Monday, February 15, 2010

there are a whole lot of mean girls in books

I’ve read a lot of books with mean girls in them lately. Even books that aren’t about mean girls seem to have mean girls in them, and popular is often shorthand for mean girl. I have been thinking a lot about this subject as I’m writing my current YA and brainstorming my next one. Here are my (unscientific) thoughts on mean girls and writing:

We’ve all known a mean girl or two.
There are people (usually of an older generation) that claim to not have any experience with mean girls. Good for them. Maybe it’s true, maybe their memory has allowed them to forget, or maybe they were the mean girl. For the rest of us, we know what mean girls are all about. It’s human nature to want to control your world. Mean girls take that to another level.
In books, mean girls are almost always popular and all the girls want to be like them. They usually have money and/or status, are good looking (or have another attribute that makes up for it if they’re not), get all the hot guys, and rule the school. There’s a ring of truth to this, because there are a lot of popular girls that are also mean.

**However, not all popular girls are mean, just as not all mean girls are popular.**

Girls who are popular are usually labeled “mean girls.” Girls who are not popular get names like, “bully,” or “future serial killer.”

These are the mean girls that we’ve all read and heard about, the girls (popular or not) that pick on people for no apparent reason. The ones that make high school a living hell, and probably junior high / middle school as well. These are the girls you want to stay away from, keep off their radar, and hope that they don’t single you out for their brand of fun. They’re also, many times, the girls that other girls aspire to be. I don’t think this is because the other girls want to be that cruel, rather that they want immunity from the kind of torture that’s handed out.

There are other types of mean girls.
The mean girl that doesn’t usually get a label and isn’t recognized that often, is the “not in the popular group” and “not a bully for no reason” kind of mean girl. She’s not signaling out people for random torture, criticizing her friends, or dictating what they should wear. She is not a queen bee or a wanna be. What is she then? She could be one of two main types.

1. She’s a normal girl in a group that tends to have a stronger opinion than the rest of them. There’s usually a leader in any group of girls who are friends, whether popular or not, and even if there are only two or three in the group. One girl is the person that all the others look to for answers, like what to do on a Friday night or how to get the guy you like to notice you. She’s a perfectly nice person, most of the time.

2. She might be just a regular girl, not the group leader and usually nice to everyone. She also can’t handle stress. She can sway the group’s opinion with her emotions when she bombs on a test or her boyfriend breaks up with her. She’s angry and she takes it out on a friend – usually someone that didn’t do anything wrong, or did something by accident, not meaning to hurt her feelings or embarrass her.

Unfortunately, friends often have disagreements. With hormones raging, the stress of homework, finals, college applications, and boys, even the most friendly of girls could be a ticking time bomb.
Girls don’t get over their grudges that easily. Sometimes a girl is cast out and shunned from a group for weeks on end. This is a horrible experience to go through, but if that’s all it is, you will usually live through it, make up with your friends and go on to ignore someone else a few weeks later.

So, as writers, what can we do about mean girls?
We can write stories that shed light on the subject and provide a context for what’s happening (not preaching, not giving lessons, but telling real stories about characters that are the target of mean girls or are mean girls themselves).

We can write books about girls that aren’t in the popular group, but are still mean girls.

We can write books about girls aren’t mean girls or popular girls, but who are mean to each other. These girls exist just as much as the kind that are written about more often.

We can write books from the mean girl’s POV; what makes her tick?

We can write stories where there are no mean girls at all. Everyone needs an escape from real life.

We can recommend books about mean girls; there are a lot of them out there.

Mean Girl Books
Here are four books I recommend. If you read them all back to back, it’s a great way to see how mean girls can be handled in many different ways in children’s and YA books. Plus, they are all excellent books!

Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers – I love this book because it’s from a mean girl’s POV. It’s amazing and cringe-worthy. Here’s how the main character, Regina, describes who she and her friends are, “We’re the kind of popular that parents like to pretend doesn’t exist so they can sleep at night, and we’re the kind of popular that makes our peers unable to sleep at night.”

How to Be Popular by Meg Cabot – this is a great book to read after Courney’s. It’s a look at how one girl was able to take care of the mean girl that was harassing her and find a way to be true to herself at the same time. It’s fun to read such a light-hearted and positive mean girl book.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray – this book is not at all about mean girls and the main character is a boy. However, the mean girls still manage to get into the story. It’s a good way to see how mean girls are a facet of every day life for a lot of high school girls, and for boys too. It’s also a really great trip, has a garden gnome in it, and won the Printz award this year.

Two of a Kind written by Jacqui Robbins / illustrated by Matt Phelan – a picture book about mean girls and friendship. You don’t usually think about mean girls this young. Most books with mean girls are for YA or middle grade readers. It’s great that there’s a picture book that tackles the subject in such a thoughtful way, and the illustrations are spot on for the emotions involved.

What do you think about mean girls?
I’d love to hear what you think about this subject. What mean girl books would you recommend? What do you think we can do about mean girls, if anything? Any other thoughts you’d like to share?