Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks is a coming-of-age graphic novel that shares several similarities with Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost (and not just because both books have a ghost haunting the protagonist!). Both Hicks’ and Brosgol’s graphic novels are influenced strongly by their own biographical matter – like protagonist Anya, Brosgol moved from Russia to the US when she was five-years-old, and like Hicks’ protagonist Maggie, she was homeschooled until high school and had three brothers. Both books also show an incredible sense of making the high school experience of their characters realistic and authentic (and if you’ve picked up JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, you’ll know why the word “authentic” is cropping up all over the place!).
Hicks’ Friends With Boys begins on Maggie’s first day of high school – she has been homeschooled throughout elementary and middle school, and, like her three brothers before her, it is now her turn to make the transition into a high school environment. The reader is immediately introduced to the “boys” in Maggie’s life, the male role models that are provided to her in abundance by her family situation. This is largely because her father, who has just been promoted to police chief, takes responsibility for Maggie and her brothers when his wife (Maggie’s mother) leaves the family. An exchange between Maggie’s dad and brother reveals the tension of the separation. Maggie’s dad says, “It’s exactly seventeen years since your mom started homeschooling you lot,” and her brother responds, “Yeah, and to celebrate, she took off.” Change has become familiar to Maggie – her mom leaving, starting high school – but when her father mentions that he has to get a hair cut because “Apparently the good people of Sandford will tolerate a cop who looks like a hippie, but a chief of police is another matter,” it becomes one more “something different” to deal with on her first day of school.
Maggie’s brothers, twins Zander and Lloyd, and older brother Daniel, already go to high school, and when she has a mini-freak-out on her first day, they are all there to help her get through it (even though Daniel won’t walk her to school, insisting going alone is a “rite of passage”). On her first day of school Maggie meets Lucy and her brother Alastair, and forms a loose friendship with them both inside and outside of school. One of my favorite moments in the graphic novel is a map that Maggie draws of her high school, including which hallways to avoid and which shortcuts to take: “Makeout stairwell AVOID!!” “Grade 9 Bathrooms.” “People Sleep Here.” “Nice Place to Eat Lunch.” “Third Period.” The library is also notably present on her map, occupying a large square at the center of the page.
Hicks’ artistic style is also of note in this book, and her representations of her characters seem so real and nuanced. Her characters actually look like high school students, and they cover a wide spectrum of character “types.” Although Daniel is definitely a “theatre geek” and Lucy and her brother Alastair would fall into the “alternative/punk” type, Hicks does not allow her characters to remain trapped in these strict definitions. She presents details that round and flesh out her characters, so that even if they may initially seem to fit into a particular type, they go much deeper than that. They are believable and real, and they provide something concrete for readers to hold on to.
Friends With Boys follows Maggie as she encounters the new world of high school, makes friends, and unravels a ghost story. Maggie’s family is a tight-knit group navigating a new world where their mother is no longer in the picture, relying on one another to find a new place for themselves. It is a poignant coming of age story told through Hicks’ incredible art and skillful writing.