Themes in Young Adult Literature: School Life

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2545

Titles Discussed

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Avalon High by Meg Cabot

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Thematic Overview

It makes sense that school life would play a central role in literature for young adults, given that the bulk of their social life takes place during the...

(The entire section contains 2545 words.)

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Titles Discussed

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Avalon High by Meg Cabot

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Thematic Overview

It makes sense that school life would play a central role in literature for young adults, given that the bulk of their social life takes place during the school day. The things that happen in school matter deeply to the teens involved.

There are several aspects to the theme of school life. Social groups and peer pressure are one such aspect. To be in the right group may not be as important as not being in the wrong group, but being in no group is almost worse. The way the “right” and “wrong” groups manifest may vary from school to school, however.

Coursework and academic pressure are another major aspect of school life. At some high schools, it is routine to take a number of advanced-placement classes in preparation for college. Other high schools do not have that expectation of their students. The more demanding the curriculum, the more academic pressure there is. Dealing with that pressure can take up a lot of a student's time and energy, and it is often the case that young adults have limited free time and must choose their activities carefully.

Bullying is another part of school life that often appears in young adult literature. The bullying can occur in person or online—or both—and can be perpetrated by a group or by an individual. Whatever form it takes, it is disruptive to the student experiencing the bullying, and ignoring this common aspect of teenage social life would provide an incomplete picture of school life.

Administrators as parental figures comprise the final aspect of the school life theme in young adult literature. Parents are rarely a big part of these novels, but administrators are. They are the ones who decide on the discipline and hand down the consequences for poor decisions.

School life is not a new theme for young adult audiences. The Breakfast Club (1985) is a classic example of the theme, which has remained popular over the succeeding decades. The film focuses on a day of detention for five students from different cliques. The administrator thinks he knows all he needs to know about them, but over the course of the film they learn there is more to each of them than the others anticipated. Ferris Bueller's Day Off, starring Matthew Broderick, was released the following year. John Hughes directed these films back to back. In both of them, as in the works examined, school life is vital to the story line.

Works

School life is a major theme in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2008), Avalon High (2006), and Stargirl (2000). The social dynamics of high school, among the students and sometimes between students and administrators, are a deciding factor in the plot and the growth of the main characters.

For Frankie Landau-Banks, entering Alabaster Prep gives her the opportunity to step out of the role her family has defined for her. At home she is the younger sister and not taken seriously. At boarding school, especially now that her older sister is away at college, she can be whomever she wants to be. The day-to-day rhythm of school life and the traditions that extend to the male students fuel this story.

Frankie is tired of being outside of the action. She wants to be the one making things happen. She wants to be involved with the group that has the power. To her dismay, however, that group takes the form of an all-male secret society. To make matters worse, the boys in the society do not seem to appreciate the fact that they are lucky to have power. They seem to view it as their birthright if they give it any thought at all.

Frankie's father attended her boarding school and was a member of the secret society. Frankie has heard stories about his boarding school days all her life. She has also noticed that his friends and business contacts come from that pool of boys. She realizes that he has benefited from his time at school for many years and in ways that are not mentioned in the school literature.

Frankie wants the same easy nonchalance about her place in the world that the boys exhibit. From lunchtime, when she is afraid to take a seat at the regular table unless one of them is there first, to her shock when one girl is dumped by one of the boys and finds that her former friends no longer speak to her, Frankie is unsettled by the unspoken rules that govern these social interactions.

She decides to turn the boys' club on its head by taking it over and orchestrating the prank of a lifetime while concealing her identity. When the boys realize she has been the one making the decisions and plans the entire time, she believes, they will finally afford her equal respect. However, her plans do not turn out as she hopes.

Despite the fact that Frankie does everything the alpha male would have done, and does it better, she is not afforded the acclaim that would have gone to a boy under identical circumstances. She is angry and upset that the perks that should go to her are not going to her simply because she is female. Even the school administrators do not punish her as harshly as they would have punished a boy who had committed the same acts.

Frankie is left to consider her place in the school hierarchy and the implications of that place for the wider world. She understands that she is escaping a harsher punishment only because she is not seen as an equal to the boys in the first place. Now Frankie must determine if it is all boys (and men) who have this flaw or just the boys with the unlimited credit cards—the boys who were born to wealthy and powerful families, who take their place in the world for granted, and who will go on to benefit from their social position both at school and in the larger society regardless whether they do anything to earn that regard.

Avalon High is a world away from Alabaster Prep, being neither a boarding school nor a private school. It is a public high school located in Annapolis, Maryland. The only catch is that many of the students—and even some teachers—are reincarnations of characters from Arthurian legend. Despite the fantasy element, however, Avalon High remains essentially a story of school life, with all its cliques and surface-level assessments of people.

The protagonist, Ellie, is the daughter of medievalists studying the legends of King Arthur, and so Ellie knows more about these tales than the average teenager. When Ellie and her parents move to Annapolis for her junior year of high school, it quickly becomes apparent to her that her new friend Will has a lot in common with King Arthur (and his girlfriend, Jennifer, and best friend, Lance, seem familiar, too). For his part, Will is certain he has met Ellie before. Thus, Ellie's normal concerns about fitting into a new school are made worse by the fact that her classmates' identities, and even her own, may not be what they seem, and the tragedies of the legends are beginning to repeat themselves. Even this remains relatable to the teenage reader, however; at heart, these tragedies have less to do with wizardry or the rise and fall of kingdoms than with betrayal by romantic partners and supposed friends or conflict within families. The students' discoveries of their past lives, meanwhile, provides a metaphor for a teenager's exploration and definition of his or her identity. Ellie, in particular, like Frankie, finds that entering a new school allows her an opportunity to redefine herself—to give herself a “total personality makeover,” as her best friend from her old school says.

The world of Stargirl is still more remarkable, despite its lack of actual magic. Stargirl moves to a tiny town in Arizona. There she catches the attention of the protagonist, Leo Borlock. He has never met anyone like Stargirl; in fact, no one at the school has. She cannot help but change his view of the world from the moment he first sees her at lunch, wearing an oversized ruffled white dress and carrying a ukulele instead of a backpack.

Given the almost tyrannical need to conform in high school, it is hard at first to understand what drives Stargirl's need to be so different. It is also hard to understand how it is that she is happy in her nonconformity, apparently completely unconcerned with what her fellow students think of her. Indeed, she goes out of her way to be kind to them, even when they are less than kind to her, and gives cards and gifts to people she does not even know.

While Leo is mesmerized by Stargirl, Hillari Kimble is annoyed. She finds Stargirl irritating and says right out that she believes Stargirl is a scam orchestrated by the principal to bring more spirit to the school. By the time Hillari slaps Stargirl in the face, it is not a shock. It has been a long time coming. It is also not a shock that Stargirl reacts by kissing Hillari gently on the cheek. Stargirl's family moves soon after.

Stargirl has upset the careful balance of conformity at Mica Area High School for good. They have a ukulele in their band to this day. They have a club where members must do one nice thing each day for someone else. Her lessons on caring for others have stuck. Her lessons on being herself have fallen a bit flat. At least they have for Leo.

It was he who tried to get Stargirl to conform in the first place, so that he could associate with Stargirl without being shunned by his other friends. At first he does not realize the consequences of what he has done, saying, after Stargirl changes her name back to Susan, “she looked magnificently, wonderfully, gloriously ordinary. She looked just like a hundred other girls at Mica High … I had never been so happy and so proud in my life.”

But Stargirl is unique in ways that transcend trite definition. The closest Leo ever comes to understanding her is when he meditates with her in the desert and reaches the point where he loses track of everything. As Stargirl explains, she is part of more than just the high school or the town. She is part of a much larger network that holds her and gives her energy.

The focus on the conformity aspect of school life helps the reader recognize the lifelong impact of a young adult's school life. Leo will never forget that he lost Stargirl by trying to make her like everyone else, even though what he valued about her was that she was not like everyone else.

Years later, Leo still cannot articulate what she meant to him. He knows from mutual friends that they still speak about her at the class reunions. They wonder where she is and ask each other if they did the bunny hop at the school dance right before Hillari slapped her. They wonder what Stargirl calls herself now and where she lives.

Leo, too, wonders what became of Stargirl, and continues to look for her in stories of kindness across the country. He feels her presence in his life: “Though I have no family of my own, I do not feel alone,” he says. “The echo of her laughter is the second sunrise I awaken to each day.” He is not incorrect that she still thinks of him; she even sends him a porcupine necklace for his birthday. But she is no longer physically present in his life, and he is left to reconcile his need to fit in with his schoolmates with the loss of the most remarkable person he has ever met.

Conclusions

These three works are all award-winning books by respected authors. Their work shares a common theme, but the worldview of the author shines through in each book. In The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E. Lockhart explores the influence of the collective will of the school. She has Frankie notice, wonder, and explore the implications of the behaviors that the other students adopt in order to conform to the school's overall ethos. These behaviors range from not taking a shortcut across the grass to knowing their place in the social hierarchy without having to be told outright.

Meg Cabot's Avalon High continues Cabot's pattern of writing about the trials of being a teenager with a fantastic twist—as in her earlier series, the Princess Diaries, where the protagonist is the princess of a small European principality but still struggles to fit in at school and fulfill her academic obligations despite the other stresses in her life. In Avalon High, Ellie may be the reincarnation of a mythological figure, but like many other teenagers, she deals with social conflicts and two-faced behavior at school and ultimately must decide whether to stand by a friend when other students turn against him.

Jerry Spinelli has written several books about school life and conformity. Stargirl, in particular, turns the concept of conformity on its ear. Stargirl is at once so different and captivating that at first the other students cannot help but notice her and want to emulate her—but this state of affairs does not last. The switch from respecting Stargirl to despising her comes about in a predictable and believable way, yet it is still startling in its swiftness. Spinelli has captured the nuance of the tyranny of school life in that moment. It is not enough to be popular. The popular girl must be popular in the right, safe ways—must stand out, but not too much—or she will be taken down as swiftly as she ascended.

These three works are an excellent sample of works with a serious and diverse treatment of school life. They ring true with a young adult audience because these readers know the underside of school life and recognize the validity of the portrayals in these works.

Further Reading

  • Blasingame, Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Print.
  • Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism. Chicago: Amer. Lib. Assn., 2010. Print.
  • Rev. of Avalon High, by Meg Cabot. Guardian Children's Books. Guardian News and Media, 12 Oct. 2011. Web. 11 May 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2011/oct/12/avalon-high-meg-cabot-review>.

Bibliography

  • Bucher, Katherine, and KaaVonia Hinton. “Exploring Contemporary Realistic Fiction.” Young Adult Literature: Exploration, Evaluation, and Appreciation. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson, 2014. 125–58. Print.
  • Chance, Rosemary. Young Adult Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014. Print.
  • Cole, Pam B. Young Adult Literature in the 21st Century. New York: McGraw, 2009. Print.
  • Groban, Betsy. Rev. of Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. New York Times Books. New York Times, 17 Sept. 2000. Web. 9 May 2015. <https://www.nytimes.com/books/00/09/17/reviews/000917.rv110501.htm>.
  • Lynch-Brown, Carol G., Kathy G. Short, and Carl M. Tomlinson. Essentials of Children's Literature. Harlow: Pearson, 2014. Print.
  • Strickland, Ashley. “A Brief History of Young Adult Literature.” CNN. CNN, 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 May 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/15/living/young adult-fiction-evolution>.
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