MMGM (6/10/2019): Making Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk
I'm back! (With another graphic novel review—I promise I have at least one review of a book in prose coming up.) Today, I am reviewing one of the most bizarre books I have read in recent years: Making Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk.
The first thing I want to mention about Making Friends is that the publisher's description is not a very accurate depiction of what the book is. The description explains that the novel is about 7th-grader Danielle (or Dany), who feels lonely when her friends are placed in other classes during the new school year. The description goes on to explain that Dany inherits a special sketchbook that causes anything Dany draws in it to come to life. Dany decides to draw herself a friend named Madison (hence the double entendre of the title), but the description points out that, even if Dany has made herself a friend, she may be unable to keep her. The book sounded pretty interesting to me from this description, but the problem is that there is a lot to this book that the description leaves out. Namely, at the start of the book, Dany accidentally draws something else: the floating head of a semi-evil manga character that then becomes a supporting character throughout the novel and wreaks supernatural havoc. Yes, it is as weird as it sounds. (And there is a whole short subplot about Dany trying to draw a body for this floating head that then ends up just being a headless corpse of a body that she has to bury in a grave—how is this appropriate for MG readers?)
I didn't stop reading this novel despite the weird start—to be honest, I found it a somewhat refreshing twist on the clichés that usually plague MG novels. However, the book never really found its footing for several reasons. One big problem with Making Friends is that its main character, Dany, is quite one-dimensional. She is characterized only by her struggle to make friends, and her interests (such as drawing or watching anime) and conflict-ridden extended family are alluded to many times but never explored. Dany honestly seems like a plot device to explore the lives of the novel's other characters. Another problem with the novel is that the plotting and ending are messy. Dany starts to make friends with several kids but then unlearns the skills she has built up, succumbing to pressure and bullying others. The end of the book does basically nothing to resolve the conflict, instead being a weird supernatural battle built on that most awful of clichés: the power of friendship! The book uses this cliché as a joke, but why is the climax of the book built on a joke? The resolution to Dany's making-friends plot line is that she then makes friends with an entirely new group of kids at a temporary new school, but this resolution essentially renders all of the work Dany did befriending other kids moot. It also seems to show that the book only values Dany when she makes other friends, not when she develops as an actual person and becomes content with who she is. Dany never really does become content with who she is, remaining a one-dimensional, miserable (often for comedic effect), and even mean child who desperately needs to prove to herself that she can be popular. Dany's portrayal honestly seems dangerous to young children, who might take away that kids without friends have no real personality and will never truly become happy with who they are. To conclude this laundry list of complaints, I also want to mention that the whole struggle with Madison (the made-up best friend) possibly leaving Dany is actually built largely on Madison having an existential crisis about not having any parents and essentially existing as Dany's slave. This crisis is probably the most fascinating thing about the graphic novel, but it is symptomatic of the larger identity crisis of this novel: it cannot decide whether it is trying to be darkly humorous, existentialist, and supernatural or (as the publisher's description would indicate) a classic MG novel about the struggle of having friends. Both the publisher and the author seem desperate to shoehorn this novel into being something that it isn't.
Now that I have drowned you all in an endless rant, I want to conclude this review with something this book made me think about. As a very young child, I was basically as shy as humanly possible. In 7th grade (coincidentally, the grade Dany is in in the book), I recall speaking one sentence to any other classmates the entire year. I had no friends in school or outside of it, mainly because I was too nervous/awkward to try to make any. I know that there are other people who struggled in the same way that I did (and honestly still do), which is why it makes me insane when books have a main character that is purportedly "totally and completely lost" (per Making Friends's back cover) yet already has a group of incredibly kind and devoted friends outside of school that the character takes for granted and then continues to take for granted as he/she makes even more friends by the end of the book. Call it my insecurities seeping into this blog post, but I want to see a book with a main character like me, who actually has no friends and has to deal with the struggle to even exist, let alone speak, in a room with anyone else in it. I get that having a miserable main character with no friends makes for an unpleasant book, but I (as well as other readers, I suspect) am tired of books that pretend to be about someone like me, but are not (especially since they cannot actually give me the friends that the main character just takes for granted). Perhaps more authors should try to write books that actually are friends for the reader, as that is probably the most help an author can give to a lonely child (reading novels is certainly the way I coped and stayed happy as a young child). Or authors should understand and attempt to show readers that shy children do have personalities and can be content with who they are! (One novel that accomplishes this task quite well is The Year of the Book, which actually is about a shy girl who seeks refuge in other novels but still manages to build up meaningful relationships with children and other members of the community! If anything I said above resonated with you, I highly recommend that you go read The Year of the Book now!)