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High School Hierarchy in YA Fiction

A very interesting conversation happened in one of my workshop groups during this past weekend’s Big Sur conference. One participant had painted a character very vividly in his particular high school environment, to the point where everyone in the group knew exactly where this character belonged on the social ladder. But that wasn’t the unique part.

The refreshing thing was that this character never lamented his nerd status, he never described his clothes in a way that hinted to us that he was (let’s face it) a loser, he didn’t go into any detail about how out-of-reach the popular kids were. He just went about his business, thought his thoughts, and through the author’s scenework and his interactions with others, we got perfect context for where he lived in the high school hierarchy. But never once (in my recollection) did he come out and tell us exactly where he did or didn’t fit in.

Some of you reading are like: Yeah. We get it. Show, don’t tell. Right. But teenage social order  is a particular issue where “show, don’t tell” is even more relevant. The pecking order is present in every school, in every group of kids or teens, and, as one person from our group said quite well, everyone always knows, at a glance, what the deal is. Kids know their place and the place of everyone around them. It’s as innate to teens, as instant and unconscious as breathing. Now, this isn’t a blog post about whether that’s right or wrong or how damaging it is to the development of our social mores (for an example of how this reaches well into adulthood, check out one element of the whole #YAMafia kerfuffle (before anyone flames me for the joke, I am aware that this wasn’t the only issue at play)). The fact is: it’s true. So how do we reflect it in our YA fiction in a way that’s believable?

One thing I see in most manuscripts is a run-down of the social scene. This usually happens in the first chapter for stories set primarily in school and within the first 30 pages for stories that don’t immediately need to put us in a popularity context with the character’s peers. The character will be walking down the hall and commenting on

the Goths, with their black eyeliner, the emo kids sulking into their genderless thrift store cardigans, the cheerleaders puffing out their push-up bra-enhanced chests at the jocks, who are crushing soda cans on their foreheads and emitting caveman grunts…

Etc. Etc. Etc. I have read this list in probably every well-meaning YA manuscript and many published books. The thing is, most YA readers will know the high school archetypes. They don’t need some thirtysomething (and, lest anyone get offended, let me repeat, again, well-meaning) writer describing their daily reality in such detail. Most writers include this obligatory run-down for their own sake, to get the lay of their land and to put themselves back into the high school mindset as they write.

But how do we convey this atmosphere more organically? How do we sublimate it without the usual telling, without the list of the school’s cliques? I’d love to hear some examples in the comments of books that you think paint a social picture without being too obvious about it. One great exception to the tried-and-true high school hierarchy descriptions, fresh in my mind because I recently reread it, is BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver.

The main character, Sam Kingston, is a popular girl, and a bitchy one, at that, but Oliver describes Sam’s unique take on the social hierarchy in a fresh and very voice-driven way. There’s also a lot of tension inherent in the story premise, so whenever Sam describes her peer group, there’s something working beneath the surface, also. So Oliver doesn’t necessarily get away without any telling, but this is one instance where it worked for me.

However, I’m also looking for your thoughts on books that avoid talking about the social structure altogether and yet manage to convey the character’s rightful place and all the longing and disappointments and hopes that the high school caste system inevitably inspires. Any thoughts on the subject, readers? Bueller?

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