Real Friends by Shannon Hale
Review by Kim Higginson
Author Hale has written several New York bestsellers for young people 9–12 years of age. This is her first foray into novel with illustrations. My nine-year-old son gravitates towards a visual read, and the colourful illustrations help bring the main character’s vivid imagination and emotional dramas to life. You can get a sense that it could easily translate to a kids cartoon series, especially from the peppy promotional video.
This story is part autobiographical, as many of the friendship dilemmas occurred in the author’s own childhood. This is made more personable with portrait photos in the back, spanning the same years as we follow Adrienne, the main character, through her schooling.
We follow her as she journeys from kindergarten to middle school, trying to find friends and fit in. She starts off with a single best friend who is like a security blanket for her, and whom she struggles to share with others. This becomes a dilemma when her best friend becomes part of the cool clique.
Adrienne's acceptance into this cool club ('The Group') is rocky with her being bullied - which she describes as 'feeling trapped on a stormy sea'. This results in her having to push beyond her boundaries and find some genuine friends, and at the same time her place in the world. She makes mistakes along the way that she learns from.
I was concerned that Adrienne had limited supports when times were difficult. Due to stress she displays signs of anxiety and feelings of worthlessness. Her home life adds to the stress with a distant and sometimes aggressive older sister and a mother who leaves her to fight her own battles with her sibling. She finds solace in her religion or faith that she turns to and is buoyed by her imaginative play and dream to be a writer.
Author Shannon Hale has a warm message for readers at the end: “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.”
While this is lovely, I do think younger readers will omit to read the end Author's note. I feel it could have been in the beginning, that children reading would appreciate how the story came about. It would also have benefited from including a strong message that any child having a difficult time should keep reaching out for support, and to other adults (teachers and extended family) they feel comfortable with if those in their immediate family are not emotionally available.
Reviewed by Kim Higginson, Mental Health Foundation Information Management Specialist