I don’t know why, but when I was younger, autobiographies were boring. Perhaps it was because the rare autobiographies available to children were all those of early leaders in a pre-digital age, but it seemed to me that daily life could be menial [this could be the reason why I’m so bad at keeping a journal]. No one’s life was particularly interesting to me when examined in the almost journal-like, trip-down-memory-lane fashion. That is, until I read The Diary of a Young Girl. My life was forever changed after that point. Anne Frank’s words touched me as few others have, with perhaps the exception of those from To Kill A Mockingbird and the Bible itself.
Since then I have gained an appreciation for this format, but never so much as when I’ve most recently read it in graphic format. Author Shannon Hale and author-artist Jimmy Gownley attempt to relive a bit of their childhoods through their autobiographies, both separately reliving an important part of their youth.
The Dumbest Idea Ever! is Jimmy Gownley’s interpretation of his earlier life, detailing his rise from normal kid to comic book creator. Like the book to follow, this is a coming-of-age story; a story where the hero, in this case creator Jimmy Gownley, grows from being a normal kid who thinks he has it all to being a kid with poor grades but a dream to become a great comic book artist one day. This story is somewhat interesting in two ways. Firstly, the author himself never intended to create a book about himself, yet the prompt to write about their lives from best friend Tony (aka “the dumbest idea ever”). Secondly, the author manages to create a real story, despite the fact that there is no central conflict nor issue ever really addressed. Overall, this is just a fun lark about a kid working on a comic as he enters high school and makes mistakes. I’ll come back to talking about this book, but for now, I’d like to move on to my second pick.
Real Friends is not Shannon Hale’s first foray into the comic book world, but it is one of the first without author/illustrator Nathan Hale doing the illustrations. This time artist LeUyen Pham, illustrator of countless books including Hale’s own Princess in Black series, brings life to Shannon Hale’s story. Her plot is centered around the friendships that have risen and fallen in her life and not much else. Like Gownley, Hale manages to make this an interesting story with a good through line despite the fact that this too is a slice of life story. Unlike Gownley’s autobiography, however, Shannon Hale’s story does have a central conflict which revolves around whether the younger Shannon could find her self-confidence and her “real” friends.
So, why do I find these two graphic novels so interesting? For starters, I’ve never seen an autobiography done this way, let alone done for children. It’s clear that the authors are still able to connect with their youthful spirits and that’s to be appreciated for how clear and relatable the characters on. It’s also rather interesting to note that the main characters in question both struggle with a desire to be the best people they can be and to please their parents, a desire most likely derived from a moral and Catholic/Mormon upbringing. These are characters who, as younger versions of the creators, were kids raised in a certain type of household who like most children want to do their best and are willing to work hard for it.
Another interesting thing about these two books and possibly the most interesting thing is the story’s treatment of themes and character. Mainly its theme of finding oneself via friendship and trials and the character that develops from that. Little Jimmy Gownley and Shannon Hale are not only relatable but have inherent character flaws that most kids, if not all people, possess at one point or another. A desire to be popular, a bit of arrogance, a pushover, a wanna-be, a loner, a friend; at some point or another we’ve all been these things. These books reflect a child’s reality while on another level being understandable on a human level regardless of age.
Lastly, I wanted to point out that these aren’t just a collection of fun and weird little stories bound up in one volume: these are stories. These are stories with a beginning, middle, and end and they feel finished when the covers are closed. These books work and they work well as actual stories with functioning plot and character development. One of my biggest criticisms of autobiographies was always that one’s life can often seem like less of a story and more like a ramshackle collection of stories and these books both manage to overcome that issue brilliantly.
I highly recommend you pick these books up at your local library or bookstore and give them a whirl. They have my vote.