Shannon Hale’s Real Friends was a Reading Without Walls challenge for me. That is, as a child and still today, I’m not much of a group person, most likely related to my introversion. From childhood on I can recall being part of groups of people I liked, but they almost always wanted to spend way more time together than I did. Shyness is probably also a factor as we moved a lot and so I was never in a school more than three years. This made me happy to find just a single friend. Now Shannon wanted this too, but in her case the single good friend always seems to be tied to bigger group politics which was not my experience. So I wasn’t gravitating to read this one, but did because this is so much the reality of many children and especially my students.
That is, I’ve been a classroom teacher for decades and have observed and helped kids navigate friendships throughout that time. Sometimes it is one person snubbing another, sometimes it a group thing (with the popping up of clubs always a sign that someone is probably being excluded), sometimes it is sweet and lovely, and sometimes it is mean and vile and intractable. And so while I didn’t read Real Friends for nostalgic or personal reasons, I did read it because it was so real and raw in terms of many children’s reality.
Shannon’s description of the ups and downs of friendship and, especially, the complicated dynamics of groups and popularity are vividly and honestly done. For kids for whom this resonates this book will be a life-saver, something that will speak to them, that they will see themselves in. Or perhaps they are yearning to be part of a group — this may help them understand it isn’t necessarily nirvana. I appreciated that Shannon isn’t represented as perfect when part of a group by any means — she doesn’t do the usual forgiving of one culprit, she doesn’t significantly help another bullied child (authentically being too self-absorbed in her own woes to do more than recognize her and talk to her when they are thrown together). Kudos to Shannon for being so authentic and real and honest. As an adult, I found the family dynamics most potent, especially her relationship with her big sister. Shannon doesn’t hold back and, boy, is some of it rough. Fortunately, there seems to be the start of a better understanding at the end and more in the afterward that is reassuring for any who worried about Wendy.
A piercingly honest view into the complicated social life of one young girl that is certain to resonate for all who have observed, participated, or otherwise experienced the difficult dynamics of school friendships.