Friendship is Not Wasted on the Young

March 12, 2020 § 1 Comment

My daughter has had the same best friend for nine years. She met her when she was just beginning to run and climb, when I used to swing by our local playground—what we called the “Tot Lot”—after dropping her brother off at preschool. It was an instant connection, the likes of which I had never experienced with my son, and it stopped me in my tracks. Child development literature would have placed my daughter squarely in the realm of “parallel play.” So how to explain that she never let fall the hand of this other little girl, that they climbed and descended the small slide, crawled through plastic boulders, and scampered up and down artificial hills as one?

After spending nearly every day together for years, the girls don’t see each other as often now; they live about an hour apart. Still, when they get together, they pick up like no time has passed. They disappear into their own world: talking in whispers, inventing elaborate games, often so wrapped in each other’s arms that it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins. To witness their togetherness feels like being in the presence of something magical, something almost miraculous.

Julie Fogliano and Jillian Tamaki’s my best friend (Ages 3-7) came out only a week ago, but so enthusiastic has the response been from the kid lit world, I feel like the last person to sing its praises. (Still, wild horses couldn’t keep me from joining in the fun.) An homage to the giddy abandon exhibited in early childhood friendships—particularly those born on the playground—the book has all the makings of a classic. Fogliano’s free verse sings and soars with the stream of consciousness of a child tasting the deliciousness of friendship for the first time. (i have a new friend/ and her hair is black/ and it shines/ and it shines/ and she always laughs at everything) Tamaki’s muted palette of rusty pink and olive green lends the book a timeless, vintage feel, while the figures themselves spill and explode off the page, their excitement literally uncontainable.

my best friend stars a pair of girls, deeply engrossed in a world they have created for themselves, one of tire swings and clasped hands and chalk drawings and make-believe games. For readers, what makes this intimacy so enticing and relatable is not so much what the girls are doing as how excited the one is to tell us about it. Her breathless excitement is palpable on the page: she is so smart/ and when/ i say la la la/ she says/ la la la/ and then we laugh/ and turn our hands into ducks/ and run away quacking

The girls aren’t all volume and silliness. Sometimes “when we are feeling quiet,” they sit under a tree, fixing flowers they’ve accidentally stepped on, or turning leaves into “skeleton hands” by pulling off the green parts

The thrill of being “chosen,” a powerful lure in any close friendship, is captured perfectly. Tasting the promise of friendship for the first time, our narrator ponders the idea of a best friend, trying it on for size. she is my best friend/ i think/ i’ve never had a best friend/ so i’m not sure

It turns out making a best friend is a lot like falling in love, not just for the infatuation we experience in the presence of another, but for the way we look for signs that this affection is mutual. i think she is a really/ good best friend/ because when we were/ drawing/ she drew me/ and i drew her/ and then we made hearts/ around it

Here, too, is the courtship of early friendship: when we want nothing more than to impress, nothing more than to establish our own jokes and language. she really likes laughing/ she laughed for the whole entire day/ especially when/ I pretended to be a pickle/ she really really liked that

Towards the end of the book, the illustrations become increasingly abstract. It’s as if the closer the girls grow, the more blurred the lines become between their inner and outer lives; their fanciful imaginings begin to encroach quite literally on their everyday surroundings. On one page, as the girls sit back-to-back on the ground enjoying ice cream cones (one strawberry and one non-strawberry, because even best friends are allowed to have differences), they are surrounded by vines of flowers and curious birds. In subsequent pages, as our narrator fantasizes about what escapades the girls might get up to in the near future, the birds and vines begin to grow in size, moving wildly with and around the girls.

But this is where I must conclude this review. Because I don’t dare spoil for you the final page turn: a twist I never saw coming—one which made me exclaim out loud—but which also felt right and true, perfectly in keeping with the optimism spurred by young friendship.

As our children get older, their friendships will change. I see this already with my daughter’s school friends. Alliances can be fickle; hurt can run deep; messiness and confusion and doubt seem the norm. The days of instantaneous, carefree connection are numbered. But I think about the glory days of my girl and her friend tearing around playgrounds with crowns and sticks, coming to rest in some shaded spot to share snacks off dirty hands; and I think, wow, that was joy. That was love. And maybe we’re right to chase that feeling for the rest of our lives.

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Review copy from Simon and Schuster. All opinions are my own. affiliate links, although I prefer we all shop local when we can!

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