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Shannon Hale And LeUyen Pham On 'Best Friends'


OK. If you were once a young girl or are raising a young girl, you may know that navigating the treacherous terrain of school friendships is hard. When you were little, best friends are easy to come by. But as the years pass, cliques form, bullying starts, and it can be difficult to find your place. The new graphic novel "Best Friends" follows Shannon, a young girl in middle school, as she makes and loses friends while trying to find herself. It's written by a real Shannon - Shannon Hale. She's the author of the bestselling "Princess In Black" books. She's drawn by illustrator LeUyen Pham. Thanks for joining us.

SHANNON HALE: Thanks, Lulu.

LEUYEN PHAM: Thanks, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Shannon, I'm going to start with you. We should say that this new graphic novel is a sequel to the first book in this series called "Real Friends," which talks about friendship in elementary school. And the stories are about you. This is an autobiography of sorts.

HALE: Yes, it is. It's all - as far as my memory holds, it's all true.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you want to write about this?

HALE: I don't think it's a good idea and I don't recommend it, but I had a daughter who was really struggling with friendships, and her preferred reading material was graphic novels. And I felt like I had gone - I'd through so many really trying stuff with friends when I was a kid, but it's not the same as just telling her about it. I wanted to give her a book to read.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: LeUyen, you illustrate the "Princess In Black" series as well. Why did you want to be a part of this project?

PHAM: You know, Shannon and I are actually really good friends. And what's funny was Shannon actually sent me a copy of the manuscript before it had been picked up by anyone. And I remember reading it through and immediately connecting with the story because - I almost want to say it's a universal thing - that every kid seems to go through some sort of purging of friendships and making friends and then losing them and trying to figure out their place in the world. And something very similar had happened to me. And so, I mean, if you really went through the book and colored the hair black and - I kept the glasses and everything else, the story would've been exactly the same. I really felt like Shannon crawled into my own head.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You both really capture a lot of the angst and whimsy of being a kid sort of looking for love with your peers. And in the book, you write, sixth-grade friendships were like a game. Only as soon as I'd figure out the rules, they'd change again. And that rings, I think, so true, as you mentioned, for so many people. Why do you think these friendships at that age are so complex?

HALE: So "Best Friends" is specifically about sixth grade - ages 11 and 12. And everything is changing at that age. You become hyper-aware of everybody's facial expressions and intonations and what does that mean. What you don't know is everybody else is going through the same thing. They're all trying to understand, OK, what's still funny? What's not? What's immature? What's not? What can I still do? What can I not?

PHAM: Yeah. I would also have to say, sixth grade is the year where everything happens inside of us.

HALE: You start to hide. You feel ashamed, so you start to pull it all internal. And how's that as an illustrator, LeUyen?

PHAM: It's a lot harder to illustrate.


HALE: I like to give you challenges.

PHAM: She does. She just likes to really torture me sometimes. You know, what I actually felt when I was drawing all this was Shannon gets to tell the story from her perspective as a 10-year-old or as an 11-year-old. I have to draw it from the perspective of an adult interpreting the action - what a 10-year-old and 11-year-old would - doing. So where you place the camera position - whether you make it an overhead shot or you put it in an underhead shot - it changes the power of the character in each of the panels.

And throughout this particular book, Shannon is a lot more empowered. And you'll see, in all those scenes she's always head-level with the other characters. And in the scenes where she's more weak, especially when her anxiety is showing up, she diminishes in the panel and she gets smaller and she's the least active character in each of those panels. So it's a way of an adult interpreting what a child is struggling with. And it's emotionally very difficult to do. And then knowing that this is my friend Shannon and I'm trying to protect her in every way possible but also trying to show as much of the truth as possible of the times when she wasn't necessarily being kind and she was being a little bit of the bully herself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it is really interesting the way you do deal with anxiety and other mental health issues in these books.

HALE: I have an anxiety disorder. And when I was growing up, no one said anxiety, and now it's a different world. It's a different place. But even still, when I go places and talk to kids about anxiety that I had, so many of them perk up and they'll tell me, I have an anxiety disorder, too. I go to a therapist. And they look so relieved just to say it because so many of them have been told that it's something shameful. And if we can get the shame off of it and just say, hey, this is a hard thing a lot people go through, here's some things that worked for me. You know, talk to someone you love about it. And then it frees the kids from - instead of hiding it and letting it just sort of fester, which is what happened to me, we all just talk about it and accept themselves for it - it's a struggle, but there's things you can do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was it a kind of therapy, where you were kind of looking back at yourself and trying to figure out - both of you - you know, who you may have been then and what impact that may have had in later life?

HALE: I don't think I could have written this book when I was younger. I'm, you know, 45. I have four children. And I have enough perspective now to see it in a different light. At the same time, it was very important to me, as I was writing it, to stay in the kid perspective.

PHAM: Yeah. When I'm drawing it, it's a struggle because you're - you do tap into something that you haven't tapped into a while. And you don't want to make it false, you don't want to make it fake. And I know when it comes to the writing that's one thing, but when you're doing the illustration you have to come up with something sort of - I don't know, just sort of deeper and real.

HALE: I have to say, LeUyen Pham is a genius with facial expression and body language. She is the best illustrator in this country. She is absolutely fantastic.

PHAM: Shannon...

HALE: Everybody needs to know LeUyen Pham's name.

PHAM: This is why we're best friends.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to ask you, LeUyen and Shannon, are - we've done elementary school. We've done middle school. Are we going to get high school?

PHAM: Oh, I want her to. She's got a lot - you know what? If I had my way, she would do something from every major phase of her life.

HALE: We're working on it, right?

PHAM: Book five will be called Very Old Friends.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That sounds like a good title. Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham wrote and illustrated the graphic memoir "Best Friends." Thank you so much for joining us.

PHAM: Thank you, Lulu.

HALE: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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