I have Elisa Ludwig here today to share a bit of her story and how it twists into her novel, Pretty Crooked. Elisa has also provided two signed copies of Pretty Crooked!
I went to a small, private K-12 school where the kids were mostly very well behaved. The teen movies I watched always featured beefy tattooed bullies fighting in parking lots, but bullying in my school was much more subtle. There was shunning, gossip, and maybe some snickering on occasion. You could be, Project Runway-style, in one day and out the next. Sometimes, you might even be the last to know. It was the girls that perpetrated the conflicts, and as far as I could tell, popularity was based on a mysterious algorithm that factored in looks, wealth, confidence, date-ability (not necessarily correlating to looks) and parental leniency. Having started at the school in kindergarten (or even, if you were really lucky, pre-kindergarten) was an advantage, as was the ability to wield a lacrosse stick.
My parents enrolled me at the school in fourth grade, and I had never heard of lacrosse. It seemed bizarrely inefficient to make people scoop up balls with a basket on a stick. I just didn’t get why it was so cool. In the early days I was teased, and then I was ignored. I had a couple of friends but I was not happy. I felt very, very different.
In middle school, there was a brief turnaround, two shining years of something like popularity or at least fitting-in-ness but it took a lot of work. I realized then that while some people were born at the top of the pyramid, there were also outliers. A new kid could also come in at the beginning of the year and shake up the system, mostly because they hadn’t necessarily understood and followed the rules everyone else was so careful to observe. Which only goes to show that the rules are bizarre and arbitrary to begin with.
Don’t get me wrong: My school was a wonderful place. It was no fault of the teachers or the administration that kids behaved this way. It was simply an inescapable fact of education, like the smell of the locker rooms or standardized tests. By the time I got to high school I realized how random it all was. There was no clique I wanted to be part of, so I instead mixed and matched friends from different groups. There were times I felt like an outsider, but the alternative, which would have been pretending to be someone I wasn’t, wouldn’t have worked, either.
All of these experiences came in handy when writing Pretty Crooked. In the book, 15-year-old Willa Fox starts the school year at Valley Prep and immediately and almost accidentally falls in with the popular girls known as the Glitterati. Caught up in the glamour and excitement of being in a clique for the first time, she doesn’t notice at first exactly how these wealthy girls are protecting their position at the top—which is by cyberbullying the scholarship kids because they are different. The Glitterati anonymously humiliate their victims through cruel blog posts, using Photoshopped pictures, nasty names and false rumors.
When Willa learns what the Glitterati are up to, she’s crushed and she feels the need to do something about it. When speaking up doesn’t work, she takes some extreme measures: stealing from the Glitterati and delivering secret packages of fancy gear to their victims to even the playing field. She reasons that having nice clothes will improve their self-esteem and standing at Valley Prep where everyone is judged on what designer they wear.
The fantasy of being able to “fix” the system is a powerful one—who doesn’t wish they could get revenge on the mean girls? Willa’s scheme provides some temporary satisfaction and thrills but in the end it doesn’t really solve the underlying problem and she learns this the hard way.
While we can’t ever singlehandedly overturn the social order of a school or other institution, we can remind the teens in our lives how random the criteria are. How the empress with the Versace sunglasses actually has no eyewear. How, in college, and in their workplace, and in our adult lives, the rules will change again and again, but it’s up to us to decide whether we want to follow them.
(Originally appeared in The PageTurn)
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