On one of the final days before my high school graduation, seniors were filing through a line to pick up various end-of-the-year materials, and one of the ultra-popular girls was helping with distribution. She handed me my items and called me by name. And this scene sticks with me because of the feeling of genuine shock I had when I realized that she knew who I was. It wasn’t pride or relief or excitement, just plain surprise.
Now, looking back, with the perspective of time and maturity, it doesn’t seem nearly so strange that she would know me. Sure, I was one among hundreds of students in our class, but I was pretty well entrenched in campus life. And although I may not have been at the tippity top of the social ladder, I wasn’t hanging out on the bottom rung either. But such is the nature of high school popularity. It’s a thing all its own, and when you’re in the midst of it, the ones who reign supreme seem almost otherworldly.
With humor and insight, Elise Allen tackles the topics of high school social standings and the climb to the top in her young adult novel, Populazzi. In this story, moving to a new school gives Cara the opportunity to reinvent herself. Her best friend encourages her to use the Ladder, a scheme for moving progressively up the popularity ranks, until she reaches the very top. Unfortunately, the climb to the summit turns out to be trickier than she’d expected, and Cara finds herself caught in a tangled mess of her own making. Author Elise Allen reveals, “Readers both laugh and cringe for Cara as she gets in deeper and deeper.”
Cara’s story is fictional, but it has its basis in the real world of high school social scenes all around the country. In most schools, there is a hierarchy of popularity, of which the students are all too aware, and one’s place in the mix can be quite the source of anxiety.
Allen remembers those feelings herself. She shares with us, “It’s in no way, shape or form autobiographical, but the feelings from high school run deep and remain vivid in… my memory long after the fact.” She turned to those memories to help her craft her novel. “I definitely drew on those to help build the characters’ emotional honesty,” she says.
Additionally, consulting current teenagers added further legitimacy to the storyline. “I have three stepsisters who are living it right now. I spoke to them while I was writing the book, and their insight was absolutely invaluable,” relates Allen.
Not Always Pretty
There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. —Proverbs 16:25
Cara, the main character, is certainly no flawless hero. Allen explains, “Cara is a girl who makes mistakes. Often big, messy mistakes.” She adds, “She stumbles along and dabbles in underage drinking, marijuana and the edges of sex, but none of these things are glamourized. They’re not demonized either. Rather, the book shows real consequences for Cara making these choices, and the consequences are often tough.”
Because of these mature topics, plus some mild foul language, Popularity is generally recommended for readers ages 14 and up. Some parents may prefer to preview this novel before letting their teens read it.
In fact, it would be a good book for parents and teenagers to read and discuss together. Cara makes quite a few poor choices, but she often faces regrettable consequences as a direct result of those choices. Allen believes, “This is a great conversation for parents to have with teens, especially when it’s wrapped in a narrative that’s fun for both generations to read.”
First published in 2011, Populazzi is avaiable from Harcourt Mifflin Harcourt in paperback, hardcover and e-book formats.
If you’ve remember navigating the waters of your high school’s social scene or you’re in the midst of it right now, in Populazzi you’ll find humor, hope and a reminder that sometimes it’s best to just be yourself. And if you’d like, share your own memories of high school popularity (or lack thereof) with us below.