Heavy Medal Finalist – Real Friends
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…
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. 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 email@example.com.
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