(9th grade & up) When it comes to books that take place in high school, one is often faced with two distinct story types: you either get the idealized, everybody is friends and graduation is the great happily ever after, or you get the gritty realism where all the cliques are at war and people genuinely hate each other, pick on each other and do their best to humiliate each other… like people so often do. Every now and then, however, you get a book that falls between these two poles. Faith Erin Hicks’ webcomic-to-printed-piece Friends with Boys (First Second Books) is one of those kind of books. It’s a story that recognizes the bitter truth of high school: that people generally don’t get along and that there is a very real hierarchy in which everyone has their place. But it is also somewhat idealized in nature. More on that in a minute. First, the synopsis:
14-year-old Maggie McKay is the last of five siblings, the eldest four of which are male, to make the transition from a cozy homeschooled life to the frenzied jungle that is Sandford High. That, however, is only one of the major changes going on in her life. To wit, her father has been elected as the new chief of police and has to cut his trademark long hair, her twin brothers are no longer as close as they once were and are constantly fighting, and her mom, who homeschooled all five children for 17 years, decided to trade in her responsibilities for a life of freedom, i.e., one without her family. Oh, and did I mention that she’s also being haunted by the spectral widow of an old ship’s captain? All of these things tick like a bomb in the background of Maggie’s coming of age. Who is she as a person? Who, and what, does she care about? What about friends, will she have any of those? And most importantly, can she keep it all together and stop herself from drowning in the sea of problems that is her life right now?
It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a book as thoroughly as I enjoyed this one. All those elements that I mentioned in the synopsis? A lesser writer would have started them spinning and quickly lost control. But Hicks is no lesser writer. She perfectly balances each aspect and keeps them simmering throughout the whole story, each one set to boil over in the riotous, and hilarious, climax. As for all the characters, each one is properly fleshed out and made to seem real through the awkward mannerisms and stunted conversations that adolescence is made up of. Details about Maggie and other characters are revealed through tiny gems that pop up as we dig through the overarching plot, and each one fastens us all the more tightly to the person we are reading about. And there are lots of details to be revealed, with Hicks leaving nothing out. Even Maggie’s mother, who never actually appears in the whole book, is handled with the delicacy due a more prominent character as her absence hangs like a dark weight over the family and is clearly the cause of a lot of strife.
As for my earlier assertion that the book is slightly idealized, that comes through because of a certain ‘meta-knowledge’ that some of the characters have about the lasting effects of high school on one’s life. In one scene, Maggie’s friend Alistair outright states one of the main themes of the book: “You know, we have a choice how we’re going to act in high school. I don’t want to be that guy being an a**hole to that other guy because he does theater instead of sports, okay? That crap stays for life, whether we want it to or not.” I don’t know about you guys, but I wish more people had this kind of realization while they were still in high school. There’d be less of a need for all the (wonderful) programs out there like the It Gets Better campaign to help remind students that there is, in fact, life after high school. Personally, I love this kind of theme in a book, and it fits well in Hicks story. But to have a character so clearly state it, for me, pushes the whole story over, just a little, into the idealized category. Which, when you think about it, is OK because it’s a theme that kids, high school kids in particular, need to hear. At times, a little didacticism can go a long way.
Whew, OK. A quick note about Hicks art, then I’m done: It’s brilliant. Seriously, I love every page. The facial expressions are my favorite part. There are scenes that feel so much deeper and so much more real than anything I’ve read in a book simply because of all the emotion that Hicks can convey with a few strokes of her brush. Her blending of a cartoon-ish style with darker, more serious tones comes off incredibly well and allows her to insert comic relief into serious scenes without jarring the reader. So, when she does something like write in a huge, bold font the words “MANLY HUG” around two guys hugging or “AWKWARD SILENCE” as two characters avoid looking at each other, it seems perfectly natural.
In the end, this is a story that will stay with you. Those gems that I mentioned before? As you read along and discover more and more of them you will begin to come to a realization: these characters are becoming your friends, your best friends even, worming their way into your life just as the friends you are reading about worm their way into each other’s. In that sense, Friends with Boys is a little like falling in love: it’s the details that draw us to people and the more we know, the more we find out, the deeper we fall. So, teens (and parents too), read this book, fall hard in love, and, while you’re there, take some important themes with you; for parents, it’s something you’ll wish you’d learned in high school, for teens, it’s something you should learn well, and learn now.
If you’re interested, read the first 20 pages here.