‘To erase it felt like a lie’: Utah author Shannon Hale on including her religion in graphic novel series
Author Shannon Hale said she received some backlash for including her upbringing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in her graphic novel memoir series: ‘I was a very religious kid. I prayed constantly. To erase it felt like a lie.’
SALT LAKE CITY — New York Times bestselling author Shannon Hale decided to write her first graphic novel memoir, “Real Friends,” because those were the kinds of stories her daughter was reading.
Hale’s 12-year-old daughter was 8 at the time and having friendship troubles. Hale said her default when she doesn’t know how to help her children is to tell them a story.
“If you give a whole lecture, they always tune out because it’s boring and it feels like criticism,” Hale told the Deseret News. “If you tell a story with real emotional truth in it, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, then a kid can get what they need out of it.”
Now Hale has written a sequel, “Best Friends,” (illustrated by LeUyen Pham, Macmillan, 256 pages, ages 8-11) which hit shelves in August.
In “Best Friends,” Shannon is more than ready for sixth grade with her sure spot in the in-crowd called The Group. But the rules for staying popular are always changing, and Shannon struggles to keep up with what’s cool and how she should act — especially now that everyone’s pairing up with boys. Shannon struggles to fit in and find out who she wants to become as childhood starts leaving her behind.
While “Real Friends” covers Hale’s life from kindergarten through fifth grade, “Best Friends” is exclusively about sixth grade.
“I think it’s a very interesting age,” Hale said. “It’s a transitional age, so right on the cusp of becoming a teenager, but you’re still kind of a kid and trying to figure out how to be both at the same time.”
Writing a memoir
While there are currently no plans for a third book, Hale said it’s possible there will be more — she just has to find the right story. She compared her memories to a box of Polaroids, describing how she has to pull out each snapshot and try to remember what happened right before and right after to create a scene. If she can string enough of those scenes together, then she has a book.
“That’s tricky. I’m a fiction writer mostly, and when a (fiction) story’s not working I can just make stuff up,” she said. “I can’t do that with a memoir.”
To write both graphic novel memoirs, Hale reread her childhood journals several times, looked through her school papers, read letters and talked to people. She had to remind herself she’s not a historical scholar piecing together events exactly as they happened. She can only remember things from a child’s point of view.
In fact, she changed most of the characters’ names in the book to acknowledge that her memory is flawed. She had to tune out her worries about the people who would see themselves depicted in these novels or else it would shut her down, she said.
When you’re weighing the possibility of offending a handful of adults versus the possibility of helping hundreds of thousands of kids, then the choice becomes easier. You choose the kids.
“I keep reminding myself that it’s not about me and it’s not about them,” she said. “It’s about the kids today who might need this story. When you’re weighing the possibility of offending a handful of adults versus the possibility of helping hundreds of thousands of kids, then the choice becomes easier. You choose the kids.”
Response to ‘Real Friends’
Hale hopes the response to “Best Friends” is matched with the same enthusiasm that greeted “Real Friends.”
“The book came out on a Tuesday and by Friday I was meeting readers who had read it 20 times,” she said.
And why was “Real Friends” so successful? Hale said it felt “ridiculous and self-indulgent” to write about people being mean to her in the fourth grade and think that anybody would care. But she’s learned that the more specific you make a story, the more universal it becomes.
“We’ve all felt lonely. We’ve all felt betrayal. We’ve all felt confusion. We’ve all felt out of place,” she said. “So when I tell my very specific story … people connect with it.”
It meant the most to her when the people who connected with it were children.
“When you’re a kid, you don’t have the words and experience and perspective to even communicate to somebody what you’re going through,” Hale said. “But if you give them a story they can point to and say, ‘This is how I’m feeling.’ … Then we can understand and validate that, which will make what they’re going through so much easier.”
But for all of her first graphic novel’s success, Hale said she did receive some backlash for including her upbringing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though the church is never specifically mentioned in the book, there are scenes that include Jesus as little Shannon’s imaginary friend or depict her family attending church and reading the scriptures.
I was a very religious kid. I prayed constantly. To erase it felt like a lie.
“It was an enormous part of my childhood,” she said. “I was a very religious kid. I prayed constantly. To erase it felt like a lie.”
Hale said she was asked to cut out the references to religion because it might affect sales, but in the end, she decided against that. She anticipated the backlash she received from school librarians who wouldn’t put it on shelves and parents who wouldn’t buy it for their kids because of the mention of religion.
While Hale said she understands adults’ concerns that a novel with a Christian character might be trying to convert children, she doesn’t think her book is doing that at all — it’s merely a background detail of her life.
She added that every book is either a mirror or a window: Children who are religious can read “Real Friends” or “Best Friends” and look in a mirror to see themselves represented. Children who are not religious can read it to look into a window and experience a life that is different from theirs.
“I think that is true of any book,” Hale said. “I would defend an atheist’s right to write a book about a child who’s an atheist, and I would defend a Muslim’s right to write about a child who’s Muslim. I think representation of any kind is important.”
Working with LeUyen Pham
To Hale, it’s important to mention that both “Real Friends” and “Best Friends” were not created alone. She calls working with her illustrator, LeUyen Pham, “supernatural.”
“We joke that she crawled into my brain and drew my memories. It’s eerie,” she said.
Hale called Pham a “genius” for her ability to draw characters who age but are still recognizable, and clearly and simply communicate any emotion through the facial expressions and body language of the characters she draws.
Pham also illustrated the “Princess in Black” children’s series Hale wrote with her husband, Dean. Because Pham is a prolific illustrator of more than 100 books, Hale didn’t think she would have time to illustrate “Real Friends.”
“I never dreamed that she would be willing to illustrate it,” she said. “Then she read it and really connected with it and asked to be considered for it. … So it’s been perfect. An ideal partnership.”
If you go …
What: Shannon Hale, LeUyen Pham and Raina Telgemeier presentation
When: Thursday, Oct. 10, 7 p.m.
Where: Provo Library, 500 N. University Ave., Provo
How much: Call the King’s English Bookshop for availability (801-484-9100)
Note: Due to estimated crowd size, the authors will not be signing books at this event. Those interested in purchasing non-personalized, pre-signed books must do so in advance through the King’s English.