Friends With Boys by Erin Faith Hicks
I’m going to miss the public library next to my school. As I start filing applications for grad school and publishing programs (Lord preserve me), I’m starting to become very aware of the spaces and places I’m going to have to leave behind, whether my wildest dreams come true or no. I’ve gotten used to their layout, to taking a quick spin around the first floor, where all the fiction is spread out by audience age. And that’s how I ended up taking Friends With Boys home; a quick spin, deciding I liked the art, and off I went.
Friends With Boys follows Maggie McKay, the youngest and only girl of four siblings, all home-schooled until high school. Now that Maggie’s fourteen, it’s time to follow her brothers to the public school, to finally face, for the first time, other people her own age. As scary as that proposition sounds, Maggie has to deal with two more—she’s been stalked by a ghost since she was a little kid, and her mother, after completing Maggie’s education, has taken off. Navigating adolescence is hard enough without all of these ghosts…
At first blush, Friends With Boys might sound similar in concept to Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost, also published by First Second. You know, teenage girls dealing with their feelings, their mothers, and ghosts. But Anya’s Ghost deals with liminality and desperately wanting to fit in. While Maggie is initially scared of high school (Maggie compares crowded hallways to commuter trains in Japan, complete with fatalities), she doesn’t have a hard time fitting in, under the tutelage of her eldest brother, Daniel—after all, she’s always got her brothers. (In fact, Maggie’s only female friend, Lucy, is also close with her brother, Alistair, and the only other important female characters are Maggie’s mom and the nameless ghost.) Rather, Friends With Boys deals with the fear of change and learning to accept what you can and cannot change.
Obviously, Maggie’s reticence in attending high school (Daniel talks her down from wanting to homeschool through high school) is one of the major expressions of this theme; as easy as her transition is, especially with the support of her family, doing something new scares her. Her mother’s abandonment is another, as Maggie wonders what she could have done to make her stay and rejects her father’s incredibly kind assessment of Mrs. McKay’s actions. But it comes out in the littlest things as well. As the graphic novel opens, Mr. McKay has just been promoted to Chief of Police, which dictates him cutting his long hair. Maggie, naturally, reacts poorly. And it’s not just Maggie. Lucy and Alistair’s backstory covers Alistair’s struggle with accepting his tiny punk elf of a sister, and Maggie’s twin brothers, Xander and Lloyd (undoubtedly named after Lloyd Alexander), struggle with defining themselves as individuals as the world views them as a single unit. Even the end of the graphic novel and the resolution of the ghost story line is about accepting what you can and cannot do. Not only does that set it apart from Anya’s Ghost, but also apart from a lot of young adult literature. It manages to deliver the message without being pessimistic; in fact, it’s comforting.
I wasn’t familiar at all with Faith Erin Hicks before picking this up, but she’s quite a prolific cartoonist; after her first comic, Demonology 101, she’s published four, including Friends with Boys, and her current comic is The Adventures of Superhero Girl. Her art attracted me to Friends with Boys on the shelf; clean, warm, and detailed. She’s also very adept at family resemblances; Maggie and Daniel look a lot alike, which informs their relationship, especially given the fact that their middle brothers are twins. Her narrative voice is equally adept, although there’s something very late nineties/early aughts about Hicks’ aesthetic. (Is there a word for those years where the decades sort of elide with each other to create something new? We should invent one!) I’m still not quite sure what to do with the fact that there are only two girls with speaking roles here, though, even as it passes the Bechdel Test. Hmm.
Bottom line: Friends With Boys examines the fear of change and learning to accept what you can and cannot change in the story of Maggie McKay, a homeschooler transitioning to high school. Worth a shot.
I rented this book from the public library.