Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Books Set In High School

When I was in high school, I never read books about high school. Stephen King, John Grisham, lots and lots of Mary Higgins Clark (I had a weird thing for mass market paperbacks), yes, but nothing by or about young people. Now that I’m closer to middle age, I’ve found the wonderful world of YA and am naturally obsessed with all things eleventh grade. My timing may not be perfect, but some things are worth waiting for. These three picks are all set in modern high schools, presented for your consideration whether you’re currently a student or just like remembering.

Evil Librarian Michelle KnudsenEvil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen

Cynthia has a difficult task ahead of her when she realizes she’s one of the only people able to resist the weird hypnosis that’s taking over her high school. Unfortunately, her best friend, Annie, seems to be right at the heart of the danger. Together with the lead of their production of Sweeney Todd, Cynthia tries to unravel the mystery and stop the threatening evil forces before they make it to opening night.

This book is so full of things I love that it’s difficult for me to be objective about whether or not it’s a good choice for others. The first person narrator is gushy and passionate about everything from her crush to set design for the school musical to saving her best friend from the demon invasion in the library. I’ve heard comparisons to Buffy (school + demons and this book can’t really escape it) but Cynthia is a different kind of heroine, much less tortured while still being strong and smart. The theater references made me so happy; at one point, Cynthia loses herself in the moment while watching the male lead practice his solo, and this drama nerd was transported back to my high school auditorium, pining for any guy who could carry a tune. The demonic characters are as multidimensional as the layers of hell they’ve come from, and Cynthia’s ultimate showdown with the forces of evil is badass.

Verdict: BUY if you love theater or Buffy. BORROW if you are anyone else.

Seven Ways We Lie Riley RedgateSeven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate

Paloma High is like any other high school in Kansas– cliques, social hierarchies, kids trying to keep up appearances. Then an anonymous tip to the principal uncovers a relationship between an unnamed student and teacher, and the secret’s ripple of influence spreads through the student body, reaching further than anyone might have suspected. Seven Ways We Lie follows seven different students dealing with issues large and small, brought together by a scandal that effects but will not define their senior year.

Right out of the gate, let’s discuss that this book follows seven different points of view, which will make some readers leery, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the voices were quite distinct for each character.  High school students are so often portrayed with “typical high school qualities,” but Redgate really takes the time to identify all the different kinds of personalities pushed up against each other in an average high school, and each character is thoughtfully fleshed out beyond their role in the central plot. The book deals with issues such as divorce, sexuality and coming out, and teenage drinking and drugs, without ever once preaching or passing down judgment. Events happen, and the characters spend time evaluating their feelings about the positive or negative consequences without wasting precious time (there are seven different revelations to come to) on whether or not drinking or lying about your sexuality is RIGHT or WRONG. I’m not a teenager, so I hesitate to proclaim that “this is how teens talk!” but the voices sounded authentic to me. It’s hard to capture in this quick little space, but even with the big things covered in this book, it still retains a light feel, and is undercut with clever humor.

Verdict: High school English teachers and librarians should BUY this for their collections. Everyone else, definitely BORROW and see if you liked it as much as I did.

Fake ID Lamar GilesFake ID by Lamar Giles

Nick Pearson is starting at a new high school and desperately trying to keep a low profile- not because he’s shy or hates attention, but because his family is in the Witness Protection Program. So when he starts to connect with the editor of the school newspaper who can’t stop talking about a conspiracy, he’s actually kind of breaking the rules. And when he becomes involved in the investigation of a murder, he’s definitely breaking the rules. How far will Nick go to uncover the truth, and will the act of doing so uncover the truth about him?

This thriller is one of the rare YA novels with a male protagonist, a solid mystery with sprinkles of romance and family drama that kept me engaged to the very end. I liked the tension between who Nick used to be and his new persona, and how difficult it is for him on his first day, navigating typical high school students with questions and cameras. As the mystery unfolds (centered around the high school paper, a subplot I enjoyed), the twists and turns all seem reasonable, and it is really difficult to pin down who is telling the truth- even Nick, at times, feels like an unreliable narrator.   His character really fleshes out in the mentions of and flashbacks to his pre-Program life. I will say that the ending left me a little flat. Pieces of the plot are largely resolved, but plenty is left wide open, and it feels unsatisfying. If there was another book forthcoming, it would make sense, but this was published in early 2014, so it’s possible that we’re just left hanging. Because it offers a male protagonist and a lot of diverse characters (both things that are rare in YA), it’s a smart pick for people who work with YA readers to have in their repertoire for recommendations. Everyone else can get it from the library and make their own choice.

Verdict: Again, BUY if you’re adding to your high school library or classroom collection. BORROW if you’re a fan of thrillers!

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