Recently I read a batch of novels that took the notion of "school story" to a whole new level. While many books for teens are set at least partly in school settings (they come with the territory), these stories rely as heavily on their locations as Buffy relied on Sunnydale High. Case in point is Nathan Kotecki's creepy mystery The Suburban Strange. The author had me guessing every step of the way with this one and managed to keep the paranormal elements at just the right level -- ever present but not the focal point. His protagonist has classic coming-of-age concerns, her new friends are hip and broody in a manner that defies classification, the romantic interest has a host of his own issues to deal with, and she attends school in a place where girls seem to suffer increasingly horrifying accidents on their sixteenth birthday. Except the non-virgins, which introduces a whole host of interesting conversational topics to a book that is already bursting at the seams with possibilities. Plus everyone is reading Kate Chopin's The Awakening, which is enough to recommend the book right there.
Artistic Celia is a classic sophomore -- no confidence, little style, and desperate to find her place in the halls of her new school, Suburban High. Over the summer she makes friends with a cool fellow artist who happens to be part of a smart aloof clique known as The Rosary. Celia can't believe her good fortune of being accepted by the group, and spends her days blissfully safe in their collective embrace. They travel as a pack, meet for lunch, spend Fridays at a fairy tale-goth nightclub that is straight out of Terri Windling's Borderlands, and while suffering their own dramas (largely romantic), they are extremely supportive of their new friend. Without those dreadful accidents it would all be a cooler version of My So-Called Life. (The Angela, Rickie, Rayanne, and Jordan Catalano archetypes are alive and well in The Rosary.) But the girls just keep on wiping out from one end of the school to the other. Then Celia learns something startling from her chemistry partner and, well, it's not the Hellmouth but something is certainly not right in these particular halls of higher learning.
Chapter by chapter Kotecki ratchets up the tension as the students wonder whether to take their chances on their birthdays (Celia's sixteenth is looming large) or just have some quick and dirty sex to avoid the "curse." In the meantime he tosses smart zingers left and right and leads his characters into discussions of everything from Siouxsie and the Banshees to symbolic anthropology to John Hughes to Philip Glass to Henry James to, again and again, The Awakening. Stupid this group is not and it's nice to see their intellectual pursuits make sense and be balanced by the standard prom drama. In the midst of all the smartness, Kotecki never lets Celia lose sight of the curse, however, and her discovery of just what is going on and why amps up the danger to epic levels. Readers just won't know for sure what is going to happen next, and then even when the plot blows up Kotecki doesn't give up -- he keeps readers holding on to the very end, to the romance, to the promise of a sequel (although this story is fully told), and to some final moments with these characters who are all fascinating originals. It's rare that I read a paranormal that stands out so much and manages to be less about the otherworldly elements then the real-world concerns, but Kotecki walks that line brilliantly with The Suburban Strange and has crafted a bang-up mystery that just happens to be filled with the fantastic as well. Excellent! (And a hat tip to Kotecki for some wonderful GLBT supporting characters.)
Daisy Whitney's The Mockingbirds effectively blends both a wish fulfillment novel of the first order and one of the grittiest (and saddest) coming-of-age stories I've read in a while. Set in a Rhode Island boarding school for the best and the brightest (destined, no doubt, for nearby Brown), it showcases all we wish those elite campuses could provide. The students are witty and creative, the campus full of grassy athletic fields, and stately brick buildings, music, and theater abound. There is even a secret society that everyone knows about and admires. Themis Academy is the kind of institution that fall issues of Seventeen always made me dream about. I would wear tweed jackets and boots and find friends for life in that kind of place, my high-school-senior self was sure of it. The harsh lesson of The Mockingbirds is that sometimes people fall so in love with the ideal that they fail to see the reality. This is what has happened at Themis, and after Alex is date raped (she wakes up on the morning after on page one), then a hidden layer to the school's story is revealed and her own struggle to carve out a new brave life begins.
The plot of The Mockingbirds is very straightforward: Alex shares what happened to her (and her own confused recollections of the night) with her roommate who persuades her to take her case to The Mockingbirds, a secret group widely acknowledged to exert a level of influence among the student body. Alex is initially reticent, and the more she remembers, the more she seesaws between anger and guilt over the night's events. She is eventually persuaded by the appalling behavior of the young man involved (the expected conquest bragging commences) and her case slowly makes it way through the Mockingbirds process.
As much as the personal drama leads readers along (Alex's very believable uncertainty about making her date rape more widely known is especially spot on), it is really The Mockingbirds organization itself that provides the greatest intrigue. Themis is a place where the faculty has convinced themselves they have created a wonderland of achievement, and the patronizing attitude of the adults is beyond frustrating (and a common subject of derision among the students). Whitney paints a convincing picture of an institution replete with elegance and success, and yet she also shows how all the sloppy messes of humanity, the hate-filled dramas of greed and power that are sadly all too familiar, are right at home at Themis as well. With the faculty blissfully unaware, the students get the job done, and that means accepting the accusations, hearing the evidence, and passing judgment. Tying all of this up in a story of one girl's pain, some classic moments of true friendship, a healthy dose of To Kill a Mockingbird, and many scenes out of collective school memories is an achievement. The Mockingbirds rang so true for me because I remember a girl in college who woke up like Alex, and I remember what happened next, which was truly heartbreaking. That is why this book is such a strong piece of wish fulfillment to me; if only a group like this had been there for my classmate, then her story might have turned out much differently. If only, if only. (Note that a sequel, The Rivals, was published earlier this year.)
The fourteen-year old protagonist of Jennifer Miller's The Year of the Gadfly is struggling, not just with a new school but also with the recent and devastating loss of her best friend. Forced to relocate to a new town under the instruction of her therapist and the well meaning but misguided concern of her parents, Iris is a young journalist with Edward R. Murrow as an invisible friend. Playing off the great reporter in a manner reminiscent of teen Sym's relationship with the long dead Antarctic explorer Capt. Lawrence "Titus" Oates in Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness, Iris enjoys long discussions with Murrow about her adolescent troubles. Naturally she gravitates toward the newspaper at her new school, but it is the perplexing power of the underground paper, The Devil's Advocate, that captures her attention. All is not as it appears at Mariana Academy and Iris, with Murrow's example burning bright, is determined to pull a Nancy Drew (or, with all the twists and turns ahead, perhaps Brenda Starr might be a better example).
Comparisons to Donna Tartt's The Secret History are made easily by Miller's publisher and there is certainly a secret society with all manner of cruel past times to investigate, as well as a professor with possibly ulterior motives concerning his own student past, and a book Iris discovers on the shelf in her borrowed house that suggests much if only she could uncover its secrets. (It has the most compelling title: Marvelous Species: Investigating Earth's Mysterious Biology, although the inscription is much more relevant to the plot.)
Although published for adults, Iris experiences such classic teen moments in The Year of the Gadfly that it makes for an obvious crossover title. Interestingly, the narrative splits early on to convey the perspectives of her science teacher and that of another student, Lily, from more than a decade before. The two girls both suffer the whims of mean girls and the desire to stand up to peer pressure while also succumbing to the siren song of fitting in. The deepening mystery propels the plot forward (and all manner of shocking moments occur) but it is the emotions felt by Iris and Lily that ring with such heartbreaking truth that readers will not be able to turn away. Miller is more in touch with her teenage self than seems possible and there is no denying the sincerity of the adolescent traumas she portrays. Every step in this story, both in the past and in the present, rings with a poignancy that very nearly hurts to read. It's worth the pain however, to see Iris put all the ghosts to rest and, just like Murrow, stand tall in the face of those who challenge her veracity. I adored this character and every moment of her adventure and selfishly, I'd love to see more of her in the future.
Another excellent crossover choice, Elizabeth Percer's An Uncommon Education, focuses on bookish Naomi Feinstein, whose father has a well-tended Kennedys obsession and whose mother is slowly coming undone. Naomi's childhood solace is found in the company of next-door neighbor Teddy but their friendship ends abruptly when he has to move away. Naomi feels his loss deeply, and the search for her friend and what has become of him spawns a mystery throughout her life. That's the setup and the initial chapters, but the novel spends most of its time on Naomi's collegiate adventures which are both familiar and startling, in the best sense of the word. (So nothing paranormal but nothing wholly predictable either.)
At its heart, An Uncommon Education is about how a certain bookish young girl stays sane in a world of troubling situations both at home and school. She reads her way in and out of the pains in her heart and grounds herself with a resolution to become a doctor. This decision allows Percer to pepper the narrative with evocative descriptions of studying Gray's Anatomy, but Naomi's attraction to Shakespeare is not ignored either and actually what leads her to the most significant part of her Wellesley experience, membership in the secretive Shakespeare Society. (Secrets again!)
"Shakes" is, of course, about performing Shakespeare. It appears to be a highbrow diversion populated by smart and determined young women who engage Naomi in the sort of thoughtful conversation she has longed for. But as much as Shakes presents intellectual excitement, it also pulls Naomi into personal dramas of epic proportions. As the girls jockey for position both inside the club and their class, Percer exposes all the glorious mess that is college. She nails the emotional labyrinth that young people encounter when leaving home for the first time and their all too common struggles to separate from parental expectations while also pleasing their parents. It is especially refreshing how the author resists using romantic entanglements to further the plot. Love does play a part here (and attraction even more so) but again and again the story circles back to the fundamental question of just who Naomi wants to be and how she wants to live her life.
Ultimately this novel hinges on the challenge of recognition: seeing yourself, your friends, your family, and all you really are (and wish to be). An Uncommon Education, for taking place in a college, is more about the curriculum of growing up. There are many mysteries Naomi must solve, and she does so, with great aplomb. But along the way Percer challenges her readers to see themselves for whom they truly are and to be brave enough to recognize just how difficult a task that can be. A wonderful, and quietly powerful, coming-of-age novel.
Finally, Timothy Decker's illustrated novel The Punk Ethic explores the power of music in the lives of seemingly disaffected youth. Guitar-playing protagonist Martin is struggling to find a reason to succeed in a world that appears all too happy to let him disappear. Financially, life is a constant struggle in his single-parent household, and his friends are a collection of likable if somewhat annoying idiots who have no clue what their futures will hold. He is in love with an impossible Dreamgirl (shades of Some Kind of Wonderful) and, inspired by a class assignment, has a wild desire to change the world, but little ability to do so. What he needs is a plan, a plan so big that it will make his life the sort of wild and dramatic life he has been afraid to imagine. In one month it all comes together, in the sort of ridiculous fashion one would expect for teenagers, but the story remains hopeful and stays true to its cool music roots at the same time. There is nothing saccharine or sparkly about The Punk Ethic (perish the thought) and the text is in fact peppered with the sort of wry observations that any high schooler would appreciate: "If the federal government really wants to change public schools and ensure that no kid gets left behind, they should close the cafeteria and call it a threat to public health." Or consider this look at the opposite sex: "Goth girls live in a dream world, all operatic nonsense and crappy literary allusions... It's complete bullshit. That's why they go to college, wash off the makeup, and become GOP lobbyists. At least punk girls are honest."
Decker takes Martin along on a journey that sees him realizing the punk ethic of "do what you can with what you have," and tosses in more than a few significant moments about book learning versus the real world (both of which are to be valued) and why high school matters (for many reasons other than what you think). The illustrations and surprisingly intense ending all lift The Punk Ethic to a level of appreciation that makes it a memorable read. Don't let this quiet beauty pass you by; Decker has a story to tell worth reading and Martin, quietly depicted in so many black and white drawings, is a character to hold dear.