*Trigger Warning: This book deals with issues of mental health and self harm*
In my experience, YA books tend to be very hit or miss. Most, if not all, Young Adult books deal with some very difficult subject matter that, when done well, can change the conversations we have. However, I’ve often found that characters are very stereotypical, and some important issues are treated carelessly and can negatively affect the way we view those topics.
The Manifesto on How to be Interesting by Holly Bourne falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. It is the story of wealthy yet unpopular, Bree. A young, so far unsuccessful writer who sets up a blog detailing her attempts to be popular and the somewhat catastrophic side effects of her quest.
I was immediately surprised by how real Bree was. She was pretentious, unlikeable and repeatedly made bad decisions but she is also young, learning and trying her best to get through a difficult time in her life. Bourne never portrayed Bree as a perfect hero but a very typical, relatable teen girl. So often in Young Adult literature (and a lot of adult literature too), the protagonist is portrayed as a perfect one-dimensional character. Despite this very real portrayal of the main character, I can’t say the same for the other characters in the novel. As the story progresses, Bree becomes closer to a group of the most popular girls in her school. Whilst these characters were well rounded, I felt they were portrayed as very stereotypical high school girls. All the girls were obsessed with makeup and boys, not very clever and only cared about being popular. They felt more like stereotypical characters from ‘Mean Girls’ rather than the kind of people I recognised from my high school days. Perhaps, I had a very different school experience!
The issues this book deals with such as self-harm, teen depression and popularity are not new or revolutionary, they reoccur in almost every YA book I have read. However, Bourne’s approach to these issues, in particular, mental health was refreshing. At no point was Bree’s self-harm romanticised or portrayed to be strange quirk as is far too often the case in YA novels. Instead, Bourne showed the very damaging effect it can have, whilst managing to avoid falling into the trap of suggesting that the person battling these issues is a burden to their family and friends. Bourne also explores the pressures young girls face from their family, friends and themselves. Bree feels she has to create a facade in order to be accepted at her school, she has to be anyone but herself just so people will notice her. Whether we are able to admit it or not, everybody has a desire to be liked. By telling this story through the eyes of somebody who would like us to believe she doesn’t care about popularity, Bourne has brilliantly executed her portrayal of that inner conflict that we have all had at some point in our lives.
Holly Bourne has recently been heralded as one of the best YA writers of the time. From reading this book, I can certainly see why such high praise has been awarded to her. Whilst there were some aspects of this books I was unsure of, I would recommend this book as an example of excellent YA. Everyone has felt the pressure to be popular at school, I just wish I had a book like this when I was at school to remind me there are far more important things in life than being popular.