Review: The List by Siobhan Vivian

The List by Siobhan Vivian. Scholastic, 2012. Currently available.

Genre: YA Contemporary Realistic Fiction

Face Value: We’ve got a headless body count of three here, which is not ideal. However, the girl at the center of the image has all of her body parts. I do love the way the cover image captures the shock of being on the list. The girl’s facial expression conveys just how stunned she is, and she could be either the ugliest or the prettiest, we don’t know. These faceless bodies surrounding her are watching her reaction, and probably judging her. The cover does capture the unsettling feeling that underlies all of the girls’ stories throughout the book. My only concern is that the contemporary clothing styles might soon look dated, so it’s not really a cover with longevity. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for the paperback to convey that same icky sense of social discomfort.

Does it break the slate? Completely and totally. Vivian shatters the slate and sweeps away the pieces so that there’s nothing left. Siobhan Vivian has a keen sense of what it means to be a part of adolescent girl culture and what she writes feels real – almost painfully real, at times, because it’s so honest and feels familiar in a “been there, done that, don’t ever want to go back” sort of way. She writes in a way that points out the absurdity and hurtfulness of the teen girl social structure without making the reader feel guilty for being part of it. As I was reading, I experienced moments of deep regret for the mean, judgmental, and unfair things I have said about other girls and women. Reading The List encouraged me to take a hiatus from bodysnarking.  Since I finished the book a few days ago, I have tried to refrain from commenting on girls’ and women’s bodies. It’s tough because it has become so a part of the way we function as a culture, but I want to try to go at least a month without bodysnarking and hopefully cut it out of my life fully. Thanks to Vivian, I was inspired to change my behavior, and I think other readers may have a similar reaction to her bold, sharp story about the hurtful aspects of girl behavior.

Who would we give it to? Oh my goodness, everyone. I certainly want to give it to all of my female friends. I also want to give it to all of my female students, all of my male students, anyone who teaches or works with adolescents, anyone who was an adolescent…I think I want to order this book by the case and hand out copies like candy on Halloween.

There is one reader group to which I would not give this book: middle school girls about to start high school soon. If I had read The List before starting high school, you could not have paid me to walk through those school doors on the first day. I would have stepped off the bus and bolted for the parking lot. This book does not paint a pretty picture of the high school experience, and I would hesitate to give it to those readers who have not yet experienced high school. Not necessarily because of content relative to age, but because you at least want to have some shred of optimism remaining to carry you through freshman year.

Review: For as long as anyone can remember, there has been a List at Mount Washington High. No one knows who makes the list, or how that person decides who goes on the List, but despite the mystery surrounding it, the List always makes an appearance on the last Monday in September. It is a List of eight girls. Not just any girls – the prettiest and ugliest girls in each grade.

In The List by Siobhan Vivian, we meet the eight girls who have been put on the list this year and follow them for a week as the List impacts their lives. Some girls find themselves reveling in the attention, while others wish they could disappear. And although their classmates see the title of “prettiest” as an honor, the four girls marked as prettiest on the list find it to be a burden more than a gift. Not that being named “ugliest” is any better. For the girls designated as the ugliest in their grade, it becomes less about their own response to the title (of course they are upset by it!) but rather more about how their friends react. It suddenly becomes less cool to be the friend, or the boyfriend, of a girl who has been designated “ugly.” Although these girls are built from the typical high school stereotypes (the popular cheerleader, the rebel punk, the homeschooled girl, the overeager freshman), Vivian constantly surprises with her carefully paced twists and turns. Each girl rises above her stereotype to show that there is so much more under the surface causing her to act the way that she does.

Something occurred to me while reading that I couldn’t get out of the back of my mind for the rest of the book: I envision Mount Washington High as a very white high school. Unless I missed something in the descriptions of the girls (and it’s possible that I did because I often miss descriptive details), all of the girls on the list were white girls. Issues of race and beauty and how racial identity is often intertwined with cultural notions of beauty were not really addressed in this book. I wonder how this story would have been different if one of the girls on the list, either “prettiest” or “ugliest,” was clearly identified as being a young woman of color. That’s an element of the cultural conversation surrounding beauty that was missing from The List.

There are many characters to keep track of throughout the book. There are the eight young women on the list, and the friends, siblings, parents, and teachers all become involved as well. The narration fluidly moves among these girl’s stories. Although the cast of characters may be cumbersome, Vivian does a brilliant job at giving us just enough of each girl’s story to satisfy our need for information. She also leaves some elements up to the imagination for each character so that we are left wondering about the choice that girl will make next. For some readers this might be frustrating, but I found it tantalizing. The book only tracks a week of these girls’ lives, and that week is jam-packed with drama and tension. There’s no way that each of the eight girls would achieve closure for her issues within one week. I enjoyed the sense of dangling possibility that was a part of each girl’s story. And although there were many peripheral characters woven in, I found that to be a reminder that we outsiders (teachers, siblings, parents, etc.) are often complicit in the cruel culture of girlhood, whether we acknowledge it or not.

One of the characters that most intrigued me was one of the peripheral characters, Principal Colby. In my review of Vivian’s book Not That Kind of Girl I write about Ms. Bee and the feminist teacher character whose misguided intentions do more harm to her students than good. Principal Colby bears some similarity to Ms. Bee in that she clearly has some feminist ideology underlying her pedagogical philosophy. Although Principal Colby presents as a very feminine woman – she dresses in feminine clothing, wears jewelry, and carefully applies her makeup – she is also eager to end the tradition of the list. Principal Colby is a non-nonsense administrator, but the girls see her as fallible because she is brand new to the school and unfamiliar with the way that girls operate at Mount Washington High. Although Principal Colby is mostly ineffective in the story because she does not uncover the source of the list, she still is a presence that reminds the girls that they have the potential to be women in power. She also represents that fact that looks are not always a source of power. Although Principal Colby is an attractive woman, she has little control over the list and its effect on the student body.

I found Bridget’s storyline to be the most painful, because the narration of her disordered eating was so bleak. This could be potentially very uncomfortable (maybe even triggering) for some readers. Although the list at Mount Washington High has some devastating effects, some of the stories do have pleasant endings. They may not be overtly happy endings, but they are certainly optimistic. The girls have learned something from their encounter with this nasty school tradition and have become stronger because of it. The List is not only a well-written, compelling story; it is also an important book. It doesn’t sugarcoat or excuse mean girl behavior. We have to start having more open dialogue with teen girls about the way they talk about their own and others’ bodies, and this book is a strong way to start the conversation.

Reviewed from library copy.

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