Friday, January 29, 2016

'Nuff Read: Friends with Boys

One of the many refreshing things about this young adult graphic
novel is that the "friends" of the title are protagonist Maggie's brothers.
A good library is one that is full of surprises. Recently, while monitoring my students as they took the distinct mandated Student Reading Inventory online in our school's Library/Center, I discovered my most recent surprise among the stacks. In the past ten years or so, our school library, much like the public libraries in our larger community, have seen an increase the number of graphic novels available for borrowing. Fortunately, the "surprise" wasn't the presence of graphic novels as a genre on the shelf, but rather the fact that a specific creator's work had been made available.

While initially most of the offerings were hackneyed classic adaptations of now familiar novels, such as The Hobbit, in addition to random manga, shelves are now littered with more familiar comic book fare. Spider-man and Walking Dead trades (collections of previously published single-issue story arcs) are easily available to those who have a passing familiarity with the characters based upon popular media iterations such as television show and blockbuster movies.

Understandably it is "familiarity" which in large part dictates just what titles libraries can spend invaluable financial resources on (if there is no demand for a title, it doesn't make much sense to purchase it to collect dust on a shelf), I was once again pleasantly surprised to notice a title on the shelf which, though familiar to me given my status as a "comic fanboy." It was a very pleasant surprise to see Faith Erin Hicks Friends With Boys tucked (out of order) within close proximity to a past surprise, Andy Runton's Owly.

Not surprisingly, Maggie's
absent mother looms large.
Friends With Boys is a full length semi-autobiographical full-length graphic novel by the Eisner award-winning Faith Erin Hicks. Though initially available online as a web-comic just prior to publication in 2012, I only became aware of Hicks' graphic novel after thoroughly enjoying her work in both the Dark Horse mini-series, The Last of Us. (2013) and 2014 Free Comic Book Day offering Avatar The Last Airbender.

Home-schooled her whole childhood, Maggie's first day of traditional high school is just a little scary. If that is not stressful enough, until this point in her life, Maggie's friendships have consisted primarily of the strong bond she shares with her brothers. When Maggie does begin a nascent friendship with another Lucy ("the first girl [she] can remember being friends with'"), the dialogue gets real quickly. Though our protagonist is a high school freshman, the interactions ring true universally. Yes, this is clearly a YA (Young Adult) graphic novel, but even as a 40+ year old male, Hicks' writing has a truthfulness to it for any who have been challenged with connecting with others, especially within an otherwise isolating life. As compelling as these plot points are, they do not begin to scratch the surface of the dense characterization put forth in this small volume wherein not a panel or word balloon doesn't contribute.

Ghost in the graveyard.
As the story develops in an increasingly supernatural direction with the addition of ghosts, graveyards and a pirate's prosthetic hand, I could not help but be reminded of the magical realism genre my class has been working with the past week in English class. Hicks' deftly develops another connection that Maggie and Lucy also have in common: a fascination with a local gravestone ("Not just a gravestone but the gravestone") and the ghost that periodically floats in and out of Maggie's childhood. From early on in Friends with Boys, the reader is introduced to Maggie's silent, floating friend. In the context of the real-world setting of our story, Maggie, and as she finds  as well as others, accept the spirit's existence as relatively normal aspect of her life (a fact that, as she comes to learn, is shared by others).

When I return Friends with Boys to the library at the start of the school day on Monday, I hope it continues to find an audience among the students at my high school. While one of my classes will soon begin a study of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis in the coming weeks, too few students (and even more misinformed adult-types) have accepted the societal conditioning that poo-poos the graphic novel. I will continue to promote the graphic novel genre as a worthy one, and fortunately my cause becomes easier to argue thanks to accessible, meaningful young adult lit such as Friends with Boys.

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