When Good Characters Make Bad Friends by Amy Estersohn
The land of middle grade literature is filled with characters so one-dimensional they’re almost cartoonish. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the cartoons — ahem, graphic novels — capture complex characters.
Take, for example, Astrid, the main character in Victoria Jamieson’s delightful graphic novel Roller Girl. When Astrid, her best friend, Nicole, and her mom attend to a roller derby show, Astrid falls in love with the kick-butt action and the colorful nicknames and uniforms. As readers, it’s hard for us not to fall in love with roller derby as well.
Meanwhile, more astute readers may notice that while Astrid sits in awe, Nicole is grimacing about the violence, and Astrid is oblivious to her friend’s discomfort. The situation worsens when Astrid assumes Nicole will want to do roller derby camp with her. When Nicole demurs, Astrid feels abandoned and becomes more aggressive towards Nicole without ever explaining how she feels or acknowledging that friends don’t have to do every activity together.
More often than not, middle grades books about friendship changes are explained away with bullies and Mean Girls. There’s usually a clear hero(ine), a clear villain, and that’s that. But we all know that real life is much more murky and complex, and real-life aggressors look more like Astrid than a Disney villain.
My students face friendship challenges all the time, and in many of these situations the aggressors act out of ignorance rather than malice. Kids can take friendship for granted, make assumptions about what others may want, or ignore a friend’s wishes instead of addressing them. Roller Girl gives us a way to think of ourselves — and our peers– not as heroes or villains, but rather as well-intentioned individuals who are always in need of improvement.
Amy Estersohn teaches at a middle school that has an ice skating rink attached to it. To her knowledge, no students have used that rink for roller derby, and that’s probably a good thing.