Book Review: 'The List' counts the ways social labels hurt teens

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Every year at Mount Washington High School, "The List" is posted all over school. At the end of September, eight unlucky girls make the list. In each grade, one girl is named the prettiest and one is named the ugliest.

The list is one of those unsanctioned school traditions that students hope to get away with, such as stealing your rival school's mascot or Senior Skip Day.

The list is made anonymously. No one admits to writing it or takes credit. The teachers and administrators have no control over it or they would have stopped it.

The day the list comes out it is posted everywhere: on lockers, above urinals, in stairwells, in the cafeteria and everywhere in between. It can't be avoided.

Every girl, secretly or otherwise, hopes to be named prettiest and can't hope hard enough that she isn't named ugliest. It's one thing to feel the insecurities of being a teenager privately. It's another matter entirely when your adolescent insecurities are validated for your whole world to see.

Readers who know anything about high school social dynamics can relate to the scenario of "The List" (Push, $17.99, ages 13-17). Some authors of young adult literature might stop here, letting the book simply rely on a catchy premise.

But Pittsburgh author Siobhan Vivian instead immerses us in the complicated lives of all eight girls on this year's list. She creates eight distinctive, well-rounded characters as well as a believable supporting cast of friends, family members and school personnel.

Alternating chapters are devoted to one girl at a time, making this a great book to set down and pick up again -- perfect for busy teen readers.

Yet in just over 300 pages Ms. Vivian ensures that readers get to know the girls and the effect the list has on them. That makes this book not just a quick, engaging read but also a compelling survey of the destruction that labels, even so-called good labels, can have on young women.

This year's prettiest freshman is Abby, who gets "Bonus points awarded for overcoming family genetics," a direct jab at her brainy older sister, a junior at Mount Washington High.

The "honor" of ugliest freshman goes to "Dan the Man" Danielle. That's a bit of a mystery because Danielle is an attractive athletic member of the swim team and has a boyfriend on the varsity football team. After the list comes out, Danielle's boyfriend is supportive but eventually lets their relationship fall apart as his teammates bully and belittle Danielle.

The prettiest sophomore this year is Lauren, who was home-schooled up until this point. She is pretty and a blend of shy and carefree. Still, Lauren being named comes as a surprise to everyone.

Most surprised is Candace, the leader of the sophomore mean girl crew. She's made the list, too -- as the ugliest.

After the list comes out Candace does whatever she can to make Lauren feel insignificant. Candace's character is the one we associate with the pretty and popular bully role every high school has. But her hostility isn't as crippling as some of the quieter consequences of the list.

The juniors on the list are well-drawn. Sarah Singer is the intense and weird girl who makes things awkward on purpose. She's not shocked that she is named the ugliest, due to her lowly position in the high school pecking order. The day the list is posted, she writes "UGLY" in permanent marker on her forehead and vows not to shower for a week. Although Sarah has a tough front, peeling back the layers of the metaphorical (and filthy) onion reveal a girl whose stubborn reticence may make readers want to yell at the pages.

For anyone wondering why girls sometimes choose extremely unhealthy habits, Bridget offers one answer. The "What a difference a summer can make" prettiest junior came back to school a few dress sizes smaller. She struggles hard with a new eating disorder, one she may have more easily overcome if she didn't feel such pressure from appearing on the list.

The author digs into this difficult topic by letting us into Bridget's head as she tries to justify the calories consumed in a risky "cleanse." She also explores Bridget's relationships with her sister, who can clearly see what is happening but, quite believably, can't figure out how to help.

The seniors on the list are the only unsurprising recipients. Margo is a shoo-in for homecoming queen, and Jennifer is the only girl in school history to be named ugliest four years in a row.

There are no fairy tale endings. The list hurts everyone.

The book is a welcome piece of realistic fiction in a market awash in supernatural romance and dystopian thrillers. In dystopian fiction, teens often outsmart "the man." And most romances, paranormal or otherwise, have happy endings.

But there's no getting away from Ms. Vivian's list. It's a constant reminder that other people will try to define your role in life. It's your job to not let them.

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Annica Stivers is teen and adult librarian at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in West End. First Published May 8, 2012 1:00 AM


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