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Mastering Middle School Friendship Drama

In “Best Friends,” instead of magic, the main character, Shannon, based on the author Shannon Hale herself, escapes from the perils of everyday friendships and channels her worries into her own writing, creating a story about a rich girl who, despite her wealth and beauty, is neglected by her parents and desperately lonely until she is transported to another land far away. “Perhaps here, at last, she wouldn’t be a weirdo,” Shannon writes.

This is a sequel to “Real Friends,” which covered Shannon’s elementary school history of struggling mightily to make any friends. Now, everything seems to be going well at the beginning of sixth grade — Shannon’s befriended the cool girl Jen, and she has her own squad: “It felt pretty amazing. Finally, I felt like I had real friends. Finally, I felt liked. More than liked. Popular.” Yet social interactions are still perplexing, especially as the other girls slowly become more interested in hanging out with boys than they are in playing Shannon’s imaginary games. “Everything was constantly changing. I was never sure when it was O.K. to be silly … or when we were supposed to be mature,” Shannon says. Pham’s illustrations, as wholesome and inviting as an Archie comic, capture Shannon’s innocence.

“Best Friends” takes place in a time warp of ’80s nostalgia, where Christa McAuliffe hasn’t yet taken off into space and the cool kids watch “The A-Team” on television and listen to Wham! Shannon can’t keep up with who’s in and who’s out, and the proclivities of her hippieish parents for bluegrass music and no television on school nights don’t help.

“When you go from being left out to doing the leaving out, it can feel intoxicating,” Shannon says. But she also comes to the powerful realization that in this system, to be popular means other people have to be unpopular. Ultimately, as a nice girl, she’s uncomfortable with that.

Hale grew up Mormon in Salt Lake City, and religious themes poke through in small ways. Shannon’s friend Jenny confronts her about talking behind her back, telling her “gossiping is a sin.” Later, when she’s torn about appearing cool rather than doing the right thing to protect a boy who’s being bullied, she thinks to herself, “Jesus would want me to stand up for him.”

Then there’s the fact that Shannon suffers from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. There are days she can’t go to school because her stomach hurts too much. “Sometimes awful thoughts got stuck in my head. I’d try not to think about them. But they just keep coming, around and around. … I knew by now that the worries probably weren’t true, but they felt true.”

At the end of the book, Hale also offers a helpful letter to her readers explaining her own struggles with anxiety and how she didn’t have words for those “yucky” feelings when she was young. She encourages readers not to avoid their feelings, but to find ways to cope with them.

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