie by watching the movie without having the actual screenplay text on hand? I think we do this all the time.

        How about this — when I look up “text” in some online dictionaries, yes there are some sub-definitions which specifies “words” but a number of sources and definitions (even 1st definitions) suggest more than just words:

        “a book or other written or printed work, regarded in terms of its content rather than its physical form” ( – definition 1)

        This is very close to what I’m getting at: “content” (not just words) but not in terms of “physical form” which is what the Newbery also excludes.

        “the original words and form of a written or printed work” (Merriam-Webster – definition 1)

        That is, not just words but also “form”.

        “something (such as a story or movie) considered as an object to be examined, explicated, or deconstructed” (Merriam-Webster – definition 8)

        That one is almost carte blanche…

        Does this help?

      • Leonard Kim says:

        And Jordan, I don’t agree that the Newbery phrase “overall design of the book” has anything to do with “concept.” I think it’s a reference to physical design. Just google “book design.” The number one hit says, “Book design includes not only the graphic design of the front and back cover, but also the layout and typographic design of every page within your book” which I think makes sense in its context in the Criteria immediately following “illustrations” and the Oxford dictionary definition I cited above (“rather than its physical form.”)

        Actually I would argue LONG WAY DOWN should suffer far more from this stricture if my interpretation is correct.

      • Yes, that helps. And that would totally change what I’m saying. Thank you. I was reading that as “concept” but it would make sense if it’s to be interpreted like you said, because “illustrations” is used with it.

        The only thing I would say, is that I think when the criteria says “text” it implies written words. A complete “text” could be interpreted as the entire content like you said above, but when I see “THE text,” the criteria already knows that books are being discussed, so that line is referring to the written words of a book. Which still works against graphic novels.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Huh, re-reading the Criteria:

        “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.”

        I wonder whether this sense of “text” might be the most applicable (definition 2 from and give us some flexibility to deal with graphic novels.

        “The main body of a book or other piece of writing, as distinct from other material such as notes, appendices, and illustrations.”

  4. Sara, thank you for the link. Leonard, I find your screenplay analogy really helpful. I don’t think Oscar voters usually read the script, I would think most of them vote from watching the finished product. So anytime you have something collaborative, it’s hard to tease the pieces back out, but people do. In scripts you sometimes have a story credit and maybe that’s the in-between piece here–the nontextual text. So, like in a picture book, even the parts that are depicted wordlessly are part of the story that the author (usually) writes before the illustrator gets involved.

    I agree that the part with Shannon sitting in the bushes is very powerful and also very visual. But the fact of her sitting in the bushes as a plot point and as character development and just as a scene is part of the writing rather than the illustrating. Normally you would also have the execution in words to evaluate. And it’s hard to figure out how much of the impact is from the execution of the illustrations. But we can still evaluate how effective it is as story.

    Monica, it does feel easier if it’s one author-illustrator, but technically shouldn’t it be the same since you’re not supposed to be assessing the art? So whatever ways we are separating out the writing and the art should apply equally whether the artist is the same person as the writer or a separate person.

  5. One of the things I think the book does really well is capture the politics and complexities of elementary school relationships. I was never cool enough to deal with the level of things she was at with “The Group,” but I remember observing those kinds of things. And many of the dynamics still applied a little lower down the totem pole. The thing about the leader ranking all of her friends felt so specific and true. Again, I’ve never lined up to be publicly counted like that (!), but it struck me as such a real kid thing to do. And reminded me how important it was to decide who your best friend was, your second best friend, etc.

  6. I wonder why the criteria even mention taking non-text things into account only when they detract. I’m trying to imagine a scenario in which you would actually do that. Would anyone really be less likely to vote for a book because it had an unattractive book design or not very good spot illustrations?

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Here’s one example of a book from this year where I thought the “overall design of the book” might have made “the book less effective.” I don’t have the book in front of me, but I thought THE WHYDAH by Martin Sandler was well written, engaging, and contained a wealth of fascinating information. The main narrative was compelling. The numerous sidebars added useful information and background. But I found it hard to jump back and forth between the main text and sidebars. This is partly an author’s choice, of course, about what to include and how to organize it. But if I’m remembering right, some of those sidebars were placed right in the middle of a narrative passage. A different design might have placed those at more natural stopping points; between chapters or sections. I think this will have an impact on the”excellence of presentation for a child audience.” The information’s there, and it’s written well, but the child reader has to work harder than she should have to in order to follow the back-and-forth.

      • Thanks Steven! I see what you mean–that is helpful.

      • And I have an issue with the illustrations for Princess Cora, too. The text states how the Crocodile looks remarkably like the Princess and how that is totally disputed by the illustration — I get that the discrepancies are meant to be comical and also to show how the adults are so lost in their own notions about the Princess that they couldn’t see clearly. And yet, I kept thinking: if I only had WORDS, my imagination could have played up the similarities of the Croc and Cora in a way that the illustrations have limited my own interpretation. To me — the illustrations actually make the book less effective.

  7. Katrina, I agree with you about how well Hale does that inside/outside group dynamic of elementary school. While I was no Shannon in my own school years, as an elementary teachers I’ve dealt with and observed many, many, many such situations. It is raw and real in this book and I admire it very much for that.

    My questions are similar to what I’ve grappled with in the past. I had been dubious that Roller Girl had a shot because I did think the art mattered in the story telling (in a way it didn’t in El Deafo quite as much) and when it did it helped me to evolve in thinking about these for Newbery.

    You don’t think scripts are read for Oscars? Certainly, if we were evaulating scripts using the Newbery process we would and with enormous care, considering the words on the page. I have not been on Caldecott, but my sense is the attention is all to the art and design.

  8. Monica, I know a couple of screenwriters who are members of the Academy and vote on the Oscars. They get the finished film and not the text of the screenplay for voting. In part it’s because films are rewritten nearly every day of their shooting and then edits happen later, so the final edition of the screenplay is a bit of a moving target. But they do often view and review and pause and repeat sections of movies they are evaluating to make notes on the writing. And they are screenwriters themselves.

    Portland is a big comics town, so I know quite a few graphic novel and comics creators and I’ve spent time in a comics work group refining my own graphic novel script. It’s a completely different process than writing for picture books in which the illustrator is a much more equal partner in the creative process. The author of a graphic novel really does set out everything: dialog, physical descriptions of characters and setting, arrangement of panels on the page, configuration of panels, tone, mood, palette, pacing. It’s all written in the script so when I see this book I absolutely see the level of detail in Hale’s writing. For example go to page 9. When Hale shifts to imaginative play mode her panels go border-less and the palette is subtly brighter. Or look at pages 138 and 149 both have a large panel aerial view and both are transitional panels that demonstrate a shift in Shannon’s circumstances. That’s the script writers call. On p. 180 when Shannon’s mother tells her about her big sister’s childhood, the panels are all sepia toned–again that’s Hale’s writing reflected in Pham’s art. The overall excellence of Pham’s artwork is of course all her doing. I hope that clarifies how a graphic novel script operates.

  9. I’m so glad that I listened to today’s 99% Invisible (99PI) podcast episode so I can cite a Comic expert’s words when we examine even more deeply the graphic novels that have been nominated here. Scott McCloud is the guest on the show today and these are his words, “Pictures ARE text” and “Pictures ARE meaning” — and they are not just illustrations in a graphic novel. I do believe that the definition of TEXT has to evolve to encompass the pictures in a graphic novel — not a book that is illustrated (like Princess Cora). You can listen to the whole podcas there
    The quoted sentences above are around 17:45 into the interview.

    The graphic novel tradition dictates that the writer and the artist work closely together — and the writer often depicts detailed panel instructions for the artist to draw. In the Absolute Sandman (Neil Gaiman, with various artists) series, there are some sample comic book scripts at the back of the volumes and one could see how much a graphic novelist has to include in their script for the artist.

    In Real Friends, the picture-text that is incredibly effective for me is the Wendy-bear imageries. It definitely is the creation of the writer — she first mentions the sister as a Wild Bear on page 72 — and the next 4 pages, readers see the morphing between Wendy & the Bear. Even the parents use the terminology and the father says, “I’ll just lengthen her chain a bit…” Pham completely takes the cue from Hale and the readers “read” and make meanings from these pictures. I am still incredibly impressed by this title!

  10. Thanks for the insider view, Rosanne!

    Monica, in terms of Caldecott, I can’t find the article I’m thinking of now. Everything I know about the Caldecott comes from a couple months of reading Calling Caldecott, so hopefully someone who actually know what they are talking about will chime in. But as I understand it, it’s not an award for the illustrations for artistic merit alone (like some other awards that are judged by artists), but for how well the illustrations work as a picture book. So visual storytelling is part of what they’re looking at. (And I feel like there was something about the award actually going to the book, so it’s the illustrator of the most distinguished book rather than the most distinguished illustrator of a book, so that some people say you take the whole book into account. Or something!)

  11. One of the other things I like about this book is that is shows a character with active religious faith (without turning into “Christian Fiction”). It seems like religion is usually only shown in terms of being part of someone’s culture, rather than being something the kid actually believes. So I liked that it showed her praying, etc., as a normal part of her life. One of the parts I particularly liked was when she goes to forgive her sister all magnanimously and can’t understand why that makes her even more mad!

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