Review: The List

The List by Siobhan Vivian. PUSH, an imprint of Scholastic. 2012. Review copy from PLA.

The Plot:  Mount Washington High School has a tradition: each year, before Homecoming, a list is made. The four prettiest girls in school, one in each grade. And the four ugliest girls, one in each grade. This year’s anointed pretty girls: Abby, Lauren, Bridget, Margo. The ugly girls: Danielle, Candace, Sarah, Jennifer. The List is their story, of how it impacts each girl.

The Good: Eight story lines are juggled; eight points of view come together for one story about the power of words and labels. The List is also about casual, everyday cruelty; a meanness that here is in high school, brought to the forefront because of the list, but it could happen anywhere or anytime. Some people are “broken” by the list; some are made stronger; some embrace it; others, reject it.

Confession: I love books with this type of structure, going back and forth between characters, having some overlap, and shifting points of view.

The pretty girls: Abby, the pretty girl more interested in planning each outfit for the day than doing any homework. The list confirms to her that her priorities are the right ones. She’s shallow, yes, but also likable. I just wanted to shake some sense into her. (I totally pictured the younger sister from Ten Things I Hate About You.)

Lauren, the former homeschooler. Getting on the list means getting instant best friends, and her upbringing has left her a bit unsure who to trust.

Bridget, whose summer weight loss gets her on the list. Too bad that means keeping up the unhealthy habits she uses to keep her weight down.

Margo, who feels like getting on the list guarantees a happy senior year.

The ugly girls: Danielle, who before the list was a happy, confident swimmer with an attentive boyfriend. The list brings about self-doubt, and shows the cracks in her relationship with her boyfriend.

Candace, a popular girl who is also mean. The type of girl who would expect to be on the pretty list. The loss of status means a loss of friends.

Sarah, an outsider who decides to go full-on ugly. Her classmates think she’s ugly? She’ll show them ugly!

Jennifer, who has gotten on the list four years in a row. Sympathy and pity from her fellow students may be the beginnings of friendship.

The pretty girls, of course, have less issues than the ugly girls, but they also have negative consequences: Abby continues to ignore schoolwork. Lauren’s mother distrusts what is going on. Bridget obsesses about dress size. Margo, who has been enemies with Jennifer since before high school, is shocked to find her friends befriending Jennifer. The ugly girls, though — those are the ones who it hits, and hits hard, because it’s a world judges by looks.

I had two favorite story lines: Danielle and Margo. Danielle was such a strong character, to see the seeds of self doubt planted was heart breaking. Luckily, she is not alone: she has friends and her team rallies behind her. (Her boyfriend, well, let’s just say I think it’s a good thing she realized just how weak he was. This was a gift, Danielle!)

Margo, on the other hand, has a strong voice: the dynamics between and Jennifer were fascinating. They stopped being friends because, well, they changed. It happens. Friendships don’t have to end for big, dramatic reasons. Jennifer refuses to accept it, and that refusal shapes her attitude toward the list and toward Margo.

Other reviews: New York Times review; Stacked; YA Librarian Tales

Edited to add: I got so caught up in the stories that, until discussing this with the author on Twitter, I forget a HUGE part of the book.

The important impact of the books is not Jennifer, Sarah, Danielle, Lauren, or the others. The impact that matters is the one on the reader.

That can be a tricky thing for a book, to expect that engagement from the reader, because we’re used to characters changing, growing, in books, not ourselves. Abby’s in the same place, we may say — but that doesn’t matter. The reality is, for the Abbys of the world? They won’t change. And that’s important to have in a book.

Questions that I came away with, in a feel it in my gut way, not a putting together a book discussion way: How do I define myself, “ugly” or “pretty”? If someone threw that label at me, what would I do? Do I do that to others? Why do these labels have power, and why do people use that power?

7 thoughts on “Review: The List

  1. I just read this one and was fascinated by it. At the same time, I was left with a lingering sense of dismay which makes it hard for me to say that I really loved it. Engrossing social commentary? Yes. A book I am enthusiastic about? Not exactly.


  2. I pictured the little sister from 10 Things I Hate About You as Abby, too! How funny. I wonder if that’s who the author was picturing.

    I think the list had the most damaging consequences for “pretty” girl Bridget. I was kind of upset that her story didn’t have a happier ending, but I think, sadly, it’s probably more realistic that way. The author definitely made me care about her as a character.

    Danielle’s story really got to me, too.


  3. Maureen, the casual infliction of the pain — and the acceptance of it, the continuation of it — was chilling, making it hard to “like” (I felt the same way about Elizabeth Scott’s book about the kidnapped girl, or Lucy Christopher’s Lost). While some girls will be Ok (Danielle) I think for others (Abby) this is more a character study, and they are not going to be better for these experiences.

    Allison, so funny! Absolutely the younger sister. I think Lauren had the most damaging consequences; she is being pulled out of school by a mother who doesn’t seem quite right, plus the family is sinkinig economically. Bridget — I really believe her younger sister is going to tell on her (if not now, soon) so I think she has a bit more positive possible outcome.


  4. Ohhhh, you make an excellent point about Lauren. Ha, now I’m going to sit here and worry about her for a bit!

    I used the word “upset” in my earlier comment, and I know we chatted about this on Twitter, but I wanted to clarify here, too, for the record– I think I sounded more critical than I intended. I enjoyed this book so much– I cared about these characters and wanted them to be okay. And some of them weren’t okay in the end. But I think that’s part of what makes this a really thought-provoking, powerful read.

    I hope to use this book as a book club read at my library- it’ll make for such an intriguing discussion!


  5. Allison, there is good “upset”, you know? It’s sort of like how I said I would have a tough time with the word “like” for this book – because what I really have the hard time with is it sounding like “i like bullying”. It’s a rough, raw topic —


  6. I enjoyed this book so much– I cared about these characters and wanted them to be okay. And some of them weren’t okay in the end. But I think that’s part of what makes this a really thought-provoking, powerful read.

    This is exactly what I was trying to say as well–and part of the genius of it is that a few of the people I expected to be okay at the beginning (Lauren, for example), well, aren’t.


  7. Maureen: I know. And, with Lauren, would it have been better without the list? She’d still be in school, but she’s be an outcast, still.


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