Columns > Published on July 10th, 2012

Get Real: The Spectrum of High School Reality in YA Fiction

I'll admit it. I actually enjoyed high school. And before you picture me with a sparkling tiara on my head and a hulking football player on my arm, you should know that I wasn't popular and I never had a boyfriend. I was a nerd, actually, but I was lucky enough to find other nerds, and together, we made some great memories (after we finished our homework, of course).

But in spite of the fun I had in high school, I definitely wouldn't go back. I don't miss my terrible fashion sense or my complete inability to form words around cute boys. So why the hell am I so addicted to reading young adult literature?

Like most fiction, YA novels offer an escape from our ordinary lives and, more specifically, an opportunity to relive our adolescence in a better light. These books give us the chance to experience the gorgeously open horizon of youth, the first flickers of self-actualization, and that perfect first kiss (instead of a hot mess of slobbery tongues). The young adult genre provides another ride on the teenage roller coaster, but this time we get a seat belt.

I love the ride, and even more, I love how the scenery changes. Because while all YA books deal on some level with authentic adolescent issues, the settings vary wildly. If you want to dive back into fluorescent lit cafeterias filled with bullies, nasty food and even nastier PDA, there are plenty of novels that can give you a hall pass. Or, if you'd rather not revisit your homeroom, YA can take you to the boarding school of your dreams.

To give you an idea of the wide range of realism in YA high school settings, I'd like to take you on a literary tour. Let's begin with some of the more fantastical locales before returning to the familiar territory of reality.

'Hex Hall' by Rachel Hawkins

Hex Hall is a boarding school for witches, warlocks, vampires and everything in between.


Even though students can cast spells, the main character, Sophie Mercer, still has her fair share of angst over not fitting in with the school's cliques and pining away after the hottest boy in school.


Fairies are at the top of the social ladder, followed closely by witches. The most powerful coven makes Mean Girls look like Pollyanna. And sitting on the bottom rung, you have your social outcasts: werewolves and vampires.

[amazon 1423121392 inline]


'Spoiled' by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Colby-Randall Prep is home to the children of Hollywood's most rich and famous.


As the new girl in school, Molly Dix struggles to fit in with her classmates. She also has to deal with some intense sibling rivalry with her half-sister, Brooke, not to mention her crush on the uber cute Teddy, who often makes her forget that she's got a boyfriend.


Perhaps the Kardashians would view Colby-Randall as non-fiction, but for the rest of us, it's a fabulous fantasy of hallway fashion parades, gourmet cafeteria food, and a student parking lot full of Porches.

[amazon 0316098272 inline]


'Boy Meets Boy' by David Levithan

A small town high school in New Jersey.


The main character, Paul, navigates through the confusing and exhilarating maze of his first romantic relationship. From the flush of attraction to the stupidity of miscommunication, his experiences read like a page out of the Universal Crush Handbook.


In this utopian place, homosexuality and bisexuality are completely accepted. The quarterback of the football team is a drag queen named Infinite Darlene, and instead of having boy scouts, the town has Joy Scouts (where gays are welcome).

[amazon 0375832998 inline]


'Jellicoe Road' by Melina Marchetta

The Jellicoe School is a boarding school in rural Australia.


As one of the orphans living at Jellicoe, Taylor Markham is haunted by the enigma of her mother, and her feelings of isolation and loneliness are just as compelling as her frequent bouts of anger at the world.


While most aspects of the Jellicoe School feel incredibly true-to-life, there's a hint of magic in the territory wars, a game played by the students against the Townies (kids from town) and the Cadets (boys in military school).

[amazon 0061431834 inline]


'The List' by Siobhan Vivian

Mount Washington is a large, public high school.


With diabolical queen bees and immature teenage boys, this school is a breeding ground for low self-esteem, eating disorders, and backstabbing. All of this awfulness culminates each year with the List, a flier posted around school that names the prettiest and ugliest girl in each class.


Everything about this novel is completely and utterly real. It's an unflinching look at the emotional crimes that happen every day in schools across the country, and the lives of these eight girls will ring true, regardless of your own high school experience.

[amazon 0545169178 inline]

Thus concludes our tour of various high school realities. As you can see, no matter the setting, young adult literature always manages to tackle issues that will resonate with anyone who's ever been a teenager. Now please watch your step when exiting this post.

And if I missed an important stop, feel free to leave some suggestions in the comments!

About the author

Sarah lives in Austin, TX, where she programs screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse and coordinates events at The Highball, a playground for adults. Tired of feeling like a creepy old lady in the bookstore YA section, she created Forever Young Adult to provide grown-ups with a community where they can gush about young adult literature without shame. In addition to crushing on fictional teenage boys, Sarah enjoys fancy cocktails, dance parties and macaroni and cheese.

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