Imagine the most popular girl at your high school has mysteriously disappeared during your senior prom. Whispers of her whereabouts are seeping in and out of every classroom. You, however, have just opened your locker at school. There lies a pink envelope with your name written in flawless cursive. The faint smell of vanilla and mint drifts in the air as you open the envelope. A letter, written on monogrammed stationery, contains clues on where to find said missing popular girl. You are rightfully intrigued, yet you can’t shake this feeling of euphoria — a feeling that encapsulates Casey McQuiston’s debut foray into the young adult genre with their upcoming rom-com release, “I Kissed Shara Wheeler.”
Four years ago, Chloe Green was transplanted from Southern California to Alabama for high school. Forced to attend her personal hell on earth, Willowgrove Christian Academy, Chloe has spent the last four years dealing with prissy Jesus freaks and a terrorizing principal. Her sole motivator is winning valedictorian. But, the day before prom, Chloe gets kissed and ditched by Shara Wheeler, her school’s most beloved, beautiful and brilliant student who happens to be the principal’s daughter and Chloe’s only competition for valedictorian. Here’s the thing: No one has seen Shara since she disappeared at prom.
As it turns out, Chloe isn’t the only person Shara kissed before she vanished. There’s Rory Heron, Shara’s bad boy next-door neighbor, and Smith Parker, Shara’s state champion quarterback boyfriend. The only things they have in common are their complicated relationships with Shara and the fact that Shara left them all letters written on her signature monogrammed stationery that reveal cryptic clues on where to find her.
With a month until graduation, Chloe puts all her time and energy into finding Shara — just so she can rightfully claim valedictorian and prove that Shara isn’t the sweet and innocent girl everyone believes her to be. The unlikely trio is forced to work together to find Shara, but along the way, they question if they ever really knew her at all.
Casey McQuiston has proved once again that it is possible to write extraordinary queer love stories. As a fan of McQuiston’s new adult romances, “One Last Stop” and “Red, White & Royal Blue,” I knew their YA debut would be enjoyable, but I didn’t expect it to be so engrossing. Full of high school drama, mystery and small-town antics, “I Kissed Shara Wheeler” is a must-read YA rom-com.
Without a doubt, “I Kissed Shara Wheeler” is the quintessential high school novel. McQuiston explores the essential aspects of senior year: going to prom, walking across the stage at graduation and saying goodbye to people you never really knew. In the last few weeks of school, Chloe, Rory and Smith go on their own adventures by crawling through the air ducts to break into the principal’s office and crashing parties — all in the name of finding Shara Wheeler.
I’d like to say that the way high school is portrayed in television, film and books has evolved into something more realistic, but I’m not so sure. High school cliques have been so ingrained in my brain (thanks to cafeteria scenes in films like “Mean Girls” and “High School Musical”) that I’m convinced the trope of the high school hierarchy never dies. It’s 2022; high school isn’t as black and white as it was in the early 2000s, right?
Maybe, but McQuiston still heavily relies on high school stereotypes without diminishing the plot or characters. Right away, we learn that Chloe and her friends are queer theater kids, Shara is a popular prom queen, Smith is a jock and Rory is a stoner bad boy. In my psychology class, we learned that stereotyping is a perfectly normal process that helps us organize and manage the world around us. Often, we create stereotypes about other people because we don’t really know them. Chloe accentuates the high school stereotypes she encounters mainly because she knows people do the same to her; she’s known as the wicked smart but weird queer girl with two lesbian moms.
One recurring point throughout the story is that in high school, we don’t let others see who we really are. We put up a facade in an attempt to make people like us, or to deal with our own indecisiveness about who we are. As the story progresses, Chloe is constantly put in situations where she questions her feelings towards the classmates she finally gets to know after four years. She overcomes those stereotypes and begins to realize that not all jocks are dumb jerks (though some are) and that there is more to popular kids than their wealth and beauty.
Chloe’s conservative, Bible-thumping small town of False Beach, Ala., suffocates her so much that she can’t wait to leave it behind when she goes to college, and she assumes the rest of her friends feel the same. Her high school is just another school in the South that puts all its money towards athletics rather than the arts, but it is also a private religious school where there are weekly sermons and mandatory Bible classes. McQuiston recently posted a blog on their website explaining the setting of the novel and revealed that “I Kissed Shara Wheeler” and Willowgrove Christian Academy were inspired by their own experiences growing up Catholic and attending an Evangelical Christian school for 13 years. For them, “It was a culture of shame and guilt and performance, shrinking and hiding and purging and having every intimate part of you picked apart and assessed on a morality scale you didn’t even understand.”
As someone who also was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school for over 12 years, I get it; Still, McQuiston doesn’t bash Christianity or those who practice it. Instead, they critique the religion in a way that exposes the faith-based homophobia within Christianity and the trauma that arises in some characters in the novel as a result. Chloe is ostracized from a religion she doesn’t even practice due to her bisexuality, and in turn, she resents the faith those in her small town seem to possess. Shara experiences a different kind of trauma because she feels restricted within her religion. In one powerful scene, we learn that Shara throws away her crucifix because she feels as though she doesn’t love God the same way her classmates do. Other queer characters in the story are not as comfortable with their sexuality and choose not to come out for fear of what their families and the school might do if they found out. As McQuiston explains, “It’s hard to know you’re being traumatized when you don’t know anything else,” which makes empathizing with characters like Chloe and Shara especially crucial to understanding the story.
McQuiston is able to address sensitive topics like religious trauma and still maintain a lighthearted tone throughout the novel. After all, it is still a rom-com and McQuiston shines through their characterization. Similar to John Green’s “Paper Towns,” “I Kissed Shara Wheeler” is a mystery YA novel about tracking down the most popular girl in school. While the former relies on the manic pixie dream girl trope, the latter has well fleshed out, entertaining and inclusive characters. Chloe is the potential valedictorian, but as the book proves, she also likes to have fun. If the 2019 teen film “Booksmart” taught us anything, it’s that being smart — academically speaking — and having fun in high school aren’t mutually exclusive. Chloe purposefully breaks her school’s strict dress code by (gasp!) wearing black nail polish just to piss off her teachers, and she doesn’t put Shara on a pedestal like the rest of her classmates. As the titular character, Shara is also noteworthy. Seriously, we get to know her through her pink stationery notes that reveal not only clues on where to find her but all of her secrets as well. She crushes the assumption that all popular kids are perfect, and readers are left wanting to know more about this multilayered character.
It is refreshing to read about authentic characters, but more importantly, “I Kissed Shara Wheeler” is a YA novel with thoughtful LGBTQ+ representation and diverse characters. McQuiston’s cast includes a bisexual protagonist with two lesbian mothers, two Black main characters, multiple queer characters and a non-binary side character. I’m not saying there needs to be a diversity list that all YA authors check off, but I do think contemporary stories and their characters should reflect the diverse world that we live in.
“I Kissed Shara Wheeler” is a love letter to all teenagers. In all its contemporary YA novel glory, the book simultaneously captures the messiness of high school and the nostalgic feeling of watching early 2000s teen dramas or reading a Sarah Dessen novel. McQuiston seamlessly explores high school life in a small town but doesn’t shy away from confronting difficult topics like homophobia and religious trauma. In every possible way, “I Kissed Shara Wheeler” is the perfect YA novel. It’s fast-paced, bold and full of humor and romance. More importantly, the novel contains positive portrayals of queer romance. Ever since the first queer YA book was published in 1969, YA queer romance (and queer romance in general) has slowly become more mainstream, but there is still progress to be made. If future YA novels read anything like “I Kissed Shara Wheeler,” I can assure you I will be reading them.
Daily Arts Writer Ava Seaman can be reached at email@example.com.