Bookish Musings: High School in Real Life vs. High School in Books


If you read my reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I don’t read many YA books set in high schools. And the reason I am so hesitant to read them anymore is because I can’t stand all the typical high school tropes. And it’s not just books that do this, it’s movies and shows too.

I’ve joked before about how I must’ve had a different high school experience than most authors, but it has reached the point in which I am legitimately, seriously wondering if maybe I actually did have a different high school experience than most people. Do books, movies, and TV shows keep portraying high school this way because that’s what it’s actually like? Did school just used to be really different and since writers are often older than I am, they’re simply portraying it the way it was in the past? Or are these tropes just completely incorrect things that have come to be the standard for writing?

So here I am, bringing my question to you all! I’m going to figure out once and for all whether or not it’s me or the books who’s got this all wrong, and you’re going to help me πŸ˜‰

The Mean Girl

Let me preface this by saying I went to a public high school with roughly 3500 students. I did not know every single student. People walked at my graduation who I had literally never even seen before despite the fact that I apparently went to the same school as them for four years. But there was definitely no specific mean girl or head bitch who roamed the halls terrorizing people. Some people could just be kind of mean or petty sometimes, and no I didn’t always get along with every single person, but that’s just how things are in life in general. There was definitely no one “mean girl.”



My school had cliques, but they were never a big deal. No one was ever shunned if they were part of a different clique, and we didn’t completely separate ourselves. Sure, people in the same cliques hung out more with each other, but everyone still intermingled. I had friends who were in band, who were cheerleaders, who were in different types of dance clubs at the school, who were in honors and AP classes, who were in regular classes, who were in drama (both performers and backstage people), who were in different religious groups, etc. At lunch every year I ate with a different group of friends, and each year my group had a mixture of people from numerous different cliques, and we all got along and had lots of fun together. And the main clique that I was a part of, we were actually just a giant amalgamation that consisted of people from every other clique in the school, and that was actually one of the things I loved most about it, the way we all came together without judgment and accepted everyone.


Smart = Nerdy & Uncool

Media is always portraying the smart people as being super nerdy, having beyond no sense of fashion (and I mean, like, to the extreme), not having any social skills, never doing anything in life except studying, etc. And if you are like that, then cool, that’s fine. But just because someone is smart, that doesn’t mean they’re not also athletic, attractive, creative, fashionable, outgoing, sociable, and/or fun. And being smart, getting good grades, and being in honors/AP was never considered an uncool thing at my school, or at least not in the classes that I was in.

Not only that, I was most definitely a bookworm in high school. I always had a book with me and I carried it in my hands between classes so that I could keep reading right up until the bell rang or have it out if I needed to wait outside the door for the teacher. My friends would mess with me if I was reading the same book for more than a week since they knew I went through books quickly… but I was never actually teased about it in a mean way.


So… Is It Just Me?

I honestly don’t know. I’m not trying to say my school was perfect. And my personal experiences there weren’t perfect either. I mean, it’s high school. Sometimes friends/guys/girls/boyfriends/girlfriends/friends-of-friends/classmates/random people betray you or hurt you or judge you or make fun of you. It happens. But all in all, I had a great time in high school, and it really wasn’t anything like the stereotypical tropes I see in many books.


Talk to me!

How similar was/is your high school experience to the way high school is portrayed in books?
Did your school have any of these tropes?
What other tropes did I miss that are often in media portrayals of high school?


Your Thoughts


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  1. Marie

    (Sorry, this is really long)
    I know what you mean, I read YA, but it’s never contemporary YA. I don’t really care for contemporary anyways. I read mostly fantasy and the occasional Sci-Fi book.

    I went to a really tiny school. I think your high school had as many people as my entire school district did. My school district was compiled of three towns. But my high school had maybe 500 students.

    There really wasn’t one “mean girl” in my school either. I think there might have been one slightly less pleasant girl in each grade, but no one person that was like that. And most people would ignore her or not really let her get away with being like that.

    There weren’t really any cliques in my school either. The smart kids were also the jocks and, at least in my grade, everybody was kind of friendly with each other. Some people were slightly less pleasant, and I think the kids that played Magic the Gathering got some teasing for that. But I think that had a lot to do with it being such a small school. Most of the kids went to the same school with each other since Kindergarten. We had 2 elementary schools that “converged” for middle school, so the clique thing was more prevalent in middle school than it was in high school.

    As I mentioned, most of the jocks were also on Speach and Debate when their sport of choice was out of season, or they were in the school play. Heck, even some of the stoner kids (small town, not a lot to do a lot of kids smoked weed) were jock and/or in band class. The band kids were the coolest, as were the kids in “select choir” (that was the name of the Choir class that you had to try out for). My school was very much a mix of people.
    I have no idea what things are like now at that school. I graduated 12 years ago, things could be very different there now.

    My high school experience was probably as weird and different as it was because I purposely stayed under the radar. I didn’t do anything that would inspire gossip. I remained blissfully invisible, even in a small school of 500 students.

    1. Kristen Burns

      No worries about the length, I’m happy to learn about other people’s high school experiences since that’s what the post is about!

      I also read almost entirely sci-fi/fantasy, but I’ve still come across plenty of paranormal books set on earth in which the characters are in high school, but I just tend to shy away from those for the reasons in this post.

      My middle school actually had a bigger clique problem too, but my high school was the same as yours in that everyone was pretty friendly with each other without worrying about cliques, even though we didn’t all know each other.

      I love that at your school the jocks were also in the school plays and everything! And eh, plenty of kids smoke at every school, I think. My school didn’t even have a stoner group, but people who smoked scattered about in different groups lol. And yeah, people tended to like the band at my school too, especially drumline.

      I wouldn’t say I necessarily stayed under the radar, but I didn’t get involved in gossipy drama stuff either. So maybe that affected our experiences.

  2. Anisha @ Sprinkled Pages

    I’m currently in high school and I do NOT experience any of these tropes! I go to school in Australia though and most books are written from the American POV so I don’t know if schools there are any different but people in Australia are quite nice and accepting and schools here are quite anti-bullying and fair so we don’t tend to have a ‘mean girl’ .

    1. Kristen Burns

      Well I went to school in America and it was nothing like the books and movies lol. I’m sure some bullying still goes on, but there was definitely no “mean girl.”

  3. Greg

    I tend more towards YA that has an SF element so the ones I HAVE read don’t spend a lot of time at school, but there are some contemps I’ve read where school is an issue. And honestly it’s not always my experience either. It’s like popular teen movies- the parties I went to didn’t look like that lol. It’s like some alternate universe version. Although I do think a good YA contemp can get it way more right than most shows.

    Mean girls- yeah. One mean girl who “runs” the place? Yeah right. It does sound like maybe my school was more cliquey than yours, or more accurately the different cliques maybe didn’t intermingle as much? But the nerdy thing is so overdone too. I mean there were always some people who were kind of treated that way but plenty of popular people were taking the AP classes and getting good grades, so yeah same here.

    I guess I think media portrayals are often not very realistic but books (sometimes) do better than TV. I always crack up at The Breakfast Club- who has detention ALL DAY???

    1. Kristen Burns

      I don’t even read non-sci-fi/fantasy anymore lol, but I do come across paranormal YA sometimes in which the characters are in high school. I just mostly avoid them. And haha, I actually only went to a few parties in high school, but yeah, I don’t think they were like the movies either.

      Seriously, is the “mean girl” a real thing anywhere? I mean, I can see schools being more clique-y than mine since that was something mine was really good about. But when I was middle school the cliques were pretty bad, so I know that it’s possible. And yeah, I’ve never understood the nerd thing since, at my schools, being in honors/AP classes and being smart was always considered the good thing.

      I think you’re probably right about books often getting it more right than TV at least. And haha, they must’ve done something REALLY bad.

  4. Laura

    I definitely get what you mean – high schools in books always seem to be the same, and have those specific sets of characters.
    Personally I didn’t have a very good time at high school – I got bullied, so there was definitely a few mean girls, but not a main one who runs everything (and I was bullied more by boys really)! And there were pretty specific cliques in my school, but they were more to do with your position on the social hierarchy than mutual interests (so all the really popular people hung out in a huge group, and all the really not so popular people stuck together). I had friends who were into sports, into rock music, into history etc., so we were a pretty mixed bunch, unlike fictional high school cliques, and just because we weren’t popular didn’t mean we were the stereotypical nerds or geeks! I definitely don’t see my own high school experiences in most books – it always seems to have been taken to the extreme, or sensationalised. And part of it is probably that most high schools I see on TV or in books are American, and I’m from England, so we definitely don’t have all that cheerleader and jock stuff that you always see.
    Great post! πŸ™‚

    1. Kristen Burns

      I’m sorry you got bullied :-/ But yeah, the “mean girl” thing still doesn’t seem like a realistic thing. I can see some schools being more cliquish than mine since my middle school also had the social hierarchy cliques going on (my high school was just good about not being like that). People with different interests can definitely still be friends though! And the nerd thing is always so stereotypical and extreme. I live in America though, and the jock/cheerleader thing was definitely not like it is in the movies, although I think there are some schools/areas of the country where it is.


  5. chucklesthescot

    It’s not just you! I wonder about this all the time! Our school did not have mean girls and psycho guys who ruled the school. There were very few cliques like the Indie crowd who listened to alternative music and dressed different but everyone in our year got along just fine. New people starting the school were welcomed and made to feel settled, no judgements made about you. School was fun and I missed the people when I left. Yes there were times when we argued with people or had a crap day but overall I liked school in my later years. We all hung out in one common room when we didn’t have classes, we all got on fine and had a lot of laughs.

    I would never want to go to the US schools portayed in YA fiction! New people are instantly bullied and made fun of, jocks and cheerleaders make everyone’s life miserable, bullying and violence is everywhere, if you are different you are scum to be tormented forever, the school bus sounds like hell on earth…it sounds like a miserable experience all round and I’d home school before sending my kid into that environment! The school tropes are one of the reasons I stopped reading YA books-I just hated reading about this miserable enironment. People slag off Twilight but that school felt more realistic and normal and what I experienced than any other YA book (other than the vampires!) The only thing that drives me nuts in TV school dramas from the US is the way the kids over exaggerate everything screaming AWESOME every ten seconds, jumping about like idiots and generally annoying the hell out of me. Does nobody just walk to class? Why does opening your locker or having a conversation with a friend lead to mass hysteria??? They are hyper all the time and can’t stop shouting!

    1. Kristen Burns

      I’m glad to know it’s not just me because I was serious about how I was legit starting to wonder lol. Yeah, there *were* cliques at my school, some people dressed different, had different interests, etc., but we all pretty much got along, not the extreme shunning thing that I see in movies/books. Honestly, I wouldn’t have even known if someone new started at my school because it was so big. If I saw someone in a class I had never seen, I just assumed we never had a class together before. There literally were people in my grade I never had a single class with even after four years of school.

      I wouldn’t want to go to those schools either! I live in the US, but my school was not like that. I’m sure there is some bullying at most schools, and there was the occasional fight, but it wasn’t like the movies. But idk, high school kids are pretty loud, haha, so maybe that part is realistic πŸ˜›

  6. Julija @ Books Over Coffee

    I’ve always wondered about this one too, but since I went to high school in Finland I thought maybe it was just an American thing. Because EVERY movie/tv show/book has these exact same tropes so, surely, it had to be based on reality? I guess not, haha.
    I went to a pretty tiny school myself (because Finland just doesn’t have big schools) and there definitely were whiffs of cligues and a bit of nerd contempt but nothing to the trope extreme.
    Personally, I’m just so tired of these tropes. Especially the mean girl one. Both because usually her meanness stems from being pretty and rich (which are not qualities that I consider bad on their own) and because I sure would like to think school authorities would intervene with such blatant bullying and dictatorship? This is definitely one of the reasons I, too, stay away from high school settings in YA lit.

    1. Kristen Burns

      It’s not an American thing! At least, I live in the US, and my school wasn’t like that! I have no clue where these tropes come from since, so far, no one has said their school was like that.

      Yeah, I mean, I’m sure lots of school have some cliques or some bullying, but not to the extreme like we see in books/movies.

      I don’t understand why authors keep using these tropes. And I hadn’t thought about that, but I agree, the mean girl trope just portrays anyone who is pretty and/or rich negatively, and that’s unfair since plenty of pretty/rich people are perfectly good people.

  7. Ali

    My high school had some similiarities to the novels. There was definitely the “cool girl” clique and they were AWFUL to me and a lot of the other girls. There were also some of the classic “hot guys.” But the nerdy people weren’t necessarily uncool at my school, and in fact, most of the advanced students were part of the cool groups, so I guess that’s something. I do think a lot of high school stories are based in fact, but maybe dramatized a bit more…

    1. Kristen Burns

      I’m sorry your school actually did have a mean cool girl clique :-/ My middle school had a “popular girl” clique too, so I can imagine what that was like. Luckily my high school was a lot better. But yeah, at all my schools it was considered a good thing to be in the honors/AP classes.

  8. Kei @ The Lovely Pages Reviews

    Okay this is going to be long.

    My knowledge of high schools in America is purely from book/TV/movies so I can’t tell what normal is as much as you but European HS could not be any more different than what I’ve been reading/seeing.

    First of all, what most YA books seem to do, high schoolers with cars? What the hell? Or parents dropping them off? How far apart are schools and houses? I used to take a bus for like a 5′ ride and the walk home afterwards, no one does that in YA! If I could afford a car while in HS I’d just drop out ?

    Second, high schoolers with jobs? How can they afford to hold a job and be on top of their schoolwork? That’s just not possible. Summer job sure but an actual dinner shift like most YAs? I could barely socialize most days let alone find time to work.

    We don’t actually have any of the activities like cheerleaders and football or basketball and the likes, we did play sports but only during gym period and maybe a few school games with other teams, about 5-10% of what YA presents it to be.

    We didn’t have bullies and mean girls, being a nerd and smart was actually cool and you were the boss LOL but we did have the bad boys, and girls did swoon over them, at all. Also, no mean girls but a few mean boys. We had cliques and stuff but nothing strict, just some people hanging around other people more than the rest.

    The list is endless, really but the major differences confuse me. Thank you for this topic, great discussion!

    1. Kristen Burns

      No worries about the length, I’m enjoying hearing about everyone’s experiences πŸ™‚

      Please do not base your opinion of American high schools on books and movies lol. Although some of the things you mentioned are in fact realistic.

      Plenty of high schoolers have cars here. I didn’t. But I also didn’t live close enough to any school I went to in my life to walk, so my parents had to pick me up and drop me off, or I took the bus. I mean, as I said, my school had 3500 students, and I imagine all the other public high schools in the area held a similar number, so each school covered a big area of houses. According to Google, I lived 2.4 miles away, and it would’ve taken me close to an hour to walk there. My middle school was over 3 miles. Even my elementary school was over a mile away.

      Some high schoolers do have jobs I think, so that’s realistic too. But I didn’t, and I don’t think any of my friends did either (except in summer). I guess it’d be possible if you didn’t do any after school activities or sports.

      That’s interesting that you didn’t have sports teams. My school wasn’t as extreme with the whole football/cheerleading thing as it is in movies/shows (I didn’t even know who the football players or cheerleaders were unless I happened to be friends with one), but we did still have plenty of sports teams and games.

      But at my school at least, the clique situation sounds like yours. No mean girl, being smart was cool, we had cliques but it wasn’t like we shunned each other, etc.

      There, maybe I have cleared some stuff up for you! And I also just learned a lot too πŸ˜€

  9. Barb (boxermommyreads)

    I went to high school in the 80’s (yes, I’m dating myself) and it was a really small, what I would call “country” school. My graduating class only graduated 105. I was in AP classes, considered almost “gifted” (failed the test on purpose but that’s a whole ‘nother story), and was in band. So basically I was a nerd or geek. I really wasn’t treated that much differently. We had the REALLY popular crowd and while I didn’t hang with them, we were social to each other. There were a few girls that weren’t always “nice” but they sure didn’t measure up to the “mean” girls we see today in books and movies. The only complaint I had about my high school is that because of its location, it really wasn’t that diverse. I basically chose to hang around the few diverse students we had for some reason and that has continued throughout my life for the most part. So to answer your question, I don’t really think high school for me even compares to what is portrayed in books and movies. However, my husband works with juveniles and I will admit that high schools today seem a whole lot scarier than when I was there.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Whoa, my elementary school had like 100 students in each grade—that is a tiny school! At my schools, being gifted and in the AP classes was considered the good, “popular” thing. I can see that, especially at a small school, there might be a few girls who weren’t always nice, but yeah, the mean girl trope is way out of control. It doesn’t sound like your high school is like what’s portrayed in books either, even though it was still kind of different from mine.

  10. Lily

    No it’s not just you. I went to NYC school and never had this either. We had cliques, but it wasn’t your typical cliques. Our cliques were basically race fixated and even thought we had trend fixated there wasn’t anyone who was popular. We didn’t have that. And while some people were mean, we didn’t have the Queen Bee that seems to be going around in YA high school books. I asked my husband and he said they had like the stuck ups.

    1. Kristen Burns

      That’s interesting that you had cliques, but different from the typical ones. I don’t think race was a big factor in the cliques at my school. But yeah, I think there are always going to be some people who aren’t nice, but not like the way it’s portrayed with the mean girl trope. The stuck-ups sounds like a good way to describe the “popular” clique from my middle school lol.

  11. Helia @ Rose Quartz Reads

    I’ve noticed this too! Particularly with books or honestly any media set in American high schools. Having gone to a high school in the UK I was always confused by how invested fictional characters are in social hierarchies. Does anyone really care? Do people really get shoved into lockers? Do people seriously believe that high school is a food chain where only the prettiest and nastiest survive? Because that was not my experience at all. I figured maybe it was a country thing. Interesting to know I’m not the only one at a loss to this trend in fiction!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Both my middle school and my high school had lockers that were about 1ft by 1ft by 1ft. So definitely no one was ever shoved into lockers lol. Never saw anyone thrown in a trash can either. I don’t think it’s an American thing (at least, my school wasn’t like how they’re portrayed in media) but rather just a media trope thing.

  12. Manca

    I sooo have to agree with you. I actually had quite similar experience as you, there was definitely no general mean girl and cliques were there of course, but nothing special, we all kinda hung out.

  13. Michelle @ FaerieFits

    I TOTALLY agree with you. TV shows and books that take place in a “normal” high school just drive me nuts because that was NEVER my experience. As you said, there’s not one “queen bitch,” cliques aren’t the end-all-be-all-everything, and the smart kids aren’t considered uncool or nerdy (in a bad way). At least, not universally. Actually, in my school, half of the football team were AP Students and bando’s or drama club kids. And “cool,” at least in the circles I EVER interacted with, involved extracurricular activities and taking German. Admittedly, like you, I went to a BIG school, so I certainly can’t speak for everyone’s experience. And I AM biased that my “clique” was band and AP kids. But I got on well with PLENTY of non-band, non-AP kids too, you know? And some of my best friends were cheerleaders (and also REALLY smart). So we can blow that stereotype out of the water too.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Exactly! Maybe it’s worse in small schools, idk, but yeah, my school definitely wasn’t like the books/movies. Plenty of people were in more than one clique or sport or activity, being smart and in AP classes was a good thing (well, like you said, at least it was in the circles I interacted with since I was in the honors/AP classes), and even in other circles it wasn’t ever shamed or made fun of. And like you, I had plenty of friends from other cliques, from non AP classes, etc. And just because someone was a “jock” or cheerleader, that didn’t mean they weren’t smart.

  14. Christy LoveOfBooks

    My high school was somewhat similar to yours, but still had rifts between some cliques. There were 3 high schools in my town, and I know it was more of that stereotypical setting in one of them – like in books/movies. My son just graduated almost two years ago, and his school was a little like the stereotypical way. He got along with everyone, but it still bugged him how cliche it was. So I think it just depends on the school.

    1. Kristen Burns

      There were three main schools in my area too, and I think one of them also might’ve been worse with the “popular” clique at least. So it probably does depend somewhat on the school.

  15. Di @ Book Reviews by Di

    Oh gosh… What a discussion!

    Depending on the type of person you are, the type of school you went to etc is the type of experience you would have had (obviously!).

    I feel like these stereotypes do exist, but for the most part they are a far more exaggerated cliche than what most people would have experienced. However, because they do exist, even though they may be exaggerated in literature I feel like it is something that a lot of people can relate to and hence why they are a popular trope or plot device.

    I don’t really enjoy reading contemporary books, especially YA contemp so my books don’t normally centre around schools etc and the ones that are set there are definitely more focused on something else (like Voldemort returning etc.).

    I think reading a couple of these types of books would be Okay… However I couldn’t stomach too much of it personally…

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yeah, I’m sure it is different depending on the school. So I guess the stereotypes might exist in some schools, but not all of them. And yeah, probably not as extreme. I feel like not really a lot of people can relate though since almost everyone who’s commented so far has said their experience was nothing like in books! Kinda makes me think people would relate more to a less trope-y portrayal.

      I don’t read contemp either, but I sometimes find paranormal or other sci-fi/fantasy books in which the characters are in high school, and yeah, I just don’t care for that when it’s full of tropes!

  16. verushka

    My high school was nothing like American or UK high schools, either and yeah, the tropes to get frustratingly predictable and boring don’t they? I’ve gotten to the stage that I just roll my eyes at them to be honest and usually switch channels or skim and skip ahead in books. shrugs. I think it’s sheer laziness in people not going past what’s known to work in media.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I just tend to avoid high school based books entirely because of how often they turn out trope-y. But yeah, it does seem like laziness or fear of trying something new or something like that.

  17. Cyn @ Bookmunchies

    I feel like my high school has some of the tropes but it never necessarily defined anyone. I never really felt tv/book high school was like real life…unless maybe I was that side character and I just didn’t notice all the stuff?? Haha if so, I’m quite happy with that. I much rather read/watch about drama than love it! Great discussion, Kristen!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Lol right? Sometimes I wonder if maybe I was just blissfully oblivious in high school since I stayed away from drama. But I’m perfectly happy with it too if that was the case. Thanks!

  18. Molly @ Molly's Book Nook

    Ok, I think I went to the high school that all authors base their novels on or something because you’re not the first one to say that there wasn’t a mean girl and no serious cliques. There were totally BOTH of those at mine. Our cliques were so separate that certain areas of the school were known for where each clique hung out at lunch. The water fountain were the “emos or hipsters”, the arches were for the “hot topic kids”, the stage was for the APA kids, the hill was for seniors, the D building was surfers, the wall was cheerleaders and football players – it was literally like the books haha. And there was usually like 2 mean girls. Each of them in a different clique.

    I do agree with the smart = no fashion sense thing. Most of the “popular” girls at my high school were straight A students with higher than a 4.0 and they were trendy as hell. haha

    1. Kristen Burns

      Hahaha I’m sorry I’m not laughing at your suffering, just your first sentence. So it was YOUR school all the books are based on πŸ˜› That actually does sound like it sucks though.

      But yeah, I really don’t understand the smart nerd stereotype!

  19. Marie @ Drizzle & Hurricane Books

    This was such an interesting discussion! High school seems a bit far away now ahah but I didn’t really have these kind of tropes either. There were some kind of “popular” people and obviously “nerds” and stuff, but you didn’t really classify them and there weren’t really cliques at all – same goes for the mean girl, there wasn’t one specific person ahah. I guess high school experience is so unique and different depending on where you went? πŸ™‚

  20. Dina

    I agree! There were some people who were mean, but they weren’t across the board “evil.” No one was “popular” really. I am actually not friends with anyone from my high school. And, so, I get confused by the “we’ve been friends since high school” theme. Or, “we’ve fallen in love in high school.” I’m just baffled by these rather high expectations of one’s high school experiences.

    1. Krysta @ Pages Unbound

      Yes, when people say that high school will be the best years of your life, I am so confused! Like the high point of life comes when you are 16 and then it’s all downhill from there? I think we put way too much pressure on people to have it all in high school, but no one needs to meet their future spouse at that age. There’s plenty of time!

      1. Kristen Burns

        I feel like it’s not adults putting pressure on teens to find their future spouses and all that but rather other teens and yeah, the media, shows, books, etc. But the reality is that most people don’t find the love of their life in high school!

    2. Kristen Burns

      Exactly, there will also be some people who are just jerks, but nothing like the way the mean girl thing is portrayed. Except, I actually still have friends I met when I was in elementary and middle school lol, and two of the people who are now my closest friends are people I met in high school, so I do understand that. I also know that some people end up with their high school sweetheart (I know of one fellow blogger even), but I think that’s pretty rare. So yeah, I do feel like it’s setting pretty high expectations for teens when every teen they read about is falling in love and finding “the one” and having the tightest friendships ever.

  21. ikram

    I totally get what you mean, High school is always portrayed as this awful place that is nothing more than cliques and bullying, yet I never have had that experience I am currently a junior in a school that is almost as big as yours was. There’s about 3000 people in my school, and I by no means no everyone. There are cliques, but they definitely aren’t concrete. with people always intermingling between groups.
    The nerd=uncool things, is actually completely opposite at my school, being in AP/Honors classes is seen as cool! The most popular kids in my school are the ones in all AP classes and are generally the “nerds”! People actually think it’s cool that I read a lot, and I’ve never had any problems with that either.
    I”m sure there are probably schools out there, that are very cliche-ish and have the Mean Girl and stuff, but I definitely don’t think it’s as wide spread as people think it is!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Exactly! Your school sounds like mine was. It was cool to be in AP/honors classes and cliques definitely intermingled a bunch. And I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who was never teased for being a bookworm.

      I’m sure there are probably are some schools out that that are more similar to the books and movies, but it’s definitely not all schools. I wonder if maybe it’s worse at smaller schools where everyone knows everyone.

  22. Drangonfly

    I’m not a huge fan of typical high school tropes either but I do think they are real, still, nowadays. But definitely not everywhere, not all the time and not something that everyone experiences.
    E.g. So I don’t think there is ONE mean girl that terrorizes EVERYONE. I think the mean girl is a very personal experience.
    Each person “acquires” their own frenemy. πŸ™‚
    And I say frenemy because usually she/he had to have been a BFF of yours to get so pissed at you to become such an enemy lol
    Your frenemy may terrorize you but be a sweetheart to everyone else. πŸ˜‰
    And someone can definitely go through high school without pissing off someone this badly. πŸ™‚
    Maybe that was you πŸ™‚

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yeah, everyone’s high school is different, and everyone’s personal experience is different. And that’s a good point that there may not be one “mean girl” who terrorizes everyone, but each individual person may have someone who bullies them or is a jerk.

      I can’t say I ever had a frenemy though lol. So maybe that person who didn’t piss anyone off that badly was me πŸ˜›

  23. Krysta @ Pages Unbound

    I’ve never understood representations of high schools in books and film. Everyone seems to have a lot of free time in the halls, never has to study, and can afford oddly colorful and stylish clothing. And everyone dresses stereotypically so you can identify their clique on sight. Is that a thing anywhere?

    But I agree. There was no mean girl at my school, there were no cliques, and being smart actually made you semi-cool and could be a boost to your popularity. There were people who probably thought they were the “popular girls” in a teen film, but no outside their circle of friends ever paid attention to their existence so how popular could they be? I also think that if a “mean girl” existed in real life, she wouldn’t also be popular because no one likes mean people!

    1. Kristen Burns

      I’m always especially baffled by the free time in hallways and free periods. Like, for me, we had like four minutes between classes and the closest thing I ever had to a free period was when one year for one period I was an aide to the English department and sat in a room grading papers. And yeah, most cliques weren’t recognizable by clothing.

      Being smart was cool at my school too. Lol exactly, if a group of girls acted like that, most people would probably just not really pay much attention. Seriously, why would a mean girl be the popular one?!

  24. Lola

    I do feel like some books display high school differently than I experienced, but then again i also live in a different country so that might be part of the explanation as well. And maybe the authors did experience high school different or it was different in their time. Or maybe it just really depends on the school?

    I can’t remember our school having a mean girl, in elementary school there was this girl that sometimes bullied me that could sort of be called the mean girl as she had a group of friends and they could be mean to others. But in high school we mostly had cliques an we did have girls that were more popular or maybe even a bit more mean, but it wasn’t really extreme as what i read about in books. And there were people who were different that got strange looks or questions, but not usually as bad as some of the experiences I read about in books.

    Our school did have cliques though, we did have the sports-y types or the more popular ones. We had this group of geeks/ nerds that were into computer gadgets and such. But most people thought they were sort of cool and smart I guess, they weren’t shunned or anything even though they didn’t have many friends besides their group. In the later years I belonged to a group of people of different years that didn’t fit in anywhere else, at least during lunch, during classes I had friends too with whom I could talk. But every year things changed a bit more and it was more different groups of people in the same class we interacted more with each other. There was this girl I always sat with in class at least for the classes we had together, but we never lunched together as we both lunched with other friends. And there were people who would talk to you in class and act normally even though they weren’t your best friends. And even if people didn’t like everyone or maybe even shunned others now and then, in the last year that seemed to disappear almost completely when we almost graduated.

    I do still read YA that take place at high school, although not a lot as lately I seem to prefer adult books. And when I do read them I sometimes roll my eyes over the clichΓ©s. Sometimes it just feels a bit much/ overdone and other times I think it reads pretty realistically, even though it might not be the exact same experience as I had. It really varies from book to book.

    1. Kristen Burns

      From the comments I’ve gotten, things are different in certain ways in different countries, but all American schools are definitely not the way it’s portrayed in books/movies. I think it somewhat depends on the school though.

      Actually I do remember this one mean girl in elementary school lol. But she wasn’t popular. We all just kind of hated her. And in middle school there were “popular” girls, and they seemed to think themselves superior, but idk if they actively bullied anyone. But in high school, there was nothing like that. Like I said, maybe some people were mean or had specific issues with specific people, but that’s it. I’m sure there were some people who were judged for how they dressed or what clique they were in, but it wasn’t extreme at my school either.

      I had friends and groups of friends like that too, people I’d hang out with class, but never outside of class. It was just always nice to have a friend in class you could chat with. And yeah, once we were in our final year, those of us who were in the AP/honors classes generally knew who each other were and could all get along. But my main group of friends actually sounds like yours. It consisted of people from all different years and all different cliques.

      I also prefer adult books, and this is one of the reasons. I definitely roll my eyes at the cliches lol. But some authors manage to write high school without the cliches!

  25. Angela

    Great post! I feel like my high school experience was nothing like how YA books portray high school now (and that makes me kind of glad!).. In my school, some of the smartest kids were the most popular. I don’t think we really had cliques. I mean, there were definitely popular vs. less popular people, but everyone intermingled at some point.

    I find a lot of contemporary YA books today portray high schoolers as way older than they are (although, at the same time, I think kids today grow up way faster than I did, even just 15 years ago) and also exaggerate the high school experience to some degree. There’s so little focus on classes and studying (to be fair, this wouldn’t make the most scintillating reading), sometimes a total lack of parental control/influence, and too much emphasis on partying. I think I went to one party in high school, and it definitely wasn’t one of these epic blow-out parties that we see in tvs or movies. Also, I don’t think normal high schoolers are doing things like solving murder mysteries in their spare time, which seems to be a common theme in YA novels recently!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thanks! Seriously, I’m glad my high school wasn’t like that, haha.

      I agree that it does seem like kids are growing up a lot faster today even than when I was I was in high school, and I graduated only eight years ago. And you’re right, the teens in books rarely ever seem to have homework, they’re always in free periods or spending like an hour in the hallways between classes but rarely ever actually in class… I went to like three parties in high school, two of them only because they were at my close friend’s house lol, and they weren’t crazy epic things either. Haha, yeah, I definitely don’t think high schoolers are solving murders in their spare time!

  26. Cassidy @ Quartzfeather

    IT IS NOT JUST YOU! I am currently in high school, and I see none of these tropes. First off the “mean girl,” sure we have some people who are less than nice, but no one she just goes around pissing on people, and there isn’t like one person the school unanimously fears or anything.

    While there are definitely different groups around school, there aren’t any well defined cliques, people tend to have friends from all sorts of groups.

    As for the smart people, this might just be me, but I feel like they’re actually quite liked at our school (well, when everyone doesn’t understand their homework anyways…).

    1. Kristen Burns

      Exactly, some people might be mean, but that’s just true everywhere in life. But to have one girl in particular who is unanimously feared seems really extreme.

      That too, groups naturally formed when I was in high school, but we all intermingled too.

      Smart was a good thing at my school too! Lol about the homework thing.

  27. Michelle @ Pink Polka Dot Books

    It’s not just you!! I definitely get annoyed at the tropes that keep being paraded around about high school. In my school, the most popular kids were in the AP classes. Also, I kind of get sick of having the nerdy kids always be the awesome heroes of the books. Like there aren’t any nerdy/dorky/less popular kids that are mean spirited or anything but nice and awesome?? And there aren’t any popular cheerleaders who are good people? You can be smart and introverted and still be a bad person. I just get sick of the same HS stereotypes over and over too πŸ™

    1. Kristen Burns

      Same, the kids who could maybe be called popular (basically the student gov group), they were in AP classes. But that’s a good point too, smart or less popular kids can also be mean, and average or popular kids can be nice! They are just stereotypes that are often used in books, and it’s frustrating.

  28. Emma

    i never came across cliques (beyond groups of best friends) though there were trendy and not so trendy kids but it was all so fluid…all it took was a new haircut to suddenly make you cool. It wasn’t mean though. All that said I love watching TV shows set in American high schools because of all these characterisations…I just find it fun.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Your school sounds a little different from mine, but still not at all like schools in books! Schools in books really do seem terrible with so many cruel kids. But haha, I can see how it could be fun to watch in shows. I did watch some MTV shows set in high school before they all got canceled -_-

  29. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    I was in high school in the late 80’s/early 90’s and my school wasn’t like this at all (so I don’t think it’s just that the authors are older). We definitely had a group of kids who were “popular” and I suppose a lot of them were the jocks and the cheerleaders, but there weren’t any mean girls. I mostly hung out with the kids in the Advanced and AP classes because I was with them all the time—there were a few kids who would fit the geeky mold, but most of us were just average kids and we were all involved in other things, so we had random friends in other areas of the school (I had a lot of theater friends). I don’t really remember feeling like there were isolated “cliques”—just natural groups that formed because of interests or similarities. Most of the tropes I see in books seem pretty ridiculous to me. (Though I will say that the rise of social media has made bullying more of an issue because it’s more anonymous.)

    1. Kristen Burns

      Same here, I was in the AP/advanced classes, and I don’t recall even a single person who fit the nerdy stereotype. Not even the valedictorian. We were all just normal kids, and most of us were involved in other things too. Oddly enough, I had a lot of backstage theatre friends lol. But that was because I performed in shows with ASL, and the backstage people helped with our shows too. Exactly, there weren’t black-and-white cliques, just natural groups that formed because of similar interests. I agree that bullying probably is more of an issue now though because of social media.

  30. Nannetter Demmler

    I think you and I went to the same high school. Sometimes I think I was just oblivious to some of the things going on as I did hear about epic movie like parties, but I didn’t hang with that crowd so I never went. Sometimes I think we are so involved with our own lives and our friends that we don’t see the other stuff so much. I went to a really big school too. My son however went to a very small high school (12 kids in his graduating class about 90 kids 9-12th) and he did see some of the types of drama that you see in books and movies only in smaller doses. Maybe it just depends on the size of your school?

    1. Kristen Burns

      Lol I also wonder if maybe I was just oblivious. And actually, yeah, I think it might depend on the size of the school. With big schools, it’d kind of be impossible for cliques to be really strict, for any one girl or group of kids to be known, etc. But I can see how it might be easier for that to happen at a smaller school.

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  32. Becky @ A Fool's Ingenuity

    I always wonder this because since I am from the UK my school experience was different to what I saw on TV and in books. I question if it’s truly accurate or an exaggeration on what the high school experience is like. I mean, there are elements which occurred at my school. There were mean girls, but that wasn’t the same for everyone. I know a couple of girls who acted as mean girls but then I know someone else who was friends and had issues with someone else. And there weren’t cliques, there were just groups of friends based on who you had lessons with and who was in your tutor group.

    I always view the representation of high school as an exaggeration. There are elements of truth to it as everyone has a different high school experience but the usual high school tropes came from somewhere. They have to, right?

    1. Kristen Burns

      Well I suppose it might be accurate for some people, but it’s definitely not the norm for all schools in America! But I guess the tropes must’ve come from somewhere. Probably those few schools that are like that, but then the shows and books exaggerated it until it became a trope.

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  34. Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews

    Bwahaha Kristen. I have been wondering if high school is just completely different in the US than in Norway and Switzerland.
    Well, some things are definitely different, one is that there are rarely more than around 900 students in one high school. And the second is that there are no school teams for anything – not for sports, not for debates, and no band or theatre group. So, because there are no sports teams, there are no cheer-leaders either. But there are art-classes and music classes, and it’s possible to have art or music as main subjects, so there is a lot going on anyway.
    The school days are fairly long, as the first class starts at 8:15 and the last finishes at 4:55pm (depending on the schools, the starting time in the morning may vary a little bit due to public transport times for students to get to school).
    And in the cafeteria, even teachers have their table, and I have never seen any students being singled out or teased or alone, so that’s another thing that I always found so strange when it comes to books featuring US high schools.
    I love that you wanted to discuss this – and maybe it really has just become a trope? The mean girl, the jock, the nerd and the slut went into a bar… and they managed to have a great discussion to break down stereotypes and had a great evening πŸ˜‰

    1. Kristen Burns

      Lol almost every person from other countries has said the same thing. Some schools in the US may be like that, but definitely not all of them!

      But yes, some things are definitely different, like the lack of sports teams. I wasn’t even on any school sports teams or band, but I can’t imagine not having them at all! And I wasn’t in theatre, but I was in shows with the ASL club for three years which was similar, and I loved going to plays, so I really can’t imagine not having that! But the sad thing is, art and music and creative classes are practically being erased πŸ™

      Wow, that is a long school day! I’m sure there are some students who get bullied or teased sometimes, but I’ve never seen it quite like the movies with kids thrown into trash cans or something. Although it’s possible that there might be students who eat lunch alone if they don’t have friends or rather don’t have friends during their lunch period (since at my school we had numerous different lunch periods—too many kids to have only one).

      I feel like the types of schools portrayed this way are probably in the minority, judging from the comments I’ve gotten, and that it has just become a trope at this point. Lol I think you may have just described the plot of The Breakfast Club πŸ˜‰

  35. Cristina @ Girl in the Pages

    I love that you did a discussion on this topic! I’ve felt out of touch with a lot of high school YA for a long time now, and when I do return to it the tropes really bother me (especially the mean girl trope, I think it really perpetuates girl-on-girl hate). I actually feel like I did encounter a lot of the tropes you mentioned in your discussion, but in middle school rather than high school. I went to a very large high school too and it felt like the drama prone and very insular middle school community and cliques really got dispersed because there were just too many people. So while I don’t think authors are unrealistic in some of the tropes they write about, I remember it happening at a much younger age. Great discussion!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thanks! I guess I feel out of touch with it too, now that you mention it, but part of that for me is because of the tropes and how my experience was nothing like that. And you’re right, the mean girl trope does perpetuate girl-on-girl hate. Funny, I encountered more of these tropes in middle school too. There was a group that was considered “popular,” and idk if they were actively mean to people, but most of them seemed to think they were superior and just kind of ignore the rest of us. But those people ended up at a different high school. So idk, maybe that high school was a more stereotypical one, haha.

  36. S. J. Pajonas

    I think that EVERY school experience is different, even kids at the same school will experience it differently. So, I get it if you don’t want to read these books because the topic may not interest you. Probably because you had an okay experience. What I love about these books is the way I can peek into worlds that weren’t my experience. It’s sort-of a way of observing humanity without actually having to be there. πŸ™‚ Fun!

    1. Kristen Burns

      That’s true that even at the same school, each person experiences things differently. I do love that books let me experience the kinds of things that I didn’t, but I have to admit that these tropes still seem rather extreme to me in books.

  37. La La in the Library

    Ahhhh… this is one of my pet peeves! I am 60 and I went to a small high school there were around 400 students for grades 10-12, and I did not have any of these problems. Like you said, yes there were mean girls, but they didn’t run the school. And there were cliques, but lots of crossovers and no serious rivalry. My son went to a high school with 2.000+ students and he didn’t have any of these problems either.

    Two other things that always leave me scratching my head in some YA books is a town will be described as so small if you “blink you will miss it”, but somehow it supports two large rival high schools. It makes no sense. Then there are the AP and IB classes where the students behave like they are in an inner city at-risk class. Sometimes I wonder if the authors were homeschooled, or went to private school and are writing what they think public school is like. Ha ha. I will say that I have read a few YAs set in high schools lately that have been okay, but they were diverse and issue related Contemporaries, not Romance or Paranormals.

    Great discussion post. I have been meaning to do a post about how high school portrayals in YA affect what teens in other countries think about US students. My eyes were opened when I belonged to a Harry Potter social site and saw the questions kids from other countries were asking American members.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I thought maybe the time period or school size would account for the difference, but apparently not! It seems most people’s experience was not like it is in books, regardless of when they were in school or the size.

      Haha I never even thought of that, but you’re right, that would make no sense to have two high schools in such a small town. And yeah, students in AP classes do tend to act more behaved. Or at least are sneakier with misbehavior and don’t get caught lol. That’s a good question, maybe in some cases authors were home schooled or went to private school or something. I actually have one paranormal series that portrayed high school really well, I thought, so there are a few books out there that get it right!

      Seriously, I hadn’t even thought about what other countries thought, but I am appalled now to realize that!

  38. Adik Miftakhur

    honestly, my high school life had similarity to yours. There we cliques, I, myself even had a clique when I was in high school. There were also the cool people and the nerdy ones. I just didn’t compare my high school life to a book or two, cz that;s totally 2 different things. I read a lot of YA books which some of the book contain bullies or something which it didn’t happen to my high school life. And yess, I didn’t recognize all of my friends’ names, even I saw them almost everyday. πŸ˜€

    1. Kristen Burns

      I’m glad to know it wasn’t just me! Yeah, I guess you can’t compare too much since real life and books are often very different. But thankfully I didn’t have to deal with bullying either. Lol about the names πŸ˜›

  39. Wattle

    I think in books and films the portrayal as at the extreme stereotypical end. Although I think they are also based on something.

    I went to an all girls boarding school for most of my high school career, so my experience is a bit different from some. The ‘mean girl’ was mainly in my head (it was a girl who intimidated pretty much everyone and she KNEW it, but she wasn’t nasty…really. I was legit terrified of her though haha) and there were cliques, and while we *had* to mingle because you lived with everyone; there were pretty bold lines drawn (+ a few girls who got on with everyone).

    I mainly stuck with the boarders, and didn’t interact with the day students an awful lot aside from in class (the school did not help this by imagining some great rivalry we had to participate in, with annual tug-of-war matches between boarders and day girls); all the friends from HS I have now are all ex-boarding students – we really did grow up together, though I wouldn’t call us close friends.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I guess the tropes probably did come from somewhere, but yeah, they’ve been exaggerated into an extreme stereotype.

      That’s interesting that your all girls boarding school seemed to have more of these trope things than my public school and the schools of most of the other commenters. But I suppose not all boarding schools are the same, just as not all public schools are the same.

      Lol I think a bit of rivalry and games can be fun though. I mean, at my school, there was rivalry between the different grades (generally juniors vs. seniors), but plenty of juniors and seniors were still friends.

  40. Olivia Roach

    Oh trust me, it isn’t just you! I’m a small school, with only 400 or so students. STILL no one mean girl despite us having so few students and everyone knowing each other. Being smart is known as cool because well, it means you’ll pass. And even then, all the really smart people in my year know how to drink and party like everyone else so not necessarily smarts define you as a nerd. Yes, we have cliques, but they are more grey… less defined and no one judging another for breaking out of one. Oh, and is it just mean but do high schools in books and movies never issue homework? I spend HOURS working on homework every week but in books homework just is always issued but never actually needs to be done.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I figured maybe smaller school are more likely to have these tropes, but apparently that’s not always the case! And yes, exactly, at my school it was good to be smart, and plenty of the smartest people went to parties and drank and whatnot.

      That too! Students in books never seem to have homework or even class half the time lol.

  41. Victoria Grace Howell

    I definitely dealt with cliques in high school and even after high school. I had girls exclude me a lot, such as not saving me a seat and not inviting me to events or making me take a picture of them for their social media page. Exclusive cliques are definitely real for me and I was homeschooled. This is why I was and still am a lone wolf. XD

    1. Kristen Burns

      I’m sorry you had that experience πŸ™ But I’ve excluded from groups before too, just in a more subtle way, so I kind of know how you feel. Nothing wrong with being a lone wolf if that’s what works for you πŸ™‚

  42. Kelly

    My graduating class had a little under 120 people. I knew all of them, by name, as we’d gone through the entire school system together (for the most part). We totally had a Queen Bee, and she “crowned” her replacement each year before graduation, It wasn’t a formal ceremony or anything, but everyone just knew who was going to take over as the one every other girl wanted to be friends with.

    This also meant we totally had cliques – and they were hardcore. It meant you had specific places to sit, and in order to “move up” you had to be invited. You couldn’t just walk over to the group who was cooler than you, or they’d all kind of stop talking until you left.

    High school is weird.

    1. Kristen Burns

      It seems that smaller schools are more likely to have these tropes. Yikes, that queen bee thing at your school sounds ridiculous! And those cliques do sound hardcore. I think high school is just weird everywhere though lol.

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