Now that I've read BEST FRIENDS, I think I can pretty safely say that this is one of the best things I've ever read or will read from Hale. The 80s setting is so vivid-- the clothes, the songs (and part of that goes to LeUyen Pham for her illustrations). The way that Hale describes mean girl friendships and social pitfalls is honestly so on-point. And then there are inserts from the (yes, self-insertiony) stories that she wrote to escape. Perhaps most meaningful for me, though, was writing about what it's like to be a kid with anxiety. Whether it's chronic stomachaches or fear of rollercoasters, I honestly felt so scene when she wrote about this stuff.
Some of the reviews I get the most hate for are middle grade. There are people out there who seem to believe that writing for kids gets you a free pass from all the pedants out there like me who moan about things like "characterization" and "complex storylines." Because, you know, kids don't care about any of that shit. Throw on Ryan's World or even just jangle your keys at them, and they'll be entertained! I don't think these nay-sayers realize how utterly fucking condescending that is, implicitly suggesting that kids don't have the cognitive wherewithal to recognize a good story from a bad one.
That said, I do get how middle grade suffers under the delightful paradox of being one of the most difficult age groups to write for and also the most maligned. Authors who write for middle grade have to produce material that will appeal to kids just entering their teens while also not getting outraged phone calls from the parents of kids who are still in the single digits. It's a tough balancing act, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to do it. And despite all that, a lot of people are pretty dismissive of children's literature as a whole. Perhaps only the romance genre gets more shit from critics.
BEST FRIENDS really does a good job of straddling that line, though, being real-world relatable while also holding back just enough to kind of leave things to the reader to decide. I think many girls and boys are going to find this incredibly comforting. I wish it had been around when I was a kid.
4.5 out of 5 stars