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YALSA Hub Challenge: Friends with Boys

Our fifth title from the YALSA Hub Reading Challenge is Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks.  Friends with Boys was highlighted as a Great Graphic Novels for Teens Top Ten title for 2013 .

As a quick refresher, the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection list showcases titles “recommended for those ages 12-18, meet the criteria of both good quality literature and appealing reading for teens,” and every year they also select the top ten titles from their longer list.

What did everyone think of this top ten pick?

Robin: I personally think Faith Hicks shows a beautiful sense of panel editing and timing (similar to the best of Japanese manga in how they are paced) in Friends with Boys, as well as great facial expressions.  What did you think of the art style?

Esther: I didn’t really associate the style with manga, though I definitely see your point! It’s just that the style has the parts of manga that I like and appreciate, like the pacing of the story and the extra focus on the scenery. So that Maggie’s walk down the steps takes 4 panels, but we see the family pictures and the happy family they once were.  Or it takes 2-3 panels as she walks down her street. I would almost liken the style to Zot! by Scott McCloud, though he often says that his work was influenced by Japanese comics. What Friends With Boys doesn’t have, which manga often has, is the characters reacting hysterically.  It’s one of the things I don’t like about manga, so I’m glad it didn’t include it.

Caleb: I’ve been a fan of Hicks’ artwork since I’ve first encountered it, and I think this by far her best effort so far. Part of that may simply be because it’s one of her latest books, and everyone tends to get better and better at stuff the longer they do it,  and part of it may be that she was writing and drawing this, rather than working from someone else’s script.

Robin, you pointed out the facial expressions, which was something that really struck me as excellent about this book. Not only is Hicks’ “acting” superb when it comes to the main characters and their interactions, but in those early scenes in the high school, you can really read the mood of the hallway or the cafeteria, and thus the whole scene, by looking at the faces of the passersby. Long before we know the exact nature of the conflict between Alistair and Matt, you can see it’s a big, huge deal because of the way that, say, a random girl in the hall looks at them.

Overall, I really loved this book, and think it’s probably the strongest on the YALSA list.

Robin: Caleb, I might well agree with you that it’s the strongest book on the YALSA list, although it might have to share that honor with Telgemeier’s Drama, too.  I think one of the things I appreciate so much about Friends with Boys is that it is so clearly one creator’s vision, and her style and voice are very strong.  It’s not that there can’t be comics that are excellent partnerships between artists, but this particular title felt very close to Hick’s heart, and it feels like it was the right time in terms of her skills for her to tell it, if that makes sense.

In terms of readers, who do you think Friends with Boys will appeal to in your library or institution?  Do you think it will appeal to, for example, manga fans?  Have you noticed any particular audience checking it out?

Esther:  So, I just put out my copies, literally, a few days ago. Both copies I bought were checked out immediately. One through my recommendation and the other by a “browser.”  I actually don’t think this will appeal to my regular manga fans, because my manga fans are mostly boys looking for Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, Bleach, etc.  But that said, for those who go for manga stylistically, then yes, I can see pointing out the title to them. And with Maggie’s big round eyes on the cover, I think displaying this title could potentially appeal to manga readers.

Caleb: I’d like to say “everyone who likes comics,” but I suppose that’s not entirely possible. Hicks is an increasingly prominent part of a generation of cartoonists who have developed a truly global style, though; her art and storytelling fairly seamlessly synthesizes manga influence and Western comics influence, genre comics and literature comics, and I think therefore manga fans will like it, fans of non-genre, non-superhero comics will like it and even the merely comics-curious, particularly regular readers of YA fiction or anyone who wants to try out a good comic book.

Robin: How would you pitch Friends with Boys to an inquisitive reader?

Esther: When I first started reading this title, I had a class come in to the library for some book talks and checkouts.  After I talked about a few titles, I turned to the class and asked them what they were reading and what they would recommend. And then the teacher turned and asked me what I was reading.  I was only a few pages in. I was up to the part where Maggie walks through the cemetery and sees the ghost.  But even though I prefaced my description with, “we don’t own the book yet,” I had so many students clamoring for the book. I would pitch the story about family & friendship and then I’d throw in the ghost for good measure.  But really, it’s a hard plot to describe.  Ending with the ghost is a pretty good hook.

Robin: Ghosts are definitely a good hook, especially for the middle school crowd.

Caleb: Oof, that’s a tough one. I’m not sure what the elevator pitch is for it, exactly, and even looking at how the publisher First Second describes it on the flap, it seems they didn’t do that great a job of framing the book, either (They do end with the ghost, though, as Esther did; “But there’s just one more thing,” it says, “Maggie is haunted.”)

For regular comics readers, I think I’d pitch it simply as “Faith Erin Hicks,” and “really good.”  For aspiring comics artists, I think I’d pitch it as, “So, this is how you make a graphic novel/design cool characters.” But in general?  Um, maybe:  “The story of a home-schooled girl who has never had any friends beyond her brothers before going to high school for the very first time and having to cope with the dramatic, sometimes funny and occasionally supernatural experiences that the new setting offers.” Something along those lines?

I hope high schooler and junior high readers read the book, though. It’d be wonderful if kids could learn the lesson Alistair learns without actually having to live through similar experiences themselves.

Robin: Friends with Boys is very much a coming-of-age story, without the now customary (for YA titles both graphic and prose) romance thrown in.  What did you think of Maggie’s progression throughout the story?  How about her family?

Caleb: Well, there’s at least a touch of romance in it, right? Like, in a few panels? One of my favorite moments came when Alistair said something noble, and we see a little cartoon heart appear out of Maggie. I hearted that scene, which was illustrative of something a creator can do very easily in comics that would be a little harder, a little less elegant to do if his was a YA prose novel. Like, the author would have to write a sentence like, “And that’s when Maggie first fell in love with Alistair” or “For the first time, Maggie noticed exactly how handsome Alistair was, and she wondered if maybe she had a crush on him after all” or something. But in comics? Cartoon heart; a reader knows kind of what’s going on emotionally, but they can feel it like an emotion, vaguely, rather than all spelled out and defined.

But yes, this isn’t about Maggie finding a boyfriend, but Maggie finding her place in the world, and her family and new friends adjusting to the changes brought about by Maggie joining them in the “real world” of high school.

I loved watching Maggie grow stronger throughout the book, and the way her presence—even if just as catalyst or audience—allowed the other characters to grow up as well.

I really wish I had read this book when I was fourteen, as the lessons the characters, particularly Alistair, learn are valuable ones that I think would have made my life in high school a more positive one.

Esther: For me, Maggie may be the weakest part of the book.  She was the right vehicle to tell this story, but I wasn’t reading the book to read about her. To say she was bland, is probably too strong, but she didn’t resonate with me.  To be honest, she was quite forgettable.   The strongest “character” is the family dynamic. Maggie and her brothers.  Their progression was a real one. How they were coming apart, (growing older as well as dealing with the hurt of their mother leaving them,) but they do come together again.

Robin: One aspect of Friends with Boys I’ve heard readers mention is the ending.  Without getting too spoiler-y: did the resolution of this title work for you?  Did you feel satisfied as a reader, or were you left hanging?  Or perhaps some of both?

Esther:  So this was the first YALSA Hub challenge title I read… I probably read this 6 weeks ago, and when I saw the email that we were ready to discuss I sort of panicked, because I couldn’t remember what had happened. I remembered Maggie, brothers. ghost.  I had to sit with the title again, and I blame it on Maggie being the weak character for me (and yes, I’m sure I’m in the minority here), but also the ending.  It feels very unresolved.  Why can everyone see the ghost? Why is the ghost there?  Why hadn’t the spirit gone over to the other side whatever the other side is?  On the other hand, the family dynamic was sort of resolved, though I’m insanely curious about the mom.

Caleb: Okay, this will be really tough to answer without spoiling anything.

I was rather surprised by the ending only in that the most odd and noteworthy aspect of the book, the one we mentioned when trying to discuss how we’d pitch it, doesn’t really get resolved—well, it does, but its resolution is that it can’t be easily resolved. Certainly not as easily as Maggie hopes it could be.

If the character in the second-to-the-last panel had a different expression, a smile rather than a downcast frown, I think the ending would have seemed a lot less ambiguous and might have frustrated fewer readers.

I sort of like the ambiguity, though.

The ghost, it turns out, isn’t the unique and dramatic experience, the special burden Maggie thinks she is. Rather, the ghost is something she shares with others, but just doesn’t realize it. In my reading, the ghost is a metaphor for the other problem (and problems) in the family and in everyone, but, this being comics, the metaphor appears visually on the page, with about as much physical reality as anything else the ink lines conjure.

Maggie realizes she’s not the only one who can see the ghost just as she and her brothers are opening up about their feeling of loss about their mother leaving, and their various other problems, and after Maggie tells her oldest brother that she feels she personally drove their mom away.

Robin: I remember when I first finished Friends with Boys I was less satisfied by the ending, but I found myself thinking about the title more and more and came back to feeling like I enjoyed the ambiguity.  I really love how Hicks deals with the difficulty of confrontation and lingering emotions from family history, and I ultimately felt at peace with the fact that we don’t get a tidy resolution.  Tidy resolutions rarely happen, and I liked being left with the feeling of family and not being alone.

To be totally honest, though, this also makes me wish that Hicks could write a multi-volume series — I think she has the storytelling chops to do it, and do it well, and I feel like perhaps making her stories fit into one volume may be holding her back a bit.  More’s the pity for we readers.

If you wanted to request a spin-off or sequel to Friends with Boys, who or what might you want to hear more about?

Esther: I’d like to see a little bit more about the mother and why she left. Throughout the title I kept wondering how a mom, who was so dedicated to homeschool 4 kids, could then up and leave? Why? Where did she go?  Of course, I’d want that story in relation to Maggie and her brothers. I just love her brothers.

Caleb: Ha. After saying what I just did about the ghost and her story not being the story of Friends With Boys, I was totally  curious about it. I was also curious about what happened to Maggie and the boys’ mom. I don’t think I’d want to actually know the reasons for those things though, as I think it would spoil things, nor would I really want to read a spin-off.

I really liked these characters though, and enjoyed hanging out with them. I wouldn’t mind reading something like, Maggie, Lucy and Alistair Go See Some More Scary Movies or Everyone Goes To Another Museum.

Robin: Caleb, I would read Everyone Goes to Another Museum in a heartbeat!  Love it.

Robin Brenner About Robin Brenner

Robin Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. When not tackling programs and reading advice at work, she writes features and reviews for publications including VOYA, Early Word, Library Journal, and Knowledge Quest. She has served on various awards committees, from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. She is the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights.

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