Shannon Hale has written more than 15 books for middle grade and young adult readers, including the Newbery Honor-winning novel Princess Academy, the Books of Bayern series that began with The Goose Girl, and the bestselling Ever After High series. She has also written three books for adults. Her first graphic memoir, Real Friends, explores Hale’s growing pains and shifting childhood friendships. PW spoke with Hale about the biggest challenges in sharing her own story, her collaboration with illustrator LeUyen Pham, and her favorite books from childhood.
What inspired you to write a memoir at this time in your life?
Writing a memoir was never on my bucket list, but I was inspired by my daughter. She got into reading because of books by Cece Bell, Raina Telgemeier and Jennifer L. Holm—my daughter is literate because of those books. And that got me thinking of how much power a book has when you say “this really happened.” When I was writing Ever After High, readers would come up and talk to me and I would get to peek into their lives. And I saw that things were tough for them, really tough, yet here they were looking at me with starry expressions and adoration. So I wanted to tell them, “Hey I know some of what you’re going through because I went through really hard things too.” And if I wrote it in a story they would see that. But they would read it knowing that whatever happened, it had a happy ending because I wrote the books they like. They would know I came out okay in the end. And maybe that’s a little extra hope for them, that maybe that they’ll come out okay too.
Why did you decide that your story should be told in graphic form?
I love graphic novels and I want there to be more of them. As the parent of a child who reads them, I was frustrated not having more to give her. It’s that old adage: if you need a book and can’t find it, write it yourself.Also this story, with its hard times and challenges, felt like it would be best expressed visually. I was in my head a lot as a child and I thought that would be better communicated visually.
How closely did you work with illustrator LeUyen Pham? Can you talk about that collaboration?
LeUyen and I worked on the Princess in Black series that I write with my husband. I’ve known her for over a decade and we love each other. She read a version of the story before anyone else because I wanted to get her take as an illustrator. And after she read it she said she wanted to put her hat in the ring to illustrate it. I had assumed she would be too busy, so I was completely overjoyed.
I wrote the story panel by panel: what’s said, who’s there, the feeling, the action, kind of like a screenplay. I did it that way to make sure what I was asking the illustrations to convey could be done in a single static image. LeUyen had freedom to play around with that, of course, if she thought it needed to be three panels instead of one or something. She would send sketches to me and my editor. We’d give feedback, then she’d send inks, then color. But I tried to give her very little feedback. LeUyen knows what she’s doing and she’s so good. I wanted her to have space to tell her part of the story. What was eerie about it—what actually gives me goosebumps—is that it was like she peered into my brain and perfectly captured it all. She didn’t see photos, yet it came out so real. It was astounding.
Your story is firmly set in the 1970s. Were there any touchstones, like photo albums or videos, that helped you bring this period to life?
I mostly relied on my memory. I did go look at photos of us growing up and did some research on when an album came out or the fashion at a certain point. Though of course I am a third child, so I mostly wore hand-me-downs. Most important was not that it feel historical but that it feel true to me. Every decision, what I kept coming back to, was how to communicate how it felt to be a kid. Other people may not have had the exact experiences I did, yet we’ve all had these same feelings, and I wanted to make that connection with readers. When we realize we’ve all felt that same way it creates such empathy and understanding between people. I’ve had readers tell me they weren’t me—they were the bully—and reading helped them see how the person they were teasing felt. It’s not just about characters you identify with, who are like you, but also about those who are different from you. Books should be both windows and mirrors.
How closely did you adhere to your memories while writing, and were there places where you decided to make changes to serve the story?
I talked to several other memoir writers about how memoir is different from nonfiction. Facts are not what is most important, though I did try to stick to them as closely as I could. When I started writing and jotting down memories of these years, it felt like I was laying a thousand Polaroid pictures on a table—the memories were snapshots. Then I had to sort through and pick which ones to keep, which ones worked together to create a narrative. And then I had to look at each picture and I’d often see that I remembered only one part of it. So then I would have to invent, based on the people, what happened before and after to create a scene. With a memoir you have to make some stuff up because you can’t remember exactly what people said, but you try to make it as close as possible.
Did you consult with family members during the writing of the book?
I did. I talked to family and friends, mostly to verify certain memories—things I wanted to be sure of. What I found was that I had a much better memory of it than they did and I think it’s because I’ve always been a storyteller. I’ve always been telling stories of my childhood to people in my life, so that’s how I still had these memories in my brain. I also found letters and a journal, and that helped verify things, too.
The story does not shy away from difficult moments, including your struggles with anxiety. What was the biggest challenge in writing about your childhood?
I was mostly concerned about not hurting anybody I portrayed in the book. But ultimately I thought that if any of them were upset by what I wrote, I had to weigh that against the possibility of thousands of readers who might be helped by the story. Choosing between a few adults and thousands of kids, well, I have to choose the kids every time. I did change names. I didn’t want to pretend that my perspective was the absolute truth of who they are. Changing names created a remove for them. It was also an emotional experience to write the book. I mean, I’m a mature adult with a career and kids so I should not be affected by what happened in fourth grade. Yet when I went back, I couldn’t help feeling that trapped, helpless feeling.
Your vivid imagination is a central part of the story. Were any of the games in the book ones you actually played?
They all were. I remember those even better than the reality! Some of the games were books I was trying to write and others were just games I made up.
You portray yourself as an avid reader. What were some of your favorite books from childhood?
I spent a lot of time in the A and the Mc section of my library. Lloyd Alexander was a favorite, along with Joan Aiken. In the Mc section there was Patricia McKillip, Anne McCaffrey, and Robin McKinley.
You also have a background in theater and improv. How has that experience influenced your writing?
I love stories and from an early age I had the desire to tell them. Theater was one way to do that, as was performing and of course writing. I did all three all the way up to college and then picked the one I couldn’t live without. Improv developed skills of thinking on your feet, going with one thought and seeing what could be made of it and accepting it and following it. And that lent to graphic novel scripts—the imagination to visualize it as though on stage, and see actions and movement.
Do you have any other ideas for autobiographical writings?
I haven’t planned to but I do have a lot of notes about things that didn’t make it into the book, about elementary school and later. So there is material there if we choose to go back there again. But it was a lot of work for LeUyen and I wouldn’t do it without her, so we will see.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
My husband and I are currently working on the sequel to the Squirrel Girl novel. I love comedy, and comedy plus superhero is a blast to write.
Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illus. by LeUyen Pham. First Second, May 2 $12.99 ISBN 978-1-62672-785-4