When Connie Hsu read the first few pages of Shannon Hale’s graphic memoir Real Friends, she said, “I felt seen. I was feeling all those insecurities I had when I was younger. Within those 25 pages all those feelings from my childhood came back, and I thought, ‘There is something so special here.’ ”

That was shortly after Hsu had come to Roaring Brook Press as a senior editor, in 2014 (she was recently promoted to editorial director). She acquired the book for First Second, Roaring Brook’s graphic novel imprint, and both Real Friends, published in 2017, and its sequel, Best Friends, published in 2019, went on to become bestsellers.

First Second will publish the third book in the trilogy, Friends Forever, in August 2021 with an announced first printing of one million copies. LeUyen Pham is the artist for all three books, and PW is exclusively revealing the cover of Friends Forever here for the first time.

Neither Hale nor Hsu initially planned for a trilogy, but as they worked on Real Friends, Hale kept bringing up other incidents from her life. “Shannon really digs deep into her childhood trauma,” Hsu said, “and she’s not shy about being raw and honest with her emotions, so each book is hard for her.” Although Hale was reluctant at first, she did decide to do a sequel. “While she was writing the second book, we started talking about whether or not we would address things like body changes, boys, the world around you changing so quickly and you feel kind of stuck in place,” Hsu said, “and she said, ‘Well actually, that happened in eighth grade more than in sixth grade.’ And so that snowballed into the third book.”

While Real Friends and Best Friends were created for middle-grade readers ages eight to 12, Friends Forever is pitched at ages 10 to 14. “Eighth grade is a really hard time,” Hsu said. “You’ve got some kids who are more advanced physically, you have some kids who are acting more mature or doing more adult things, like making out, or [forming] early relationships, and there are scenes of kids drinking, which might be shocking for some parents.”

While Real Friends was about bullying and Best Friends was about anxiety, Friends Forever is about depression. “I am interested in seeing how Friends Forever will be received,” Hsu said, “especially in its depiction of depression in the life of a child where there is nothing obviously wrong. I think that’s where the communication often breaks down between children and adults, when it’s easy to say ‘You shouldn’t feel this way. I deny your emotions because there’s no reason to feel this way. Just be happy.’ ”

Some parents have left negative reviews for the earlier books on Amazon and Goodreads, saying their child shouldn’t be exposed to such painful subjects. Hsu disagrees. “You cannot protect your child from life,” she said. “I was really wowed by how Shannon wasn’t afraid to be honest about what a kid actually goes through and how they would feel and how they react.” Indeed, other reviewers said the books were helpful in opening conversations on tough topics.

It was Hale who recommended that Pham be the artist for Real Friends; the two had previously collaborated on the Princess in Black series, and Pham had been enthusiastic when Hale showed her the beginning of Real Friends. “Over the course of the books they have done together they have become best friends,” Hsu said, “and it’s eerie sometimes how LeUyen, without much direction from Shannon, will recreate scenes and characters that are accurate to Shannon’s memory.”

Hale is the writer of Goose Girl, Princess Academy, and the Wonder Woman graphic novel Diana: Princess of the Amazons, so she has an extensive following among young readers. In addition, Hsu thinks the Real Friends books have something special of their own. “I think it’s a combination of an appealing art style, strong covers that tell you a bit about the story and the character, and then once you read the book, authentic characterization and an engrossing story,” she said. “It’s a hybrid, but I really think it’s the strength of the way Shannon tells the stories that brings the readers to the book.”

Hsu is enthusiastic about graphic novels; she had read the award-winning First Second titles Anya’s Ghost and This One Summer before coming to Roaring Brook, and when she arrived at Macmillan she specifically asked to acquire graphic novels for the imprint. What impresses her is the way that authors such as Raina Telgemeier have built audiences over time. “You generally think that the first-year sales are going to be the biggest,” she said, “but Raina has just kept growing and growing, and with subsequent graphic novels, people were going back to her previous books, and it became a giant market.”

That’s true for lower-profile graphic novels as well as bestsellers, Hsu said. “What’s wonderful is even the graphic novels that don’t necessarily hit the [bestseller] list are selling consistently, are building and building, and that’s beautiful to see too. The hunger is there, and we are feeding it. That hunger is voracious.”

Friends Forever by Shannon Hale, illus. by LeUyen Pham. First Second, $21.99 (paper $12.99) Aug 31 ISBN 978-1-250-31756-8