Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Middle-grade Review: Friends for Life

To give you an idea of just how big my to-be-read pile (actually, an entire bookcase) is, I pulled an interesting looking middle-grade novel off the shelf a couple of weeks ago and discovered it was an Advanced Reader’s Copy….due to be published in August 2015! So, I am a bit behind the times on this one, but I am so glad that I didn’t miss it. Friends for Life by Andrew Norriss is a story about a misfit boy who becomes friends with a girl ghost his age (yes, ghost). Though it starts out light, this warm and moving novel ends up tackling some very serious and important issues through its ghostly friendship.

Francis is sitting outside his school on a sunny bench, eating lunch by himself as usual, when a girl walks over and sits beside him. He is surprised, since he doesn’t recognize her and no one ever pays much attention to him. She is even more surprised, though, that he can see her and hear her, too. Her name is Jessica, and she explains to a shocked Francis that she’s been dead for a year and wandering around, but he is the only person who’s ever seen her or heard her. They agree to meet up again after school, and a very special (and unique) friendship is born.

Francis has become adept at being invisible himself because life is just easier if no one notices him. Unfortunately, though, Quentin goes out of his way to notice him and tease him. Francis has some unusual interests that he learned at a young age not to mention in front of his classmates, but Quentin has never forgotten and never misses a chance to taunt him. Jessica is introduced to Francis’ hobbies on her first visit to his house. He has a huge attic room devoted to fashion and making clothes. He loves fashion and draws and creates his own designs. Francis even has a huge collection of dolls, lined up on shelves and each dressed differently in Francis’ own creations, to represent the history of the last 50 years of fashion.

As two misfits, Francis and Jessica quickly bond. Francis’ mother, though, is more worried about him than ever because he spends all of his time up in the attic alone, and he seems to be talking to himself up there. She decides that he needs a friend and makes him meet the new girl down the road, Andi. Much to his surprise, Francis and Andi – despite being very different – actually get along well and discover they have something in common. Francis, Andi, and Jessica are now all good friends. Soon, they meet a boy named Roland, and he joins their small band of friends – more friends than any of them has ever had before.

These three live friends all share something in common. They are all misfits who have been bullied and teased by other kids for not fitting in. They love spending time together and – with their ghost friend, Jessica – are happy for the first time in a very long time. Jessica provides the impetus that takes their friendship to another level, though, as details from her history are gradually revealed (there are things she doesn’t remember at first). They eventually come to see that Jessica is even more important to them than they first thought and that their friendship can serve an even more important purpose for other kids who don’t fit in.

I wish I could tell you what important issues this wonderful book delves into, but I don’t want to spoil the surprising twists in the plot. Suffice is to say that, despite its light-handed touch and ghostly theme, Friends for Life is more than just a fun story (though it is that, too). It carries some important messages about not fitting in and bullying and more, with the misfit kids at the center of it as its heroes. I absolutely loved this warm, funny novel about ghosts and friendship that gradually reveals its layers of meaning and depth.

240 pages, David Fickling Books (Scholastic)

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