Top Questions from Middle School: Why Did Kiara Want to Be Popular?
Yesterday I spoke to a wonderful group of eighth graders at the Center for Fiction. The 56 students and their teachers came from the Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, Queens. They had read Rogue in their classes and arrived with great questions about my writing process, how my own life inspired the book, and about the choices the various characters made in the course of the story. (They also loved the pictures of my LEGO town and my new ones from last week’s NJ BrickFestLive.)
A girl sitting in the back row asked a thoughtful and thought-provoking question, one that couldn’t be answered in one or two sentences. Her question was, “Why did Kiara want to be popular?” And because of the autobiographical nature of the book (and the fact that I revealed some of the conflicts I got into and ways in which I let people take advantage of me because I wanted so badly to be popular), the question also meant, “Why did I want to be popular?”
I told the students that I spent a lot of time watching the other kids, and they seemed to have so much fun playing games and sports, or going to parties, movies, and the mall together. They seemed so happy spending time with each other, and I wanted what they had. To me, the popular kids seemed to have the most fun of all. Everyone wanted to be with them and do things with them. They were never alone.
I also said that eventually I went to college and found a nice group of friends with whom I hung out and went to parties. I discovered then that I didn’t like parties very much. As someone on the autism spectrum, I couldn’t filter out background noise or concentrate on what people were saying. And being around a lot of people made me tired and cranky. I started to avoid parties, preferring to get together one-on-one or in small groups.
But when I was in middle school all I wanted to do was get invited to parties with the popular kids. I wanted that one thing I couldn’t have. The same with Kiara. And when she does land that invitation, at an end-of-school party with high school students who want her to record their BMX stunts, it doesn’t turn out to be as much fun as she expected it would be.
Popularity is a mixed blessing, even more today with social media and our celebrity culture. With popularity comes a certain level of wealth, power, and privilege. If you don’t have any of those things, they look attractive. But popularity also brings physical and emotional danger in the form of stalkers, cyberbullies, and the fear of losing one’s popularity and everything that comes with it. Society can be cruel to fallen idols. As for me, I’ll keep writing the stories of my heart even if they aren’t the most fashionable stories, and telling readers the truth as I see it.
Thank you to Amanda Patton and the Center for Fiction for inviting me, and the eighth graders and their teachers at the Renaissance Charter School for being such a great audience! Check out the photos here.