Pairing Music with YA lit: “Under Pressure” edition

September:  The summer heat gives way to sweater mornings, t-shirt afternoons, and hoodie evenings.  The leaves begin to turn into the firey oranges, reds, and yellows that might only last for a few weeks, or if we’re lucky, a whole month before the snow sets in (at least in my part of the country).  It’s the beginning of a new season and a new school year, which for many high school seniors is the start of the college application process; of finding a school that will soon become home.  Essays.  Scholarship applications.  Dreaded “We regret to inform you…” letters.  Acceptance packets.  Safety schools.  Major declarations.  And, often, LOTS of pressure from friends, parents, or even themselves.  Luckily, there are some great books to help us all through this stressful time.  So here are some of my favorite off-to-college novels, paired with music that connects to each one.  Of course, not all of us hear music the same way, just as not all of us see the books we read the same way, so this is my interpretation–”Under Pressure” style.


  ill meet you thereI’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios (2015)

Summary: Skylar is finally fulfilling her dream of getting out of Creek View.  She has a full scholarship to art school and is ready to take off to San Francisco, ready to leave behind the small town she grew up in.  She just has to get through the summer.  But after graduation, Skylar’s mother is a downhill slide (again) after losing her job, and Skylar feels the need to stay and take care of her.  And then there is Josh.  He used to be a giant jerk, a player, kind of a douchebag, but coming home from Afghanistan has changed him.  Both physically as he lost his leg, and mentally, as he is dealing with the aftermath of war.  Throughout the summer, Skylar and Josh grow together, becoming friends instead of work acquaintances, and falling in love one day at a time. Skylar is left wondering if it’s not only her mother she feels compelled to stay for, but Josh as well.   

Musical pairings:  There are a lot of artists referenced in “I’ll Meet You There”, providing it’s own soundtrack.  But as I read this book, there are two songs that immediately stuck out to me:  Dan Black’s “Symphonies” featuring Kid Cudi and “Sometimes” by Sound of Guns.  I connected “Symphonies” to Skylar to describe her desire to leave Creek View (Gimme, gimme, symphonies/Gimme more than the life I see), but also connected it to how she feels different than the other girls in her town, how she knows she is meant to do more with her life than work at the Paradise motel (I live, I live, I live, I live for symphonies/I know that there’s some place just right for me). “Sometimes” is the song that reminds me of Josh as he is trying to find his place back in Creek View, at first trying to be the same Josh he was before he joined the Marines, before he lost his leg (When your mind aches, pupils dilate/Give me some alcohol to stop me growing older).  The same Josh that knows his place is in the small town (Oh oh oh, I was born here and I’ll die here), and knows everything about his neighbors (Oh oh oh, see for miles and miles around here, Oh oh oh, every violence, every silence).  

kidney hypothetical


The Kidney Hypothetical: or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days by Lisa Yee (2015)

Summary: Higgs Boson Bing has everything he could hope for–an early acceptance to Harvard, a popular girlfriend, and he is a shoe-in for the Senior of the Year award.  But the week before graduation everything starts to unravel.  All because of not answering his girlfriend’s “kidney hypothetical”–would he would give her one of his kidneys if she needed one?  His non-answer ends the relationship on the spot and by the end of the day he is hated by every girl in school. Everything becomes too much for Higgs until he meets a girl living in the woods who calls herself Monarch; a girl who has all of the freedom Higgs does not.  Monarch helps him put things back together and become who he really wants to be.  But she has a few secrets of her own, and Higgs is far too wrapped up in his own problems to see who she really is.

Musical Pairing:  At first I thought I would pair Queen’s “Under Pressure” with this book, but as soon as “Get It” by Matt & Kim played on my Spotify songlist, I knew I had to change the pairing.  Higgs’ life seems golden until a week before graduation, when everything spins out of control (At 1 a.m. we go for gold/At 1 a.m. when we we lost control).  And even though the path isn’t right for him, has never felt true, he still tries hard to be the best at everything (We all sing along/But the notes are wrong).  As Monarch comes into his life, he feels free to make mistakes, to be himself (At 1 a.m. let’s make mistakes/At 1 a.m. when we we cut the brakes).  More than the lyrics, the vibe of the song works well with the writing of “The Kidney Hypothetical.”  It’s upbeat, fun–just like the book.


conversionConversion by Katherine Howe (2014)

Summary: During Colleen’s senior year at St. Joans Academy, the girls in her class start having convulsions, losing their hair, and other extreme symptoms.  No disease can be identified; no toxic gas leak can be found.  The residents of Danvers, Massachusetts (formerly Salem) are terrified.  Could the girls be… possessed?  Just like the girls in Salem so long ago?  Or is it the pressure, the stress of getting into an Ivy, of being Valedictorian, that’s causing the rapidly spreading epidemic through St. Joans?

Musical Pairings:  I knew that I had to include “Conversion” in a booklist about being under pressure–it is one of the best books that shares the pressure put on teens at different times in history.  But what to pair it with?  Given the possibility of possession recurring throughout the book, my mind immediately went to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by Charlie Daniels.  I also thought anything sung by vocal powerhouse Amy Lee would fit the mood perfectly, especially “Bring me to Life” by Evanescence.  (Wake me up inside, save me/Call my name and save me from the dark, wake me up…Before I come undone, save me).  And, hear me out here, “Duelling Banjos” would also make a good pairing.  Even though the book is set in New England and has nothing banjo-y, or “Deliverance”-y, my mind still went there.  The chapters alternate between the St. Joans epidemic and transcripts from the Salem Witch trials.  The plot for each is slow at first, mirroring each other in their own separate ways.  But as the novel continues, each plotline becomes stronger, faster and the reader starts to connect the two together which each result in a shared chaos.

— Stacy Holbrook, currently reading Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between by Jennifer E. Smith