By: Katelyn Detweiler
Growing up in a small town, it was hard, if not altogether impossible, to escape having some sort of reputation. (And really, having no reputation was probably just as undesirable as having a bad one.) I could name every person in my graduating class, all 200-something of us. And beyond that, whether or not I’d actually ever had a direct conversation with the other person, I could probably sum him or her up in ten words or less, and be fairly confident I had them pegged: overachiever, class clown, nerd, loner, band kid, super jock, flirt, slut, artist, homecoming queen, perfectionist, stoner, loser, science geek, cheerleader, heartbreaker, troublemaker. I knew their histories—or at least the details that had become accepted pieces of official public knowledge—and probably had an opinion about it, too. But this went both ways, of course. I was judged as much as I was the judger.
I was the smart kid, top of the class, always a perfectionist. I was funny and loud, borderline obnoxious at times. I’d been chubby for most of my childhood and was still overcompensating. I’d never had a boyfriend, never had a sip of alcohol, never gone to a single “real” party. I had a respectable amount of friends, maybe, but I wasn’t cool or pretty or sporty enough to actually be “popular.”
That’s probably what people would have said. Maybe even what I would have said, if you’d asked me at the time. But is that really who I was?
As teenagers, we learn our place quickly in the school social stratifications, and we usually accept that as truth. We let ourselves become what others think of us—it’s an all too often subtly accepted layer of the way we think, speak, act. Their recognition, their judgment, shapes and defines us… or at least until high school ends, until we can maybe, just maybe, transform ourselves in college.
When in the case of IMMACULATE, the rigidly type-A, straight-A, seemingly perfect and totally put together 17-year-old Mina Dietrich claims to be a pregnant virgin, minds are blown. The two images do not fit; the golden girl has fallen. Her swearing by her virginity only makes her seem more pathetic—a desperate attempt at salvaging her reputation. But regardless of how or why she’s pregnant, does she deserve to be judged? Harassed? We’re all messy and complicated, flawed. We make good decisions, and we make bad ones. We succeed, we fail. We’re so much more than any simplified reputation.
We can see the implications of this—slut-shaming, ostracizing, bullying, and so on—playing out in important ways in so many YA novels today. Here are a few particular books that can help us to break out of our assumptions, and to start seeing people for who they really are.
Every year before homecoming, the list gets posted all over the walls of Mount Washington High. Two girls from each grade are named. The prettiest. And the ugliest. Eight girls, suddenly in the spotlight, all reacting to the attention in their own different—sometimes very surprising—ways. Vivian explores powerful questions about self-esteem, femininity, and identity as each girl struggles to rediscover and redefine who she really is, beyond this new label; she is more than just “pretty,” more than just “ugly.” From a starred review in Kirkus: “This riveting exploration of physical appearance and the status it confers opens a cultural conversation that’s needed to happen for a long time. . . Vivian refuses to falsify or avoid the uncomfortable realities.”
Sixteen-year-old Sib has transformed from ugly duckling to swan overnight, and—thanks to landing a professional modeling job—she’s the object of everyone’s attention at her high school’s mandatory “semester in the wilderness.” Not only is she learning how to navigate the wilds of nature, she’s learning how to navigate demanding new social codes. Meanwhile, new girl Lou has zero interest in fitting in, or joining in, still reeling from a terrible loss that occurred almost a year ago. But as she witnesses a betrayal unfolding around Sib and her best friend Holly, Lou can’t help but be drawn back into the land of the living. A brilliant look at the fickle powers of popularity and the importance of staying true to yourself, despite the social costs.
This fabulous debut takes reputation to a whole new level—a carefully constructed image blasted all across the nation. When Kate Quinn discovers that not only is her biological father alive, he’s a powerful politician running for U.S. president, her entire world changes overnight. Suddenly, Kate’s waving and smiling on the campaign trail, supporting a man she hardly knows, living with a brand new family she never knew existed. She’s closely groomed and monitored, told what to wear, how to smile, what to say and what not to say. She has to be a new Kate, a better Kate—a Kate who’s flawless and selfless and effortlessly endearing. But what about when the talking points go against what Kate believes? Does she keep up the shiny new image? Or does she stay true to herself—and risk losing her new family?
Everybody knows the truth about Alice Franklin: she’s a slut. It hadn’t always been that way. Before the rumors blew up, Alice was liked well enough by her classmates, even if she’d never been popular. But now, the truth is written all over the “slut stall” in the girls’ bathroom. Alice has sex in exchange for test answers; she had an abortion last semester; she slept with two guys at one party. And worst of all, when her school’s star quarterback dies in a car crash, it was because Alice was sexting him. It’s true, all of it. Ask anybody. Told through the perspectives of four of Alice’s classmates—as they reveal everything they “know” about Alice—we see how one rumor can spiral quickly and dangerously out of control, and how the need for popularity can so easily overrule loyalty and decency. What is actually the truth about Alice? Only Alice has the answer.
Something happened to Judy Lohden. Something big. Something awful. And because of it, she’s hiding away from everyone—even the media—in a room at the seedy Motel Manor. Judy’s an above-average sixteen-year-old, with a voice that can shake an auditorium; a sixteen-year-old who just happens to be three feet nine inches tall, a fact that Judy has never let get in the way of her big dreams and her big personality. Not until now, not until her whole life’s been turned upside down. Raw, hilarious, scathing, and tragic, Judy’s story, her reflections on the vicious “prank” that brought her to this place, will pull you in—make you desperate to know the truth of what really happened with her classmates from the Darcy Arts Academy. This is a book for anyone who’s ever felt different; a book for anyone who’s ever struggled with exactly who they are and who they want to be.
What if your boyfriend—the boy you love, the boy you know inside and out—turns out to be a killer? What does that say about you? That’s the question Valerie Leftman is left with after her boyfriend Nick opened fire on their school cafeteria five months ago. Even though Valerie was shot trying to stop him—and inadvertently saved the life of a classmate—she’s still implicated in the crime. She’s implicated because she’d worked with Nick on the “list.” A list of people they hated, their bullies, their tormentors. And the list he used to pinpoint his targets. Valerie didn’t know, never thought it would go this far. After a summer of hiding out, Val is forced back to school for senior year—forced to confront all of the classmates who see her as a killer. A haunting, poignant story about how a girl’s reputation is entirely shattered; and how slowly, one day at a time, she can prove to others—and to herself—that she’s more than just Nick’s girlfriend. And that Nick, too, was more than just a killer.
Samantha Kingston is at the very top of her high school’s social pyramid, a beautiful and ruthless queen bee. Obnoxious, insensitive, reckless, cruel—she wears her icy cool reputation like a badge of honor. Sam expects a perfect day when she wakes up on February 12—“Cupid Day”—a day for valentines and roses, partying with her best friends and her dreamy, top-tier boyfriend. She doesn’t expect to die—but she does, that same night, in a terrible car accident. Metal on metal, glass shattering, a car folding in two, everything disappearing. But then she wakes up again the next morning. And it’s February 12. Again. For seven days, Sam is forced to live out her last day over and over, learning with each new start that little changes can make the most powerful differences. With each day, Sam slowly realizes the effects of how she’d treated people; she realizes that a much better person lies inside. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not too late to be redeemed.
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Katelyn Detweiler was born and raised in Pennsylvania—in a small town much like Mina’s—living in a centuries-old farmhouse surrounded by fields and woods. After graduating from Penn State University, she made the move to New York City, where she is a literary agent representing books for all ages and across all genres. Katelyn currently lives, agents, and writes in Brooklyn.
Immaculate by Katelyn Detweiler is now available wherever books are sold.