New York Times bestselling author Shannon Hale is re-teaming with her Princess in Black partner-in-crime LeUyen Pham for a new endeavor that’s just as important as it is inspiring. In spring 2017, Hale and Pham will debut First Friends, a new graphic novel about elementary school friendships, the perils of bullying, and the complicated world of learning how to fit in. In advance of the announcement, EW spoke with Hale and Pham about the decision to tell stories based on their own experiences, and why this project is so personal to them.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You mention that the book was written in part from your own experiences and hearing what your children went through. What was the most challenging part of putting this together?
SHANNON HALE: Having my own elementary-age kids made me wish for a book like this one to share with them, and that inspired me to write it down. But I didn’t use any of their personal stories in it. I’d never written directly from my own experiences before. It really was a challenge to wrestle memories straight, to select which of the postcard-like memories of my childhood I should use to create a story, to try to string them together into a narrative.
Because this story was somewhat autobiographical, and because you had a personal connection to it, did you feel pressure when you were writing it?
HALE: Yeah, to be honest, I felt a little sick to my stomach — at least when I wasn’t writing it, because I was questioning if I should do it at all. But whenever I was working on the story, I felt so passionate about it and really, really excited to work it out on paper and then share it. I changed all the names except my own because 30-year-old memories and my own flawed perception of events could never do justice to anybody else’s reality. This book would have been impossible to write if I had been doing it on my own. My editor, Connie Hsu, and I spoke often and she was a sounding board and companion on every draft. And then I hit the jackpot again with the illustrator. LeUyen Pham is a genius. With her visual storytelling combined with my writing, it’s no longer just my story. It’s hers plus mine, and then it will go out and belong to the readers as well.
LeUyen, you worked with Shannon on The Princess in Black, so you know her style and writing pretty well. Was it easy to come together on this project and collaborate?
LEUYEN PHAM: Shannon is one of those incredible writers who seems to understand what the illustrator needs and doesn’t need. What I love most about her is that she’s an author with very little ego. For our previous series, the book was set up as a sort of early reader series, introducing chapters and more complicated plots to young kids, and as a consequence the art was pretty important to maintain interest as story became more detailed. For our graphic novel, the experience is very similar. She just left so much space for me to interpret, and the more we spoke about it together and talked, the more we’d get excited by each other’s’ interpretations.
And how did you go about figuring out how to best illustrate your characters Adrianne and Shannon in this story? Did you base it on Shannon’s life a little bit, or did you get super creative with your drawings?
PHAM: That’s a funny question, because any book that’s semi-autobiographical risks being exposed and viewed badly in so many different ways, particularly by the people in the story. Shannon, Connie, and I had a lot of talks about that, about how closely to real life we should stick, how accurate everything should look, whether the characters should be spot on likenesses or not. What ended up happening was Shannon sent me a slew of old family photos, from which I initially started sketching. It’s hard when the source material is so prevalent, but eventually, I got to the point where Shannon the Writer and Shannon of the story were not only two very different people for me, but the Shannon in the story started to become a little bit of myself as well. Freeing myself from the photos proved very liberating in allowing me to act out the story in drawings. Also, there are lots of fantastic fantasy sequences in there that I really enjoyed, and from that I drew upon my own childhood fantasies.
I feel like not many people write about the trials and tribulations of elementary school. But I think telling stories like this is really important for kids, especially in this day and age of everything being so viral (so different than when we were in school.) Was that a factor in your storytelling as well?
HALE: I’ve seen in my own kids the same struggles that I had when I was their age. I think that no matter the advancements in technology and changes in culture, we’re all human beings who, at a basic level, just want to be liked and accepted. And hopefully, liked and accepted for who we are. Elementary school is such a weird time for friendships! Kids need friends so badly, and yet their worlds are so small. As we grow older, our worlds get bigger and we have more options, more people. But in elementary school, you get like 30 people and from that group you’ve got to find your tribe. When they’re not the right fit? You are alone, or you make do, or you drown.
LeYuen, Shannon wrote this story because it was something she experienced. Did you have something specific and personal that drew you to the story as well?
PHAM: You know, I had met Shannon long before we’d ever worked together. In fact, we had always sort of bemoaned the fact that our genres at the time didn’t cross much. She was primarily a young adult/fantasy writer, and I was a picture book illustrator through and through. When I was first given the manuscript for The Princess in Black, I didn’t even read it. I just told my agent that any script from Shannon was something I would take, sight unseen. And then this story came along, and Shannon had sent it to me, not so much to ask me to illustrate it, but instead to get my opinion on it. The story resonated with me immediately, and it was then that I understood why I liked Shannon so well. Shannon’s story struck a chord with me immediately, because her story is a universal story the desire for acceptance and understanding, of the failings and strengths that come from parts of childhood, making us the people we are today. I don’t think many women have gone through life without experiencing this story of wanting to belong, and yet wanting to be heard as well. So that’s me, too, that you see on the pages.
It seems like the underlying message of this book is basically “it’s okay to be yourself, it’s okay to be a little different.” What do you hope young readers take away from it?
HALE: My goal is really simply to tell an honest story. My hope is that if I am as honest as I can be about how I felt during my younger years, the book will find those readers who need this story and help them feel less alone.
What was one piece of advice that you learned when you were young, that you’d tell yourself today?
HALE: One time after we passed by a boy I knew from school, I told my older sister, “He’s in my class.” She said, “Why didn’t you say hi?” And I wasn’t sure why not, except that we weren’t exactly friends and I was always afraid of those unwritten rules. Acknowledge or ignore? So stressful! She advised me to always say hi and use the person’s name if I knew it. That was freeing advice for me and I lived by it. I don’t know if that habit directly led to my having more friends or not, but it made me feel happier. And maybe just that basic acknowledgement made someone else feel happier too.
PHAM: When I was a kid, my teachers were really influential on me. I think they could often sense that I was a bit of an outsider, that I was drawn into books a lot, and mostly drawing. There wasn’t a single year in my school age when I didn’t have at least one teacher encouraging me to draw and cultivate my art. Which was important, because my family didn’t really give much value to art. I always loved that my teachers gave me a sort of safe haven to dream and to pursue what I loved so much, even at a super young age. And while it’s not advice, really, there was a poem that my English teacher once gave me. It’s from Langston Hughes, and the poem is “The Dreamkeeper.” I know, there’s lot better advice out there, work hard, don’t give in, etc., but those are the words of comfort I go to when I need it most.