5.11.2010

strange things about high school in ya books

Lately, I've definitely been experiencing a discrepancy between what high school is really like for me, and what I'm reading about in YA books and seeing in high school movies. So I'm sort of wondering where this is all coming from.



I remember thinking three years ago, as I was preparing myself for freshman year, better get ready for:

1) Nerds getting shoved into lockers. A lot.
2) The cafeteria being separated into very obvious cliques
3) "weird" people sitting in the corners, friendless and menacing
4)Jocks and cheerleaders ruling the school
5) Random people coming up to me and offering me drugs on a daily basis.

and um, lots of other misguided and stupid apprehensions. Maybe I'm just oblivious but in the three years I've been in high school, I've noticed that none of the above are true. In fact, they're blatantly false. My high school doesn't even have lockers, no one eats in the cafeteria unless they can help it, "weird" people have bigger groups of friends than jocks, and I've never come across a queen bee cheerleader or ruling football player. I like to shout a resounding NO to ever having someone ask me to do drugs with them.

And while I'm at it, I would also like to point out that most people don't pass notes under teacher's noses (it's called texting, haha), we like and use formspring and facebook a lot, Saturday school/detention is for people who are tardy, it's actually extremely easy to ditch and good kids do it quite often. Also, I've never experienced young lust love blooming during biology class. (What is with the whole I-meet-my-soulmate-in-biology thing in books nowadays? We do things like take notes on cell respiration in biology for two hours, in dead silence. NOTHING, I mean NOTHING could be less romantic.)

It's actually quite a pleasant surprise to not have to deal with any of the high school expectations I derived from what movies and books told me high school would be like. But where do they come from? Why do books continue to include wrongful high school stereotypes, when it's clear they aren't true?

I think many of these high school stereotypes come from teen movies, but sometimes I notice them leaking into YA novels too. And I think that sometimes YA novels take a bit of too much inspiration from teen movies when it comes to portraying high school dynamics.

So you can understand my confusion, when I read books in which mean jocks (of course hopelessly dumb, and good-looking) and cheerleaders (invariably blonde and well-dressed) are popular and pick on the poor, helpless outcasts or nerds who are really the awesome ones on the inside.

The problem?

I've found that popularity (or lack of it) has absolutely no bearing on how cruel a person can be. Nerds are just as likely to pick on somebody as a jock is. That cheerleader that sits next to me in class? Total genius, and nice too. Can't say much about how popular she is though.

And another thing: I don't know if my high school is just the odd-one out, but I can barely tell who's popular and who's not. I'm kind of wary of using the word "popular", even though I have been. Popularity is such a weird term, anyhow. There is most definitely no queen bee that I'm aware of. There's no "in" group, in which the nerds and every other person is aspiring to be part of. We're just a random mixture of kids--who, yes--do separate into groups. But these groups are mostly based off of what activities we're involved in: there are the ASB kids, the soccer-playing kids, the artistically talented kids. But there's also the kids that have what seems like nothing in common except an English class together, and they get along well. There's a lot of interaction between these groups, as well. Cheerleaders are friends with anime-obsessed kids. Top students are friends with jocks. Sometimes, cheerleaders are the nerds. Sometimes, jocks are the top students. All these stereotypes are more often wrong then they're right.

And maybe, YA should reflect that.


I'm sort of wondering where all AP classes are in YA protagonist schedules.

And I'm a baffled by the total lack of students who are stressed out from school. There's not a sign of the college application frenzy that devours seniors in the fall, where everything anyone talks about is college. Where seniors are freaking out because this is their future on the line. What about the scholarship applications and financial aid applications to fill out?

And I'd like to see characters coming home from school and being buried under five hours of homework, or studying insanely for a test. Heck, I'd like to see someone studying frantically for the SAT/ACT, or bemoaning spending Saturdays taking standardized testing, or being consumed by their AP study guide and AP testing, or freaking out about finals week. I'd love to see characters who are procrastinating endlessly on assignments and staying up the whole night to do schoolwork. Or even doing something that remotely has to do with high school academics.

Okay, so maybe writing or reading about a character that just goes home and does their homework everyday for a few hours is boring, but it makes me resentful of all these YA characters who don't seem to have anything on their plate, school-wise, but are still described as "straight-A, ivy league-bound overachievers"

C'MON!

That is beyond ridiculous. And yet, they still have time to be in forever-in-love with paranormal creatures or out partying or whatever. If they really have that much time on their hands, they better have a 1.0 G.P.A and not be involved in an extracurricular activities at all (and their parents better be enrolling them in tutoring and grounding them. And for that matter, where are all the helicopter parents? Parents in general?).

We're not all devoted to our boyfriends or friends, and can't go out for hours everyday on weekdays just to hang out. I think about every single person I know is involved in some sort of after school activity. Sports (about half my school is on the track team). Clubs. Yearbook. Choir. ASB. Internships. Jobs. Dance. BLOGGING (tehe, just threw that in there).

And there's barely a sign of these after-school activities in YA books.

While some of the real aspects of high school might be boring to write or read about, it's a bit disconcerting to see some very important parts of high school completely left out of the books I'm reading. I'm left thinking that maybe I go to anomaly of a school, or that I'm completely oblivious to the workings of high school. Except, somehow I don't think so.

It'd be nice to see some of these stereotypes contradicted in contemporary books. It'd be nice to see some corresponding high school stress for students. I don't think some adults realize how busy teens are nowadays. We're running from school to sports to clubs to home to babysit and squeezing in time for the internet or TV. I'd like to see a character struggling to balance school with their social lives, and who by very virtue of their character subverts some of these stereotypes.

What do you think? Does high school in YA seem realistic to you?

70 comments:

Chanelley said...

This is so completely true, which is why in my own work, I don't ignore High School and the effects it has on teens. There's homework, and activities, and yes there are bitchy girls, but that's personality and not because they're cheerleaders (there are no cheerleaders in my story). Everything you've said up there is right, and I applaud you for bringing it to attention!

Milli said...

True! I mean, they don't even protray middle school realisticly, let alone High School. And, really, book makes high school seem so terrible with the cliques. It's almost as if the only thing a High Schooler should worry about is popularity. Bleh.

Amelia said...

Very nice, Choco - you've done it again!
I liked this post especially because you include your own HS experiences. Could I do a follow-up to your post on my blog, you think? Anyway, thanks for pointing out all those things. One thing in particular is how often characters skip school or just don't go. O.o I guess truant officers don't exist in the world of fiction.
But yeah my high school experience was incredibly different than what is usually portrayed in YA books. Sometimes it's aggravating because I don't feel that my "demographic" is being represented and I have to assure myself that I do, in fact, exist. Taking it a bit too far? Probably.
Thanks for yet another wonderful post!

Becky said...

How can this post not have more comments? What is with that Choco?

The post exudes awesomeness! I agree with much of what you say but I remember doing a lot of talking during science class especially during the experiments. I guess it depends on the teacher to some extent.

There were also clear divisions between social groups but as we neither have cheerleading or big sporting teams it doesn't kind of seem the same to me.

This seems to be spot on but maybe the question is do we want to read a realistic reflection of teen life or are we looking for the espacist interpretation of being a high-schooler?

silverush said...

I can't even explain how much I agree with you. I've never understood where some of the high school stereotypes came from. Although my perspective of how they differ is a bit different than yours, I still agreed with almost everything you said. [I also go to one of the smallest public schools on the face of the earth, so people actually notice if we skip a class. Plus we have to stay in the cafeteria for lunch.] I would, however, like to offer John Green books up for suggestion; I think high school was portrayed pretty well in them. Perhaps that's just me though. Does anyone else have any thoughts on them?

Johanna said...

Totally agree. I went to a huge high school (about 5,000 people) and so there were just too MANY of us for there to be popular people. I mean, there were still groups of people that definitely looked like they thought they were popular, but they weren't cardboard copies of each other! And kids who did sports were hardly ever those kids, they were too busy DOING SPORTS. Haha.

There's a movie called "Jawbreaker" that I LOVE just because it is EXACTLY what I believed high school was going to be like when I was 11 and 12. No classes, everyone in high heels, popular girls idolized beyond reason. :) It's hilarious. I love "Mean Girls" for the opposite reason: there are popular girls, but it's obviously a smaller school (being in college now I know people who say the clique thing WAS a problem in a school with 400 or so students!) and everyone has their own character. They also go to class, which is +100 points in my book.

Johanna said...

Also also, all of these stereotypes are part of the reason I am mostly over watching Glee ever again. I realize they're supposed to be a "deconstruction" to an extent, but the show is all over the place with what it's deconstructing from episode to episode and it weirds me out how little I recognize of my own school there.

Sheila said...

Hmmm. Things have apparently changed since I was in high school. Back then, #2, #3, and #4 were very much true, at least from my point of view. (I was one of the "weirds", or at least I thought so at the time. Imagine my surprise when, 15 years later, I got cc:d on an e-mail to a group I considered to be "the cool kids" -- including me among their number. Apparently, I was cool and never knew it. I wish I'd known.)

So maybe part of what you're seeing is just that some YA authors, well, aren't young adults anymore. So they're writing based on how things were when they were in high school, not realizing that things have changed since then.

Frankly, I'm glad to hear that some of those old stereotypes are gone. Good riddance!

Question for you: A friend of mine is writing a YA story that involves a young man who is openly gay. How would someone like that be viewed in your school?

Rachele Alpine said...

Great thoughts, and I agree with you on a lot of them (although I have to admit that I may have bought into a stereo-type or two you mentioned in my YA novel that's on submission right now). These are some great observations that make me nod my head in agreement! Also, I love your blog. I just discovered it, but I'm sure to be coming back!

Sam Hranac said...

You've made a lot of good points, and very well put.

Things have changed, is part of the problem. I imagine when people your age are 35 or 50 and writing YAs, they will be off base as well. We old folks try to do research and keep up (adding texting instead of notes etc). But it is a different world from 1970, or 80 or 90. Some of the cliches you mention really did exist, back in the dark ages.

Another part of the problem is we get lazy about the parts of the book that aren't central to the story, and we shouldn't. We need to update pieces of our writing that are side notes to the story so that the entire story rings more true. Also, relying on stereotypes, is just cheesy and lazy.

Thanks for the kick in the pants. (Found your blog via a writers' message board)

AnnH said...

I think part of the problem is that "quiet" books or movies that reflect real life often don't get the attention of editors or movie producers. They are looking for the big "hook."

RedHeadedQuilter said...

This is a very interesting post.

When I was in high school (from 1984-1987) numbers 1 through 4 were completely true. While there were kids who used drugs, no one ever offered me any so I can't comment on #5. I think Sheila's right - the environment of high school may have changed drastically in the last 20+ years but if the authors you've read are in their 30s or 40s, they'll write what they know or remember.

As for AP classes - there was no such thing when I was in high school. Parents in general were not very involved in their kids education. There was very little (if any) standardized testing and students were not nearly as over-booked and stressed as they are now. I barely remember studying, but I remember lots of parties and dances and fun with my friends. I think it's just a generational thing.

My name's Cara. said...

This post is so awesome I want to ride through the streets of town with an air-horn reciting it. Just sayin'. Seriously though, I agree with every single point you've touched on. I distinctly remember reading a certain vampire book (WHAT could it BE?) and wondering how the main character wasn't failing Biology. If I did as much work, I would be filling out my summer school forms right about now.

When I first really started to read YA fiction, I assumed, like you, that my school was part of the minority and these stereotypes actually existed in most other schools all over the country. Then, I came out of my little world and realized that some authors were not seeing high school as it is today. I've read quite a few books where the schools, as well as the people in them, were depicted very realistically, IMO, but too many that seem to be set a few decades earlier than they actually are.

Anyways, I love this post and your blog!

Have a great day!
-Cara

Audrey; (AyC) said...

I just pretend that the high schools in YA books these days are imaginary, because they obviously aren't anything like my own. My school is nice... we dont have cheerleaders, lockers are to small to fit kids, people have friends-not cliques...

And I completley agree with the activities/academics things. does nobody do homework? and it annoying if a protag is in honours/ap classes, yet never studies, yet always gets a high mark (blechh, I'm jealous!) And I've been in high school for a while, and nobody I know spends as much time obsessing over boys as characters in books, im not even kidding!

Emilia Plater said...

SING.
IT.
WOMAN.

I am so with you on the biology class bit. And ho-ly crap, even if some super hot guy from out of town WANTED to fall in love with me, I would have to be like "sorry gotta go take a nap." Because school is that freakin' stressful.

*worships post & you*

juliakarr said...

Great post! It's much easier to write "what you know" than what really is. And, as you said, typical (real) high school kids & their typical days might not make for very exciting reading (what with all the studying, etc.) But, it would be nice if certain things were portrayed a bit more realistically. Was good to read this!

Kate Hart said...

a) I like your new layout!

b) Even back when I was in HS, 1-4 weren't true. 5 on the other hand.... It probably depends more on who you run with. :)

Tahereh said...

THIS IS SO FREAKING TRUE OMGGGGG

i always thought it was ME. i thought maybe i just had a really weird high school experience. GEEZ!

seriously BRAVO. SING IT LOUD.

THEN PLEASE WRITE A BOOK OR 20.

also i miss you.

<333333

Rose Green said...

LOVE this!

I do think it depends on what high school you go to and what the dynamics are in that specific place--but my experience--and the experience talking to a lot of other people--is that the whole queen bee thing is more junior high. In high school people start to, you know, get to understand other people. At any rate, the cheerleading captain at my school (a public school in Arkansas, town population 12,000) was president of her class at Princeton, and another cheerleader is now a radiologist, so I don't believe in the dumb cheerleader myth... :)

a girl you once knew said...

Though the high schools portrayed in books are usually quite... exaggerated, I tend to see a bit of everything in my school.

Each grade has it's "popular" group here. It's not well defined, but in general it's the prettiest, the judge-ful-est (?) girls who are quite snobby, can be kind, and are on every teacher's great student list, mainly because they know how to manipulate people. It's not like they're the rulers of the school, but there is a defined line.

For the record, I HAVE been asked by random people for/to do drugs. I know a lot of druggies through friends. I just don't tend to hang with them.

I agree on the AP thing, though in Canada, I have yet to see an AP class that doesn't mean "Applied" (college-level) There's University-Level, which I hear is killer. It all depends on the courses. I've done little work till this month and have got a good grade. But even college math is taking me hours a night to finish.

The dumb cheerleader thing- I've seen it. Not everyone, mind you, but some of the prettiest girls seem to be only good at hurting people.

And I didn't have any after school activities until last February so... kids having no activities is common here- clubs don't get all that much attention.

I guess it depends on the high school...

Amber Lough said...

It's so nice to see someone bring REALITY to the table. Also, your school sounds just like mine did, and I graduated when you were probably still in elementary school.

Celeste M said...

YES. Thank you. I love you so so much for posting this. Everything you say is extremely true. I get especially annoyed by the characters that aren't stressed out about schoo. How is it that that they all have an endless amount of time to hang out? That they're allowed to be at their friend's house all the time?

As for the social aspect of it, my school is just like yours. There are definitely groups into which people are divided, but you're not confined to them. And they aren't decided by whether you're a nerd or jock or whatever. In fact, those stereotypes only exist vaguely in my high school. Your after-school activities are kind of a side thing that no one pays attention to.

Anyway, yeah. This is an awesome post.

karen-w-newton said...

I agree this is a great post, but I do feel compelled to point out that a lot of "adult books" (not adult in the naughty sense, just books about grownups) bear little or no relation to reality, either. But I think the real difficulty of writing high school books is high school changes every few years, and it's difficult to keep up. Also, really large schools are different from small schools. I think it helps when high school books are anchored in a specific time and place, so it's clear it's only about that particular school.

Really good observations, though. Keep up the good work.

Jha said...

This was interesting! I never quite got into North American YA high school books because well, I'm not from North America so I was never able to relate very well to the kinds of people in it! However, the comments have been interesting too... I never thought about the possible generation gap between writers and readers contributing to the differences between reality and portrayal. Thanks for this post!

Kate at Read This Book! said...

Brilliant post, completely agree with everything on academics. "I'd love to see characters who are procrastinating endlessly on assignments and staying up the whole night to do schoolwork." You took the words right out of my mouth. =)

1) Never happens
2) Nope it's like a random jumble but there is a corner where the 'cooler' people sit..
3) unfortunately, that's true for me. I see some girls sitting by themselves and feel sorry for them. But I don't actually know any of them so I can't invite them to my table.
4) No ruling 'clique' whatever but there is a particular after school activity that receives the most attention and adoration. Not mentioning what though. =P
5) Never been offered drugs before.

Amie said...

Like my cousin Rachel always says--

"If you insist that there was no popular clique in your school, it is because you belonged to it."

jenny-moss said...

I really enjoyed reading this. Great post.

kelcrocker said...

This is a great post! Thank you!
Kellye

rflong said...

Fantastic post. Thanks for sharing! *jotsdownnotes*

Ransom said...

It's good to see what you think is really how the schools work. A couple of those were around when I was in high school, though I admit the only person who got locked in his locker climbed in it himself... but that's another story.

As a writer, I try to build on what I know and tap into younger people's knowledge to know what it's like now vs when I was in school (mid 90s). It isn't easy to change that view in your head, though.

I think one of the drawbacks of writing it how it truly is, is that we understood something different and we use that knowledge to create a few more villains. Do you love to hate the queen bee, or what? If we put more ordinary characters in the story, do we still have the focus for the conflict?

Thank you for this post. Will definitely be back.

Zellie Blake said...

THANK YOU!!!

The stereotypes drive me crazy, plus why are authors sticking to such huge cliches? Been there, done that, let's MOVE ON!

In my school there was some division between people who were attractive and people who weren't but other than that, it was all interest based. I was really shy and did get picked on by people, but it was people of all walks and really not very often. They were too busy worrying about their own stuff to worry about the girl in the corner.

AJ said...

You make a lot of good points, and it's good to know what your experience is, but also every high school is different. Granted, I was in high school 7 years ago now, but there were definitely people stuffed into lockers and everyone ate in the cafeteria and there were obvious clicks on the edges (yes, there was a table full of football players and cheerleaders dressed in their letter jackets and uniforms, on the opposite side of the room from the kids with piercings, skateboards, and black clothes) though the middle was more fluid, and other cliches. I myself was a victim of a run-by jello-ing, so Glee's slushie thing rings so true for me. There were popular kids, but they tended to fit in a larger variety of categories (the popular smart kids, the popular goofballs, the popular athletes; really, "popular" just meant "most people recognize you out of the hoard of students"), which I feel was more due to the size of our school. There were also class issues; our school was the largest in the state (about 2500 kids, and that was only sophs, juniors, and seniors), and it was near a rich gated community. So lots of rich kids, but also the not-so-rich and the poor, and boy did you feel it if you weren't well-off.

As for academics, actually quite a lot of the country doesn't offer AP classes. And I'm shocked (and frankly, a little appalled) that your biology classes are all about taking notes; mine were all about doing experiments.

YA work certainly needs more variety, though, because as you show, no one experience is the same. Hell, the NYC public high school system is truly bizarre; you apply and take tests to get in just like you do for college, rather than having your high school be determined by your location. Thanks for sharing your experience, though. Makes me want to talk to my brother who's currently going to my old school, see how things are now. (Of course, he's in one of the popular groups, so his experiences will probably differ from mine. Like not getting maliciously jello-ed. ;) )

campusbrownie said...

This is a great post. I had a really similar experience of reading about high school, and then going in and having a totally different experience. I went to a high school in a rich area, and there was a lot of drug use and girls dressed like movie stars, but we didn't have a cheerleading squad, and you got social merit by your SAT scores, how many AP classes you took, and what colleges you applied to.
Another thing I want to comment on is the pervasive sexuality of teen books and movies. Of course there were people at my high school who had sex, but most people didn't. Not that we didn't have all the hormones and longings, but we also had brains, and didn't do it just to say we had. We waited for the right time, and the right person, even if it meant graduating a virgin. Because most people did, and it wasn't a big deal.

Elizabeth said...

Interesting post. But I suspect some of your confusion stems from the kind of school you go to. Judging from this post alone, I'd guess you live in an affluent urban/suburban area, probably in the northeastern United States, where there is tremendous pressure to do well academically and get into an Ivy League school. "Helicopter parenting" isn't much of an issue in towns where half the kids don't go on to college, and of those who do, most go to State U.

Some points:

1) Popularity

I agree that reality is subtler and more complex than fiction. But popularity, cliques, status -- whatever you want to call them -- do exist, and the line between "popular" and "not popular" becomes more pronounced in schools where there aren't many opportunities to shine.

Basically, you can translate "popular" to "those who are noticed," and "not popular" to "those who aren't." In schools where there are tons of opportunities for a lot of people to be noticed, then popularity might not seem like a big deal; lots of people are getting attention and glory. In schools where there are basically two ways you can shine: academics or sports, only a few people are getting attention and glory. And believe me, that's a recipe for resentment, because most people want to be noticed.

2) Academics

Many schools, especially in poor or rural areas, don't have honors or AP classes. And most high school students don't care about going to an Ivy League school. And since the average state university takes almost any in-state student who's academically competent, that means most kids aren't stressed about whether they'll get into college or not. They know for a fact they will.

So the kind of anxiety you're talking about doesn't exist for most high school students. They don't take a full slate of honors/AP classes. They don't study for the SAT/ACT. And, since they don't need a GLEAMING RESUME to get into State U, they don't participate in a lot of extracurriculars. So they have a lot of free time to hang out and party. Or obsess about sparkly vampires, if that's their chosen pastime.

As for characters who are "straight-A, Ivy League-bound overachievers" who don't seem to have much on their plate -- I know they exist. Because I was one. :) I breezed my way through school, didn't bother to take an SAT review course, and still managed to get into an Ivy. I didn't angst about school or extracurriculars, or have to work that hard at them, because they just came naturally to me. So I had a lot of free time for trouble and adventures. And boy, did I use it. :)

3) Creative license

Let's face it: reality is boring. A book about a girl doing her homework and angsting about college isn't going to sell. A book about a girl angsting about a vampire has obviously sold very well.

Real police work isn't like what you see on TV. Real trials aren't like what you see on TV. Real anything isn't like what you see on TV, or read in fiction. Because reality involves lots of things that just aren't very interesting.

The best authors create a hyper-reality: that is, a world more interesting than the one we live in, that nevertheless reflects the one we live in. In such a world, distinctions of class/status/popularity/etc. are going to be more intense than they are in real life, because more intense = more conflict = more interesting. Characters will have the time to do the things that we want to see them do (fight bad guys, not take tests). People in general are going to be more attractive (or more hideous), brighter (or dumber), more articulate (or unable to string two words together), because we want to read about interesting people doing interesting things, not normal people doing normal things.

Ansha said...

As a writer I have to disagree with Elizabeth's argument on creative license.

Yes, we want our characters to be exciting and interesting to read, but it's our job to avoid the boring stereotype. And create characters that are unique as well as true to life.

I think what Choco is trying to say with her post is that she's seeing the same stereotyping in various YA that she's reading. And it does not comply with her reality.

Yes, most YA writers are in their 30's 40's and 50's and it's our job to write the contemporary teen world accurately. After all, this is our audience. This is who we speak to. How can we ignore that?

Elizabeth said...

Ansha,

I wasn't saying writers should use stereotypes. I was saying that some of the stereotypes Choco was writing about do, in fact, have a basis in reality. It's up to the author to portray those in an interesting, fresh, and compelling way.

As for creative license: I had two points here, neither of which was "Authors should use stereotypes." First point: It's fiction. It's going to gloss over everyday stuff that no one cares about. If it's important to the plot that Jane has to study for AP exams, fine, talk about it. Otherwise - who cares? We're not reading the story to find out about Jane's study habits; we're reading to find out how Jane deals with [plot detailed on book cover].

Second point: When a story deals with something that happens in everyday life (like social conflict), it's going to be more dramatic on the page than in reality. Why? Because more dramatic = better story. If Joe calls Bart a jerk, and Bart ignores him, well, that's that. But if Joe calls Bart a jerk, and Bart punches him in the face, you've got conflict. Conflict drives stories.

Basically, if characters handle everything responsibly and maturely - like most people do most of the time - there would be no story. :)

That's what I mean by hyper-reality. Life in a story should resemble real life, but be more dramatic. The point of a story is to seem realistic, not be realistic. Because if we really wanted to be realistic, most YA books would involve pretty well-adjusted students doing everyday things.

Aleeza said...

I WANT TO HUG YOU FOR ALL THE INSPIRATION THIS POST GIVES ME! (I was really in need of some!)
God, I sound like an idiot but THANK YOU! the new layout is AWESOME =D

pirate penguin said...

Insightfulness must be your middle name or something! Because dayum, Choco! You've outdone yourself once more with these awesome posts!

But I agree with what you're saying: when I arrived to my high school on my first day, I was a nervous little freshman. But then I started noticing that a lot of the stereotypes DID get it wrong. Nobody gets shoved into lockers (did they ever???), the "cool" kids aren't just the jocks and the cafeteria? NO ONE GOES THERE!

At least, in my high school. I have to say, as I got older I noticed a lot of things. For one, in my HS the "popular" kids were the drama people. They were much more well-known than even the jocks. And the whole "oh, you're a jock so you MUST be dumb!" thing? A guy from my school who was a football player took all AP classes and got accepted into Harvard. HARVARD!!! O__O. And no random people offered me any drugs o__O....

in which a girl reads said...

Wow, I'm loving the discussion :)

I'm thinking it would have been better if I'd phrased the last question as, "How did your own high school experience compare to high school depicted in YA books"?

Because it does seem that everyone has had a different high school experience; some completely different from the ones in movies and books, and some very similar.

By sharing my own perspective, I think I was mostly getting at the fact that high school for everyone is different, and that I'd like to see more reflection of that in YA. For so many books set in high school, I read about similar experience--the cheerleader/jock stereotypes, the obsession with popularity, etc. And as many of the commenters have demonstrated, it's not always like that--and often quite different. That the majority of high school settings in movies/YA are so consistent when in reality high school is so variable tells me that there's definitely room for books that shake it up a bit.

I do see the point that books are larger than life and shouldn't focus on more boring details. It's just--the fact that so many characters don't seem like any teen I know in terms of activities/homework/behavior is just--strange to me. I think including some of these elements would lead to more in-depth characters with real-life conflicts that I and a lot of other teens can personally relate to. Sure, there's the boyfriend/popularity conflict that is so pervasive through YA lit. It's been proven that teens can relate to it. But what about other sorts of conflicts that aren't quite as overused?

Also, to give some clarity on my own high school experience: My high school is not affluent in the least, nor located in the Northeast. We're definitely very diverse both socioeconomically and racially. I'd say at least 60% of my graduating class goes to junior college, and the rest to state.

The stress though, is definitely still there. High school now is just so very different from high school when my parents went, or even from when my older siblings went. So the thing about YA authors not being in high school for a while might explain the discrepancy between what I'm reading and actually experiencing. I also think geography/economics/size of the school plays a large part in high school experiences.

Thank you for all the insightful comments! It's given me a lot to think about :D

twentyxfragments said...

I think the social order in our school is actually true. Courtney R., head cheerleader, Preston T., macho football player/weightlifting (but he's suuuper nice!), were voted Homecoming Queen and King AND Prom Queen and King. And there are people who will ask you to do drugs, just not on a daily basis. In the cafeteria, there are kind of cliques, but they all sit in their own groups. Weird people hang out with weird people. But this is a sort of ghetto school, so, you know...

I do like the point about writers not including people being stressed out about homework and such. I would like to see more of that come out in the actual novel.

Claire Dawn said...

I used to think it was because I'm not American that I didn't have these things growing up.

We did have an 'in' crowd, but the 'out' crowd did just fine. We still had boyfriends and girfriends and no one threw us in lockers. There was some bullying, but it wasn't out in the open, like in YA media.

I guess that in YA, there's a general lack of "average". Things are great or horrible and there's no in-between.

April (BooksandWine) said...

Interesting, but I respectfully disagree. At my school, the popular crowd bullied the kids who didn't have the right clothes or money. They bullied the anime obsessed kids. The school offered 6 AP classes, that's it. Our town median income was like $39,000 so people were poor, therefore, no one was all like, yeah I'm going to Harvard where the tuition is more than your parents make in year. No one I knew studied obsessively for tests or had helicopter parents, seeing as how their parents were too busy putting meals on the table. Pretty much all of my graduating class went to state schools. I did have a lot of friends who did extra currciulars, but some people couldn't because they lived out in the country and couldn't always get a ride after school. I never actually saw someone stuffed in a locker, but I def saw people pushed into the lockers all of the time. As for the cafeteria thing, at my school you had to eat in the cafeteria unless you were a senior, then you are allowed to eat in the senior courtyard. They do this for safety, so students don't come back on drugs or wasted, which used to happen when there was an open lunch policy. So while your experience may represent upper-middle class suburbia, it absolutely does not reflect rural schooling.

Jaleh D said...

My high school had been much more vanilla than the ones in most YA books. I guess that's why the only YA I gravitated to back then had been either set in a world that didn't have high schools or something believable like Cynthia Voigt's books. Izzy Willy Nilly and the Tillerman books were among my favorites. For that matter, I still enjoy them.

Caitlin R. O'Connell said...

This is so true, Choco. I really kind of do want to know where this is coming from. I've had explanations of my high school's non-booklike qualities in that it's a pretty small school (my hometown is 2 square miles, and there were about 300 kids in my graduating class) so there weren't enough of us to be completely clique-y. The band kids are the sports kids are the cheerleaders are the artsy kids are the theatre kids. Everyone does EVERYTHING because otherwise we wouldn't have enough people to do anything. I think the only big divide there is is between band and football (can't do both at the same time, but they're obviously linked since the band plays at football games) and between AP classes and the low-level classes (mostly because AP kids are so buried that they rarely talk to people outside their classes, haha).

But still. I've never seen any slamming into lockers, or been offered drugs, or picked on by cheerleaders. *shrugs* Sounds more like a middle school dynamic than a high school one to me.

Laura Renegar said...

This is a super post. I shared it on the listserve for SCBWI Carolinas. Thanks for your insight.

CL said...

Such a great post! I went to high school in the 1980s, but I've always wondered if mine was an anomaly--I wasn't aware of cliques much, the cheerleaders were nice, I never felt snubbed or left out, even though I wasn't especially 'cool' or blonde or skinny. I always wonder if it relates to the size of your HS. There were over 600 people in my graduating class; maybe the whole clique thing plays itself out in smaller schools? I do have to say there were plenty of drugs around when I was in HS; I'm glad to hear that's changed. It sounds like todays teens are serious students, I'm just sorry to hear you're so stressed out!
I will certainly keep your post in mind when I write my next YA novel. Thanks!

Ellen said...

My high school was actually very clique-y when I first got there, pretty similar to a lot of the shows/books (cheerleaders were supercool, the "weird" kids - of whom I was one - had our own corner of the cafeteria, no students were allowed to leave the school for lunch, so the cafe was the only option, etc). But something interesting I noticed starting around my senior year was that the cliques were starting to dissolve...
By the time my younger brother started high school the next year, he was also in the "weird" group, but they ended up having more friends in more places (including some cheerleaders and jocks) than anyone, and the "popular" hierarchy wasn't really as much of an issue.
I think one problem with the disconnect between portrayals of high school is that most directors/writers graduated a few years ago at least, so they're writing or portraying the experiences they went through. Which aren't necessarily the same in current high schools. >.>

tltrent said...

Very interesting post! I hope you don't mind if I link to it through LJ--I think it would be great for more authors to see this.

Best,
Tiffany

CindaChima said...

I've heard it said that fiction is life with the boring bits left out. So maybe authors think those are the boring bits. Homework. Etc. Teens in many YA books remind me of people on soap operas. Although they have high pressure, glam jobs, they never spend hours in meetings; they seem to have unlimited time to visit each other. They have children who only appear when the storyline demands it, the rest of the time they conveniently disappear. Nobody has to cancel plans because they can't get child care.
Anyway, great post!! I'm doing my best to get high school right in my urban fantasy series. I'll keep your post in mind.

asakiyume said...

I read this post thanks to Tiffany, up above, linking to it, and I think it's fabulous--and the comments are fabulous too, both the ones agreeing with you and the ones respectfully disagreeing with you.

It's always hard to judge based on personal experience, because high school experience really does vary SO HUGELY from place to place and even from person to person within the same school. I never noticed any drugs at my high school, but my friends said it was easy to get drugs, for example. Maybe it in part depends on what we're focused on.

What Elizabeth said about affluent versus nonaffluent schools was really interesting because in my very limited experience, the reverse was true: there was more clique behavior and bullying at my high school than at my kids' high school, and my kids' high school is in a poorer, more working-class town than my own high school was. ... But even among my kids, their experience of high school has varied. When my older son went through, he reported the older kids as really friendly and supportive, whereas my younger daughter (now a junior) reports more unfriendliness among groups of kids.

I agree that some novels and TV shows do play to stereotypes, like the beefy stupid football player--when in fact the sports-playing kids are likely to be as smart as anyone else. I really, really found myself agreeing with this part of what you said: I've found that popularity (or lack of it) has absolutely no bearing on how cruel a person can be. Nerds are just as likely to pick on somebody as a jock is. So, so true. I think novels have a lot more resonance when they reach beyond easy stereotypes and create true individuals--where a person isn't a Dumb Jock or a Mean Cheerleader or a Socially Awkward Geek, but just Darrin or Alice or Chris, and then we find out about this person, and they're complete and whole, with good points and bad points.

Danette Haworth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danette Haworth said...

Excellent post with lots of insight.

My experience is slightly different: In our schools, there are definitely popular groups, from HS all the way down to elementary school. The girls and boys hit stereotypes such as snobbiness and traveling in packs, picking on quiet people, but, as you pointed out, such people aren't necessarily the cheerleaders or the football players. It can be anyone with a mouth.

How do they get that way? Beats me! Some of them have very sweet siblings.

jasingerman said...

This is a thoughtful, clear-eyed and well written post. It reminds me that my reality of high school is more than forty years old, and to write realistic fiction I need to understand that: 1)other people experience things differently.
2)things have changed since the dark ages.
3)stereotypes are destructive, both in writing and in life.

Keep up the good work.

Joel

Stevie said...

I agree completely with you. Except for the one about the clubs. I wasn't evolved with anything in High School and I knew a few kids who weren't either... though it did seem like everyone I knew was in Band or Choir.

Anyways, you bring up good points that a lot of YA Authors and movie writers really should pay attention to.

Best Wishes!
- Stevie

MissAttitude said...

Whoa so many comments!

I totally agree with almost everything; kids do sports and are in clubs or just do extra-curriclular things so I want to see more atheletes and kids on debate team or in band/theater or kids doing volunteer work. Also, cheerleaders and football palyers are not popular at our school (mainly because they are bad), but basketball and volleyball players are extremely popular.

We do have lockers and there is clearly a group of popular kids, but not just one queen bee or anything silly like that. My school is pretty cliqueish though. However, my school is pretty middle to upper class (I am not) and mostly white so maybe that's part of it. *shrugs*

thanks for this ownderful discussion post :)

mclicious said...

Excellent post. Someone at a forum I frequent linked to it, and I totally see your point. I'm just curious, though, do you attend a public or private school? I remember thinking that I had had such a non-traditional high school experience because I had attended private school, and while obviously everything in books and movies is over the top and not real, I thought it was a little more accurate. So your post was eye-opening.

evolet2 said...

Uh, I had the same fears before high school. But once I got here, things were COMPLETELY different from what I read/watched. First of all, the cheerleaders were completely losers and no one cared about them for the most part.Why? Cause they sucked. :P Most athletes in general(males mostly...) are pretty popular and have good grades. We did have a 'popular group'(mostly kids in student council or associated with people from it)but they're a few are nice and most had good grades. But for the first 3 years, we called them 'plastics' for their overall falseness(visual and personality wise)that most of them carried.

The 'loser' were usually the academically failing and stoners.

Geoff said...

Very insightful post! Thanks for sharing.

Shaun Barger said...

Seriously!

You see all these movies and stories where like a crippled kid will fall over and everyone will point and laugh and then one of the jocks will run over, kick the kid in the head, and high five everybody.

It's like writers everywhere went to some weird, evil high school dimension, where the other students are all actually sociopathic vampire lizard people.

Also, in my experience, people who are "popular" in high school, aka have lots and lots of friends, are "popular" because they're super nice to everybody and are a lot of fun to hang out with. If anyone acted like any of the cruel jocks and evil queen bees of storyland in real life, people would seriously steer clear of them.

I dunno. Maybe we just had different experiences going to school in the post columbine world? I know schools really crack down a lot harder on bullying and cruelty these days than they used to.

Mary Witzl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary Witzl said...

Wow: "I'd like to see characters coming home from school and being buried under five hours of homework, or studying insanely for a test." I'd love to see this too, especially if those characters were my kids.

I finished high school back in the 70s when there were people selling drugs in the toilets and there were clear boundaries in the lunch room for groups of nerds, cheerleaders, and druggies, but even at our school, some of the top athletes were our finest scholars and some of the druggies went on to good universities. And you are right that nerds can pick on people too (given the chance) and cheerleaders can be shy. It's hard to keep up with the times -- and every school is different. There were/are bullies and obnoxious cliques at my daughters' (19 & 15) high schools. Wish they were going to your high school!

Carradee said...

This makes me happier about my YA UF works in progress. I went to TINY private high schools that I'll likely someday use as a setting. My last year in public high school was grade 6, and I, an unapologetic nerd and teacher's pet, was on the fringe of the popular crowd. And I stood up for others I noticed being picked on, too.

Did I see some of the stereotypes? Sure. Did I suffer from some, myself? Sure. Mainly based on what folks wore, and by the end of 6th grade I was realizing how stupid it was to avoid somebody because they looked a lot richer than I was, so I stopped.

There was one somewhat popular guy who was a jerk, but I think he was rich or something. He tried to pick on me and usually ended up being made the fool for it. (If you're reading this, Justin, thanks again for that nickel you threw at me even after I gave it back and offered to return it a second time.)

My reaction to being picked on was "Why should that bother me?", and the teasing slacked off when it only made my would-be tormentors uncomfortable.

But I'm comforted by this post, because my narrators DO have school, its worries, and other things that they do (though I rarely did any extracurricular stuff, so thanks for that reminder that I need to consider which characters do participate). I'd worried that a YA would find that boring.

Carradee said...

P.S. By "There was one somewhat popular guy who was a jerk, but I think he was rich or something", I'm meaning that I think there was some reason that he had a few goons who hung out with him, even though I'm not quite sure what it was.

Angel said...
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Wendy Delfosse said...

So I know this is an older post but great job! I'm actually keeping the link with some thoughts for future book plots. And I didn't scan through all the comments but I think your high school is not the only one like that. I think there's also a LOT of "acquaintances" in high school where people might hang in English class but not necessarily on the weekends and I think that breaks down a lot of the cliques. Maybe two people aren't besties but they don't hate each other either.

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Richenda Gould said...

I want to hug you. Can I hug you? Your high school sounds a lot like mine was, circa 2000-2004. I thought we might be a bubble because it's a distinct with a lot of money, HEAVY emphasis on academics, and a substantial immigrant population. More and more I'm learning that we weren't so far from ordinary.

I've read that in YA and MG the first thing is to get the parents out of the way so the kids can rule the story. Which sounded sort of odd to me. I attended a writing conference and when I sat down with an agent about my manuscript, she said, rather uneasily, that there was a lot of focus on my protagonist's relationship with her father. The implication was that I was breaking the genre norm, and might be hard to sell. Maybe this wasn't a YA story. (Except it is, by every other measure.)

Since then, I've done a lot of reading about our generation. (You were probably born when I was in middle school, but apparently we are peers.) Millennials and their parents (mostly Baby Boomers) get along fabulously. They're part of our lives. And the next time an industry person tells me I shouldn't be writing about that, I'm pointing them to TIME magazine and this blog post with its many commenters who agree with you.

The world. Has. Changed. Let's start reflecting that.

Richenda Gould said...

I want to hug you. Can I hug you? Your high school sounds a lot like mine was, circa 2000-2004. I thought we might be a bubble because it's a distinct with a lot of money, HEAVY emphasis on academics, and a substantial immigrant population. More and more I'm learning that we weren't so far from ordinary.

I've read that in YA and MG the first thing is to get the parents out of the way so the kids can rule the story. Which sounded sort of odd to me. I attended a writing conference and when I sat down with an agent about my manuscript, she said, rather uneasily, that there was a lot of focus on my protagonist's relationship with her father. The implication was that I was breaking the genre norm, and might be hard to sell. Maybe this wasn't a YA story. (Except it is, by every other measure.)

Since then, I've done a lot of reading about our generation. (You were probably born when I was in middle school, but apparently we are peers.) Millennials and their parents (mostly Baby Boomers) get along fabulously. They're part of our lives. And the next time an industry person tells me I shouldn't be writing about that, I'm pointing them to TIME magazine and this blog post with its many commenters who agree with you.

The world. Has. Changed. Let's start reflecting that.

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