In my quest to write quality YA fiction, I’ve been reading quality YA fiction, hoping something will sink in through osmosis. They do say that the best way to learn to write is by reading, and with that in mind, Jessica Goodman’s They Wish They Were Us was an excellent choice. It’s a great story with a surprisingly feminist message.
The main character is Jill Newman, who attends a prestigious Long Island private high school on scholarship. Jill comes from an artsy Jewish family, and her parents, who are solidly middle class, struggle to make ends meet. If it weren’t for her scholarship, she couldn’t afford to go to Gold Coast Prep, and now that college is on the horizon, Jill knows she will need another scholarship to attend her dream school, Brown. The pressure can be overwhelming, and it’s one of the reasons Jill endures all the hazing and crazy social obligations of being “a Player” – which means she is part of an elite “secret” society of students, and which gives her access to all sorts of answer keys to tests and other study materials.
But membership comes at a cost. During her freshman year, Jill had to undergo grueling and humiliating “pops” – which were tests that the upperclassmen players concocted for her and her peers to prove their worthiness. Freshman year, on the last night of the pops and right before initiation, Jill is nearly raped. Luckily, she escapes that horrible fate, but her best friend is not so lucky. Shaila, the most beautiful and compelling of them all, is found dead. Her boyfriend is quickly accused and convicted. But three years later, when Jill is a senior, new doubts come to light.
Jill is the only one who seems to care that Shaila’s murderer might still be out there. But in her pursuit for truth and justice, she risks losing everything: her friends, her reputation, her academic future, and even her life.
They Wish They Were Us is a perfectly crafted mystery. Alternating between flashbacks and present day, it’s a slow reveal of terrible secrets and surprising truths about all the major characters. While I did guess who the real killer was, getting to that culminating scene where everything clicks into place was still nail-biting. And, like I said, the story had a surprisingly strong feminist message. Because, while the Players are equal numbers male and female, the hazing for the girls is far more brutal.
At one point, Jill wonders “Why did the boys have the power? Why did they make the rules while we dealt with the consequences?” This novel is primarily a mystery, but it also explores self-discovery, female friendship, and the pitfalls of young love.
They Wish They Were Us works on every level, and I strongly recommend it for adults and teens alike.