I bring home a lot of comics, including many directed at kids, and my older daughter reads pretty much nothing but. Still, she’s stubborn about what she does want to read and what she’ll ignore, no matter how close I move it to her bed. She’s wrong about a lot of things and once she opens them, she ends up intensely interested. But neither Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s collaboration Real Friends nor their new follow-up Best Friends, both from publisher First Second, had any such problem. She read them both straight through in a single sitting, and then she started over again immediately. Partially, she’s the right age (nine). But a lot of credit should also go to Hale and Pham, whose visions mesh to create something that, although it might not get a lot of credit from comics snobs, is a compelling narrative and one that opens up a lot of lines of discussion between parents and children.
I admit that it stresses me out to read these books, and I’m not even a very anxious person. Little Shannon’s having to navigate complicated social situations over and over again, despite not having been equipped very well to handle them, is in many ways a horror story. Who’s being genuine? Who’s not? What’s going on with that person to make them act that way? When should you be yourself and when should you not? It makes one glad to be past a good bit of that. At the same time, plenty of folks aren’t past it yet, and Hale’s commitment to honesty in her picture of the past, complete with loose ends, is a brave gesture and one that might help us start to relate to each other better. Hale and Pham answered my questions over email to provide a little more insight into their collaborations.
Paste: How did y’all meet and decide to work together?
LeUyen Pham: Shannon and I met years ago, when her eldest son was just a baby and she was touring through San Francisco. A publicist friend of ours, Deb Shapiro, introduced us, thinking we’d get along, and of course she was right. At the time, Shannon was only writing novels, though, and while I loved her at first sight, I pretty much despaired over whether we’d ever work together, because I only illustrated picture books. So we just stayed in touch, but I didn’t think much more on it than that. Flash forward a few years, and my agent calls me and tells me that I’ve been offered a new project from Candlewick Books, and it was to be a series, and would I be interested? My schedule at the time was pretty packed, so I was inclined to say no, but then asked, “Who’s the author?” As soon as I heard it was Shannon, I said yes to the project sight unseen. It wasn’t until a while later that I even bothered to find out what the project was about. “Yes,” I remember was my response, “always yes for anything from Shannon Hale.” That’s a pretty good rule of thumb for any illustrator out there. The project, by the way, was the hugely successful Princess in Black series.
Shannon Hale: Every time Uyen agrees to work with me, it feels like I won the lottery. When our Princess in Black editor told me that LeUyen Pham was her ideal illustrator for the series, my response was, “Well, yes, obviously, but I’m sure she’s too busy. Everybody wants to work with her.” But she agreed! Then, years later, when I was drafting the Real Friends script, I sent Uyen a copy as a friend to ask for her feedback. I truly never thought that she’d be willing to consider working on it! But after reading it, she emailed me, “When you’re thinking about illustrators, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring.” I read that and my heart leaped out of my chest. It felt like a miracle. I knew I could put everything I wanted into that script—every emotion, all the complications, all the the joy and humor and sorrow and strangeness of being that age—because I knew Uyen could draw it. She could handle everything. It was such a relief, as a writer, to know I didn’t have to hold back, I had a partner who could sustain the story with me. I can’t tell you how many illustrators have approached me over the years to whisper, “You know you’re working with the best illustrator in the business, right?”
Paste: Do you think it’s helpful that y’all are from the same generation and presumably come from a similar array of cultural references?
Pham: I think that being the same age was a definite boon for this particular project. Usually I do a ton of research for my books, but this project was great in that every cultural reference Shannon threw out, I was pretty familiar with. All the pop songs, all the outfits, the books of the time, the ‘80s were just a funny time. It’s so much fun to revisit that period. The only real difference between us is that Shannon was raised in an American household, and I was raised in a Vietnamese one. So the only real research I had to do was what a typical American house and furnishings looked like at the time. Shannon sent me a department store catalogue from the time, and I used it constantly for reference.
Hale: And Uyen grew up in southern California! I remember her asking me about my Utah elementary school: “So…the hallways are on the inside of the building?” Even before Uyen agreed to illustrate these books, I did hope we could find an illustrator who was a woman and around my same age. I think she just gets it.
Paste: How did you come up with the visual style(s) for these two books (which is different from the Princess in Black books)?
Pham: The Princess in Black series is definitely meant to be more classical in design. It’s meant to have an old-timey feel with a modern pop. It’s rendered in watercolor, which makes it a lot more time-intensive per page than Real Friends and Best Friends. For the graphic novels, I rendered it in ink and croquille. I would say the style is more akin to what I’d call my handwriting. It’s how I draw when I’m not really thinking, but just drawing from my natural origin. There are fantasy sequences in the graphic novels, though, that are done in full color, and that’s a lot of fun too. The color scenes are more akin to my picture book illustrations.
Also, the nature of comics is just different than picture books. There’s an intensity and intimacy to graphic novels that you don’t usually find in other forms. It’s much more akin to film than anything else, so the style requires a lot of pushing in, tight composing, more thought goes into pacing and establishing shots. It’s just a different animal.
Paste: What did you disagree about in the course of making these books?
Pham: Hmm. Not much, that comes to mind. I’d love to say that I’m just an excellent illustrator, and did everything so perfectly that Shannon had no cause to complain. But I think the truth is closer to that Shannon is just an easy person to work with, no ego involved at all, and she’s so open to change and suggestions that I don’t take advantage of that. I do my absolute best to make sure that her vision is there, and I stay as faithful as I can to her narrative, as well as to who she is as a person. It helps that I know her so well, I get to add a lot of details about who she is now into how I draw her as a kid. I think the ideal graphic novels are the ones that are both written and illustrated by the same person, so I’m trying my best to be Shannon when I do these books.
Hale: After going through the process of creating Real Friends, Uyen and I both had this epiphany: It’s a complete miracle that this worked and worked so well and there’s no way we’d risk it by doing a memoir with anyone else. Lightning can’t possibly hit twice! A memoir is so personal, so specific, usually they’re told by a writer/illustrator, and yet somehow our brains were just in sync. We were two halves of the same person. I know that sounds mystical, but I don’t know how to explain it unless Uyen has secret alien technology that enabled her to download my memories directly from my brain.
Paste: Shannon, comics don’t seem to have been a big part of your life in the years Real Friends and Best Friends cover. When did you start reading them? Making them?
Hale: I didn’t have access to comics as a kid. I read the comic strips in the Sunday paper but that’s about it. It wasn’t till I was an adult and dating my now-husband Dean that he introduced me to the reason he was a reader at all: DC and Marvel comics. I fell in love. With the guy but also with comics. Early in my book-writing career I kept meeting kids who just weren’t interested in or weren’t able to get through prose novels. I wished there were more kid-friendly comics for those readers, so Dean and I wrote the graphic novels Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack. It’s life-changing for an author to hear from parents, “My kid didn’t read at all till they read your graphic novel, and now they read all kinds of books.” Gives me chills. A few years later we had a kid who wouldn’t be a reader without graphic novels, but she only responded to realistic stories like Raina Telgemeier’s. Happily, by then children’s book publishers were making more graphic novels—but not enough! I never would have had the courage to write a memoir if I hadn’t had a kid in my house needing that story. Whenever I was stopped by the thought, Who am I to think anyone would want to read a story about me? (which happened several times a day), I had a daughter right there, needing it.
Paste: Uyen, tell me about your own experience with comics growing up?
Pham: I was big into X-Men as a kid, I loved the concept of mutants and how they’d be received into society. I was always feeling sort of outside of things as a kid, not quite part of groups and always sort of struggling to make and keep friends. So I had a lot in common with the mutants, and it was such an empowering fantasy to think that the thing that is considered unwelcome and ugly in society is also your greatest strength. So I turned to comics for wish fulfillment for a long time. Then when I was about 18, I got a job in a bookstore, and found a copy of Maus. I remember reading that changed a lot for me. It made me see comics in such a different way. It was a new form of storytelling for me, a way of creating an intimate relationship with characters in a book, because I could dwell on certain panels for a long time, and really develop understanding in a way that I couldn’t do with print books, and certainly not with film. I’m so happy to be living in an age where graphic novels are everywhere, there are SO many good stories!
Paste: Y’all both have kids. Do you think about them a lot when working on these books? What do you hope they get out of them?
Hale: When writing, I keep reminding myself of one thing over and over: Tell the truth. My goal is to show what I experienced and how it felt. Stories are so good at that. Sometimes we think we’re feeling things alone and then a story shows us that we’re not alone. Memoir is especially powerful in that regard. Kids read it and know a real person felt what they’re feeling and still made it through okay, and it can give them hope that they will too. With Real Friends, I thought a lot about my kids as I wrote, but by the time I was writing the sequel, Real Friends had reached hundreds of thousands of readers. I heard from them. I knew what the story meant to them. And I had the courage to keep telling the truth of my experiences for those readers and whatever they might need from it.
Pham: My kids factor into every project I do. My husband is French, and for the French, comics are the norm, something adults read the same as they would prose novels. As a result, my kids have been reading comics since they were born, and have been front and center during this explosion of graphic novels that has been happening. Part of the appeal of doing this project with Shannon has been the thought that my kids would be reading these books, and getting to see their mother’s perspective on things that are relevant to their life now. My oldest son is the same age as the characters in the books when I drew them, so he’s growing with little Shannon while I’m doing the books. That’s been really helpful, because I get to use him and his classmates as reference a lot, and they love giving me feedback. My younger son is just a couple years younger, so reading the books has been preparing him for grades to come. It’s pretty cool! And, of course, because they’re both too old for my picture books and a little too old for Princess in Black, they still get to show off to their friends this particular series. So I’m hopefully retaining my rockstar status with their friends even as they age up.
Paste: One of the things that really hits home for me about these books is how Shannon’s community during these years fueled her anxiety by not making a lot of room for diverse ways of existence. Do you think a more homogeneous environment creates more of this “mean girls” type of behavior?
Pham: I can’t speak that personally, as I grew up in Southern California, and my school was fairly diverse. But I’m not sure diversity had that much to do with the “mean girl” behavior. Growing up at the same age, my best friends were two caucasian girls, a Korean girl and an Indian girl, and there was plenty of “mean girl”-type behavior going around there as well. I’m more willing to say that it’s trial of the age, that kids are really testing waters and defining who they’re going to become. Middle school can be tough no matter who you are.
Hale: I have a lot of sympathy for those labeled as “mean girls.” They’re kids too. They’re trying to figure stuff out. They make mistakes. They need room and time to figure stuff out and grow. I hope stories like these can help them see more clearly the effects of their behavior and develop more empathy.
Paste: What’s your best advice for learning how to be strong?
Pham: I’ll be honest, I think it’s really hard to be strong at that age. There’s so much pressure, from your friends, your parents, your siblings, your teachers, tv and media. It’s hard to find your own voice and your ability to speak up. I know for myself, I could only find strength in finding the things that I could do really well, and standing behind that as a shield sometimes. If I hadn’t been able to draw as a kid, and gain people’s respect through my artistic abilities, I’m not sure how I would have gotten through some tough times. So I’d say find the thing that makes you who you are, or think you are, and stand behind that. That belief in yourself and your own abilities can carry you pretty far.
Hale: I totally agree with Uyen. Long before I thought of myself as an author, I made friends by making up fun games and stories and I took refuge in my daydreaming. I was often told to “stop wasting time daydreaming” and that’s the worst advice possible! It was everything for me and now I’ve made a career out of it. Letting kids discover what they love and giving them opportunities to develop it into a talent is the best gift caregivers can give them.
Paste: Shannon, you’ve been pretty outspoken about your feminism, and you’re also part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is that right? How do you reconcile those things? Is that a rude question? I hope not.
Hale: Yeah, I was born a feminist. I don’t know why. I’ve always been aware of gender disparities, injustice and limits people try to put on me and others because of our gender. I think restrictive gender roles and stereotypes hurt everyone, not just girls. And I was also born into and am a member of a church that’s a patriarchal organization. I think sometimes from the outside it’s easy to look at any group, like a church, and make broad assumptions about every individual who is a part of it. But those assumptions are rarely correct. I’ve known members of the church in many states and many countries, and we’re all different with many different opinions. I am a woman and a member of this church, and I speak up loudly and often. I hope that my voice can have positive effects.