Dead Popular

Q&A with Sue Wallman

Can you describe Dead Popular in five words?

Queen bee rivalry is dangerous

What inspired you to write Dead Popular?

I’m drawn to claustrophobic settings. When Linas Alsenas, my editor, suggested boarding school, I thought, “Perfect”. I positioned my elitist, fictional boarding school, Mount Norton, on the coastline where I grew up, near Highcliffe, Dorset. It’s nothing like the school I went to or the one I work at, but I was keen to write about loneliness, the desire to fit in and the cost of popularity. 

What’s your favourite YA thriller or crime novel?

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

What makes a perfect thriller?

Characters who feel real and excellent plot-swerves.

You work as a secondary school librarian. What’s your favourite part about your job?

Seeing someone excited about a book gives me a high. It’s that moment when students come to the library together because one is desperate to get out the book their friend’s just finished. I remember the time a Year 7 boy found a graphic novel and told me he’d never enjoyed a book until then. We have a student who’s a reluctant reader but he’s into fishing and he takes out our small fishing section on constant rotation and renewal. When I told him he could keep them over the summer, he was so happy. The impact of own voices is fantastic to witness: a girl joined our Carnegie Shadowing Group because I was talking to Year 8s about Candy Gourlay’s Bone Talk, and she told me she wanted to read it because she’s half Filipino. A boy came hurtling into the library for Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah the other day because he’d heard one of the characters came from Ethiopia like him. 

The tagline to the book is ‘School can be so savage’ – do you agree with this?

That tagline came from the publisher and I wasn’t sure about it at first. It refers to my fictional boarding school, but actually, sadly, I think schools can be very difficult places for some students, despite the best efforts of the staff. In my day, decades ago, intimidating girls would hang out in the toilets, smoking, and I look back and think why couldn’t the teachers sort that out because it was so blatant? Someone I spoke to recently about her experience of boarding school twenty years ago, told me, “There were no rules when the lights went out.” Today, although so much more is done to tackle bullying, social media is in the mix, and there will always be toxic friendships. 

What book are you currently recommending to your students?

An obvious choice but it’s The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. We haven’t got Toffee by Sarah Crossan in the library yet but I’m looking forward to recommending that. Once everyone’s back in September, I’ll be very interested to see what my students think of Dead Popular!

Dead Popular is published by Scholastic on 1st August, RRP £7.99

This is a guest post and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.

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