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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 01/13/2010

Class helped 'Queen Bees' author

By Valerie Strauss

Best-selling author Rosalind Wiseman got help for her new novel for young adults from an unusual source: a high school class of seniors at a school in Virginia.

The Washington D.C.-based Wiseman is a teacher and author best known for her non-fiction book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” which was about high school social cliques. It was largely the basis for the movie “Mean Girls,” which starred Lindsay Lohan and was written by Tina Fey. Wiseman followed that up with the non-fiction “Queen Bee Moms and King Pin Dads.”

Yesterday her first novel for young adults was published. Called “Boys, Girls and Other Hazardous Materials,” it is about the adventures of a typical girl who enters a large high school for the first time.

Wiseman told me that while the book is fiction, many of the events are versions of real stories she has heard from students, teachers and administrators.

But to make sure the book would ring true to young people, she tested out each chapter on some students at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., a private coed boarding school.

During the 2008-09 school year, Wiseman repeatedly visited a creative writing class populated by seniors who were charged with reading each chapter as she submitted them and then telling her--face to face--what they thought. It wasn’t just for fun either; the students were graded on their participation.

“It was amazing and it was also very humbling,” she said. “I had to say, ‘I’m coming to you and you need to tell me one thing that is redeemable. Just one thing.' ”

The students and the author had “lots of arguments,” she said, and the students expressed strong opinions, even about small details.

For example, at the beginning of the book, a parent is driving the main character to school and the students did not like Wiseman's original choice of song being played on the car radio--a Dave Mathews song.

“There was an intensity of feeling about that, like, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ They thought it was too cool for a parent. I said, ‘But parents listen to the Dave Mathews Band,’ and they said, ‘You have to do the Rolling Stones' or something like that. So we compromised and the song is ‘Come Sail Away’ by Styx."

When the students thought she was being unrealistic, they told her. And they told her when they didn’t like something a character was doing--even if it was all too realistic.

“One of the most amazing times as a writer was when the boys got really angry at Charlie, the female character,” she said. “They were saying, ‘She can’t do this.’ They weren’t saying she actually wouldn’t do it, they were saying they didn’t want her to. They said, ‘We like her. You can’t allow her to be this other kind of person.’ I said, ‘That’s exactly why she needs to do what is going to happen.’”

Two students from the creative writing class completely their senior project requirement by helping her shepherd the book to completion, she said.

“The fact that these kids were engaged, well, it was just an amazing experience. Their help was invaluable.”

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I’d like to write more about what goes on inside classrooms. Please let me know about a class, a project, a lesson or anything else going on in school that would make a good story. I'll try to arrange a visit. Email me at theanswersheet@washpost.com.

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 13, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Reading  | Tags:  rosalind wiseman  
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