Every novel by Holly Bourne breaks me, yet each breaks me in its own unique way. And I never see the devastation coming. I expected The Yearbook to be more about, well, the creation of a school yearbook than anything else. But really this is a book about abuse. Whether it’s under the guise of high school bullying or parental or marital relationships, abuse is a pernicious monster, difficult to name and more difficult still to stop. Paige, our main character, struggles with this on many levels. And, damn you Holly Bourne, so have I, but I didn’t need to be crying in a bathtub over it…. The Yearbook probably isn’t my favourite of Bourne’s novels to date, but it is the one I have most personally identified with.
Trigger warnings for, obviously, bullying and abusive relationships. There are also mentions of transphobic slurs, slut-shaming/other sexism, fatphobia, etc., as Paige chronicles what the mean girls are saying about other students.
Paige Vickers is in Year Eleven, which for those of you reading this in Canada and the US is the same age as Grade 10, but you write national exams and then go off to one of many pre-college/university pathways like A Levels or BTEC or what have you. So Paige is about to be leaving school behind. She is a quiet girl who doesn’t make waves, doesn’t draw attention, and she likes it that way. But her involvement on the school newspaper soon throws her into the company of Grace, Amelia, and Laura, the three most popular and petty girls at her school. Paige reluctantly agrees to work on the Year 11 Leavers’ Yearbook with them, even though it’s obvious from the start that the three mean girls plan to use the yearbook as an opportunity to establish, on paper, their supremacy while rubbing other students’ low points in their faces. But what can Paige do about it? She’s a studious bookworm at heart, obsessed with finding out the identity of a red-pen scribbling pen-pal in the margins of her school library’s most venerable classics. Oh, and she is constantly on high alert when at home, where her dad makes life hell but she and her mom just go along with it like nothing else is wrong, because what else can you do?
There’s so much to unpack here, and I don’t even know where to begin. As I said in my introduction, I feel personal connections to this book far more than I did to any of Bourne’s other books. I have adored Bourne’s fiction from the first book of hers that I read, but the stories of those characters were not my story, my experiences. Now, neither are Paige’s. But there were layers to The Yearbook that resonated with me and left me seen, shaken, but ultimately satisfied with this story.
First, I used to teach in a school like Paige’s! There were some superficial differences—ours was not a religious school—but I was one of those ineffectual teachers of Year Elevens that feature in this book. I was witness to the kind of trauma and bullying that Paige describes, and likely there was a lot that I was oblivious to.
And I know I didn’t do enough.
The longer I am a teacher, the more convinced I become that “high school is hell” is reality, not metaphor. I really do think our education systems—whether we are talking England, Ontario, or the U.S.—are letting down our children, and I don’t just mean in terms of quality of learning. I think we seriously need to address social issues in our schools, particularly bullying. We need to rethink an institution that is so toxic it can drive students to suicide and self-harm and make them so eager to escape it no matter what.
Bourne doesn’t pull her punches here. The bullying in The Yearbook is not simply sly name-calling. It’s full-blown rumours that result in students leaving school, refusing school, switching schools. It’s a form of individualized terrorism visited upon students by those who receive a high off their power, and who want to maintain that power by making sure no one comes for them. We often poke fun at the idea of the mean girls, make comparisons to high school and dominance in the animal kingdom, etc. Bourne avoids such symbolism and instead lays out the plain truth: bullying harms. And no one is doing enough about it.
Paige herself is the consummate bystander. She sees it happening, chronicles it in her journals even, yet does nothing—because to involve herself would be to make herself a target, as is indeed confirmed at one point. Paige’s gradual transformation from bystander to opponent of bullying is one of the three major journeys she undertakes in the book. Bourne portrays all three journeys with intimidating honesty: nothing about what Paige does is easy, and nothing results in magical quick fixes that make everyone feel better again.
Paige’s second journey involves her relationship with her parents. Her mom and dad were high school sweethearts, but her dad, it turns out, is an abusive jerk. But he isn’t a caricature of abusiveness, because, of course, this is Holly Bourne we’re talking about. His emotional abuse is often subtle to the point of gaslighting, and his physical abuse is usually not something Paige witnesses. Indeed, the fact that we get everything filtered through Paige’s first person perspective adds an uncomfortably real sense of unreliability to her dad’s abuse. People in abusive situations warp their reality as a matter of survival. This becomes obvious in how Paige’s mom responds to the situation, but it is true for Paige herself, even if it takes us and her more time to come to terms with that. It isn’t that Paige is in denial, but rather, she has constructed a narrative of helplessness in which there is nothing she can do to alter the facts of her home life.
As with Paige’s school life, my connection here isn’t with Paige herself but with people around her. I speak from experience when I say that it is hard to watch a close friend endure an abusive relationship. So Paige’s aunt, Polly, was a character who resonated with me. Like me, Polly is a single adult. She’s watching Paige and her sister go through this ordeal. She’s ready to offer support, but there is only so much she can do. This is a trauma of its own kind, and amidst Paige’s experience of child abuse, I appreciate that Bourne acknowledges it in a small way, creating this space for me and my experience in fiction.
Paige’s third journey involves someone else who, like Polly, is at first a witness to her abusive environment but steps in to be an accomplice when she needs it. Paige’s name is no accident, for she finds the most comfort in books. Her relationship with Elijah starts this way, and their conversations are very much the type of conversation I might expect two teenagers to have about life and literature: a tiny amount of pomposity combined with staggeringly acute opinions! I think what works most for me about this relationship is the lack of typical drama you would expect from a romantic subplot. Bourne has previously demonstrated she has no time for that sort of thing but I appreciate that idea of healthy relationships explored here in another way.
Intrigued by the idea of sifting, I sifted The Yearbook for its single most important sentence. Here’s what I came up with:
“You’re allowed to red pen yourself,” he said. “To scribble out your past beliefs if you’ve learned better.”
What did you sift?
The Yearbook is, as I said earlier, a distinct type of devastation from Bourne’s other novels, both adult and YA. And I like it. I like the plot; I like the characters; but most importantly, I recognize and appreciate the themes that Bourne weaves together into a passionate and meaningful story. It’s one thing to bring great themes to one’s book; it’s another thing to turn those themes into a workable story—and this is the lightning that Bourne manages to bottle over and over again. I will not stop recommending her books—to young people, yes, but also to us adults who really need to remind ourselves what young people go through, and maybe who need to address our own past and present traumas as well.