Literature about high school does one of two things: resonate deeply with young audiences, or make us roll our eyes.
High school is a universal experience with many different variations. The question, “did you enjoy high school?” brings about so many different responses that listing them all would take years. In summary, some people loved it, some people hated it.
Being a teenager is a strange time. Caught in the limbo between childhood and adulthood, anxiety and awkwardness run rampant, but so do fun and the joy of growing independence. The heartache of loosing the past is often over shone with hope of the future. Teen-hood is a time of great potential. It is what you make it, and literature helps shape that reality.
It’s not surprisingly that something so controversial, yet universally experienced has an entire world of literature surrounding it.
I’ve been reading books about teenagers since third grade, and those books made me expect quite a lot out of high school. Being the romantic I am, I expected some kind of whirlwind romance, a quirky group of friends, and maybe a quest to save the world. Believe or not, I only got one of those things. The books I read as a kid seemed to romanticize the teenage years, but as I entered my teens, all of the books about being my age seemed bleaker and bleaker.
Every high school book I’ve ever read was a hit or miss. I never know going in whether I’ll love it with my whole heart, or resent it. So, I’ve been unable to get the question out of my mind: What makes a good high school story?
First and foremost, authenticity. Teenagers are disturbingly good on picking up on other peoples’ emotions, so we can tell what’s written with pure intent and what’s written as a money grab. Believe it or not, putting a hashtag in the title of your book will not make teenagers want to buy it. For example, #famous by Jily Gagnon.
I barely remember the book itself, but I do remember that it failed to live up to its name. Many authors will throw needless slang and pop culture references into their writing for the sake of being #relatable. Being #relatable will not stand the test of time, and even while it’s relevant, all it does and makes readers roll their eyes. What separates The Perks of Being a Wallflower from #famous is authenticity. The author must truly desire to tell a story about the ups and downs of high school, because when they don’t, it shows.
Secondly, actual relatability. These stories require well developed characters, if nothing else. Readers don’t necessarily have to relate to the characters, they just need to empathize with them. I’ve never done half of the things Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower has, but I can still connect with him as a character. The same goes for Stargirl Caraway from Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, yet I can still see myself and people I know in Stargirl’s fantastic characterization. Cut and dry, copy and paste stereotypes just won’t cut it. We’ve seen the stereotypes countless types before and we’re tired of it. We are a generation of complex interpersonal relationships, and we’d like that represented in our literature.
Thirdly, make overused themes meaningful. Themes of individuality, popularity, mental health, etc. have been done to death. Almost every single high school novel carries all three of these tired themes, yet some emerge as classics. What makes some of these novels stand out from the others? I’ve found that twisting these themes into something meaningful to that story is what keeps these themes feeling fresh. Using these themes in different context helps round out the high school narrative. This can be done through original characters, settings, and conflicts. It’s interesting to see how the same issues affect characters in different environments.
Appealing to today’s youth may seem difficult to older generations, but it isn’t that complicated. All we want are good stories.