Shannon Hale is the bestselling author of many books, including the Ever After High series and Princess Academy. With her husband Dean Hale, she co-wrote Rapunzel’s Revenge, Calamity Jack, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series, and The Princess in Black series, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Hale and Pham also teamed up on 2017’s Real Friends, Hale’s graphic novel-style memoir about the growing pains of middle school. This month, the duo is back with a sequel, Best Friends. We asked Hale and Pham to interview each other about their collaboration and their real-life friendship.
Shannon Hale: Uyen, at what point in the process of collaborating on our first graphic memoir did you realize just how impossible the project was? And what a miracle that it somehow worked out!
LeUyen Pham: You know, I never really thought about the whole process as impossible. The truth is, you provided such a solid script that, except for some minor details regarding your neighborhood or local sights, I could picture everything really clearly. Not all graphic novel manuscripts are as well thought out as yours, and I think often times writers don’t have a clear idea of visual pacing. But the timing of your script was so solid, especially for the second one, that I didn’t have to alter much from what you’d had down. I’m guessing you write like a movie director—always picturing visuals?
Hale: I don’t normally! When I was studying writing in college, we were taught to “turn off the movie in your head and let the words lead.” I always try to write that way. So when I write graphic novels, I have to wake up a different part of my brain and work against the grain. (I just said that last part because it rhymes.)
Pham: Huh, I didn’t know that. I thought this just came super natural to you. It’s good to know you struggle with things; I always feel like I’m the one struggling with these books. Getting those emotions just right on the face, and sometimes you give me some tough things to illustrate!
Hale: Sorry about that. But these books are all about the emotions, which is why I took an enormous sigh of relief when I learned that you’d accepted the project. Nobody does emotions like you. A reader can tell at a glance how each character is feeling. One hard thing about writing an emotional book is I let myself feel all of it so I can describe it. With graphic novels, I’m even miming the body language and facial expressions right there at my computer. Do you do that too?
Pham: Yes! I have a mirror by my desk that I’m always looking at. My husband teases me. He says he always knows when I’m working on your comic, because my face gets all Play-Doh like. But it’s funny, I can hear your voice when I’m drawing, and I know I’m channeling it often. And you’ll think I’m crazy, but I kind of feel like we were sort of destined to do this book together. It’s the easiest project I’ve ever worked on, and the hardest all at the same time.
Hale: This is what I meant by “when did you realize how impossible this was”! Having a different writer and illustrator for a graphic memoir is risky. The chemicals have to match up exactly right. I don’t know how it worked out so perfectly, because with just one ingredient off, the whole thing could have been a disaster!
Pham: Agreed. I’m almost afraid to analyze it too much. Regardless, it works, and I think a large part of that is because we’re friends in real life. Which, if you think about it, could have also meant certain doom for this project.
Hale: This could have destroyed our friendship if we’d disagreed on... well, on something this personal, almost anything. But instead it worked out so eerily right it feels mystical somehow, and I can only sort of squint at it from the corner of my eye and just feel grateful.
Pham: You want to know what I’ve always wondered? Why did you decide you wanted to tell these stories? You’re known more as a fantasy-genre writer, and you’ve had massive success in that area. What made you want to write about this in your life?
Hale: I never imagined writing a memoir. That sounds like something someone important does at the end of their life. But I saw how much books like Smile and El Deafo meant to my daughter. Knowing that real people really went through those real things connected her to the books like nothing else. So when she was going through hard friend stuff, I realized I had stories I could tell that might help. Her need gave me the courage.
Pham: So are these stories harder to write than those other books you’ve done?
Hale: Definitely way more emotional! I’m kind of a wreck when I’m writing. And it’s so limiting because when it’s not working, I can’t just make stuff up! Yes, hard. Really hard. Are they harder to draw than your 100+ picture books?
Pham: Yes, absolutely. The picture book creative process is so different. With picture books, you’re composing a story with just images, and you have to provide more information emotionally in the pictures than the story often allows. It’s kind of like you’re filling the gaps of the story, and the writer has to trust that you understand her story well enough to do that.
Hale: Like with Princess in Black. We write spare text with no art direction and trust that your illustrations will fill in the rest.
Pham: Exactly! But with a graphic novel, particularly yours, all the visuals are described in the script, and my job becomes much more weighted because each emotion has to be expressed just right. Gosh, I’m noticing we’re using the word “emotion” a lot in this conversation. But that’s what it is; it’s what makes the story move forward. I don’t have to worry about that in such a deep way with picture books.
Hale: I was shocked at how quickly and widely Real Friends was embraced. The whole time I’m writing it, I’m thinking, “Nobody cares about how somebody was mean to you when you were 10, Shannon!!!” I had to fight through a lot of anxiety to write the book, tbh. Then it came out, and readers instantly connected with it. I was blown away. Gene Yang reminded me, “The more specific a story, the more universal it becomes.”
Pham: Gene Yang is my hero. And it’s true.
Hale: It’s all about the emotions. I tell you a story so you feel how I was feeling at the time, and then you remember how you felt the same way another time, and now we’re connected, through the story.
Pham: But I wasn’t surprised when the book was so well received. On the contrary, I’m happy that my instincts were right on this one (they aren’t always).
Hale: You and me both.
Pham: As I read your story, I knew exactly how you felt and related instantly to the character of little Shannon. The really good manuscripts do that. They run like a movie in my head as I read them. I know that’s my job, as an illustrator, to visualize the whole thing, but I sometimes wonder whether or not if you’d written this book in prose form, it would have been different, or reached people in the same way.
Hale: I considered it. But a graphic novel felt right. It shakes the dust off of a memoir and makes it feel immediate for young readers. I’ll never forget how my heart jumped out of my chest when you told me you’d like to be considered as the illustrator. I never dared to dream that was possible! To take time out of your insane schedule to illustrate an entire graphic novel? I was so touched and so happy.
Pham: Hah! I think someone would have to be nuts to turn you down.
Hale: Double hah! They do it all the time, baby.
Pham: But honestly, it was just more than that. We keep saying it, and I know it can start to sound old, but it’s so true. I knew I wanted to work on this book the moment I read it, even in rough form. I know you submitted it to the publisher, but I don’t know whether you requested me. All I know is that Mark Siegel, the extraordinary brain behind First Second, met me over Christmas a few years ago, and told me he had a script on his desk that he was thinking of me for, but didn’t want to mention it unless I had the time. I remember saying no, I didn’t, but he was persistent and said he’d like to ask the editor to send it to me anyway. He didn’t mention it was your script.
Hale: That’s so funny! Because I never spoke with Mark about it. So before all this, I was in my writing cave anxiously working, and I was feeling so overwhelmed by the project, I needed a friend to read it and tell me if it had hope. So I sent it to you. Besides Dean, you were the first person to see it! I wanted an illustrator’s eye.
Pham: Aren’t I the only illustrator you know? Just kidding!
Hale: But instead of giving me feedback for changes you said, “I’d like to throw my hat in the ring for illustrator.” Me: ded. So eventually I sent it to our brilliant editor Connie Hsu, who I’d worked with before, and we spent months doing brutal revisions. Then when it came time to talk artists, I only gave her one name: yours, of course. And she absolutely agreed.
Pham: So it was serendipity after all! Written on the walls! When she sent it to me, I opened the script and said, “HEY!!! I’ve read this already!!!” And then promptly called her and said yes, absolutely I would do it. I remember doing some crazy rearranging of scheduling to get it done. I also remember saying I didn’t care how much I would get paid on it, it was a total passion project.
Hale: You really need to stop telling editors that, fyi.
Pham: I know! But when I get excited about something I can’t help it. Also, I knew this one would do well. Even my husband (the fabulous artist Alexandre Puvilland) said, after finishing reading my early sketches, that this book would do incredibly well. It was, well, a no-brainer.
Hale: After the success of the first, following up with Best Friends might have also seemed like a no-brainer, but honestly, going back to that age again and going through that emotional and trying process was very intimidating. I never would have done it if I hadn’t been doing it with you.
Pham: You know, it’s funny, but I was actually more hesitant with the second book. Not because I didn’t want to do it, or because the story wasn’t even better than the first. But working on the first book took me to some pretty dark places. And the second one, where little Shannon is more empowered, but consequently she’s more responsible for her actions, something about this story felt harder to me.
Hale: Yes, I felt the same way.
Pham: Sixth grade is such a turbulent year. I wasn’t sure I could do the book justice. It helped to have so many fantasy sequences in it, to help break up some of the harder bits of the story.
Hale: Honestly I don’t think Best Friends would work as a whole without those fantasy scene breaks.
Pham: On the other hand, I think I would have been eternally sad if someone else had illustrated the book. So see? You’re stuck with me.
Hale: So happily stuck. Say, Uyen, how would you feel about a third...?
Pham: I think that’s definitely in the cards. Is it crazy to think that we could actually do this forever? Your story is never finished, you know. We could do one about college. Then the wild 20s. Then having kids…
Hale: Book 25: Very Old Friends.
Pham: But it would still be funny if you were writing it!
Hale: I’ll do anything, as long as you illustrate it.
Pham: Ditto, my friend. Anything for you.
Best Friends by Shannon Hale, illus. by LeUyen Pham. First Second, $21.99 Aug. ISBN 978-1-250-31746-9