Guest Review: The List by Siobhan Vivian

The ListTitle: The List

Author: Siobhan Vivian

Publisher: Push (Scholastic)

Release Date: April 1st, 2012

Reviewer: Cathy Blackler

Summary (From Goodreads):  

An intense look at the rules of high school attraction — and the price that’s paid for them.

It happens every year. A list is posted, and one girl from each grade is chosen as the prettiest, and another is chosen as the ugliest. Nobody knows who makes the list. It almost doesn’t matter. The damage is done the minute it goes up.

This is the story of eight girls, freshman to senior, “pretty” and “ugly.” And it’s also the story of how we see ourselves, and how other people see us, and the tangled connection of the two.

 

Few arenas lend themselves to a conversation concerning gender relations better than high school. Adolescent angst, a desire for identity, and a ruthless social structure all contribute to the sensory experience. Bonds are formed that at first glance may appear unbreakable; however upon further examination the covalence is tenuous, at best. The unquenchable thirst for acceptance during these formative years is like no other. High school is a time of discovery and teens often find themselves standing insecurely on the precipice of adulthood, curating behaviors and qualities that seem crucial in order to navigate the murky waters.

In her young adult novel The List, Siobhan Vivian thrusts readers into the high school arena by examining the experiences of eight young women. A non-sanctioned tradition at Mount Washington high school, The List is anonymously crafted and displayed each year during the week prior to Homecoming. The eight young women who fall victim to the annual tradition are consigned to two categories: Prettiest and Ugliest; two girls per grade level, one girl for each category. Reactions run the gamut, even amongst the girls themselves as they struggle to make sense of their newfound celebrity.

For Junior Bridget Honeycutt inclusion on the list as the Prettiest Junior is tethered to the byline “what a difference a summer can make.” Insecurity rears its ugly head as Bridget struggles with her self worth, causing her to wrestle demons that feed a hunger like no other. As Bridget prepares for the Homecoming Dance

 “She gets ready without looking in the mirror. Bridget doesn’t need to see         herself.  She already knows. She will never be pretty.”

 Bridget’s story sheds light on the heartbreaking isolation that often accompanies the search for one’s self. While relationships, adolescent and otherwise, can be fraught with distorted perceptions from a multitude of vantage points, feeding doubts, anxieties and self-sabotaging behaviors, a desire for acceptance is always at the forefront.

Freshman Danielle “Dan the Man” DeMarco is confused by the proclamation that decrees her the Ugliest freshman, but not as confused as her boyfriend, Andrew, a member of the school’s football team.  Danielle’s physical prowess earns her a coveted spot on the Varsity Swim Team, while her new nickname attracts unfair attention from Andrew’s friends and teammates. While Andrew appears to say “all the right things” on day one, the constant ridicule and jabbing from his teammates eventually takes its toll, causing Andrew to succumb to peer pressure and Danielle to question her self worth in ways that The List did not.

 “She searches his face for a glimmer of someone who remembers who she had been before Monday. The boy who had been proud to be with her, who had pursued her for weeks at camp. How could so much change in a week? Danielle hasn’t only lost her sense of self, but she’s lost her sense of Andrew, too.”

 Labeling individuals as a way to reward and ridicule is certainly nothing new. Vivian has taken an age-old phenomenon and put it on paper, where its existence cannot be ignored or denied. Her novel invites conversations, many of them difficult, yet necessary. When individuals are singled out and whispered about, where does responsibility lie?  Does the human experience demand winners and losers? How does our perceived place in any social structure affect our relationships? Our inclination to pass judgment reduces the recipients of that judgment to a single story and flattens the experience for us all.

Gender relations often claw their way to the forefront of the high school experience, becoming entangled in the desire for acceptance, identity, and the curiosity to discover who we are. To navigate this last stop on the road to adulthood one must be willing to take a hard look at the behavior of others, but most especially of ourselves. The List delivers a frank portrayal of these behaviors. Vivian gifts readers with her story of heartache, triumph, uncertainty and discovery.

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Cathy Blackler teaches High School English in Southern California. A proud, card-carrying member of the #nerdybookclub, she served as her District’s Teacher of the Year during the 2012-2013 school year, is currently serving a three-year term on the California Young Reader Medal (CYRM) Committee, and was recently inducted into her High School’s Alumni Hall of Fame. She truly leads a reading life, and still owns the first book she purchased with her own money.

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