Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for High Before Homeroom includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Maya Sloan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Doug Schaffer is ordinary. He is also hopelessly bright, hopelessly in love with a girl named Laurilee, and feeling hopeless about life. His father isn’t in his life, his mother is emotionally absent, and the love of his life has a thing for “bad boys.” To add to his angst is Trevor, his very popular, good-looking and adored older brother away in the military serving his country. Determined to fit in, get noticed and be like his hero Jack Kerouac in On the Road, Doug concocts a plan to get everything he’s ever wanted: Attention from his mother, attention from girls, but mostly especially attention from Laurilee. With great wit and punchy observations, author Maya Sloan takes us on the road with Doug to find what he’s always wanted.
1. Mediocrity is a theme in the novel. Discuss some of the places it comes up. Talk about the lengths people go to stand out. Talk about how scared people are to deviate.
2. From Amy to Angela, Doug’s mom to Laurilee, how are the women in the novel portrayed?
3. Often, appearances are seen more important to parents than children, and women than men. How does this novel turn those conventional ideas around?
4. Doug gets noticed all the time, just not in the ways which are important to most sixteen year olds. Discuss some of the positive ways he gets noticed. Talk about some of the negative ways.
5. What types of myths does Doug create about manhood and sex? How much of this do you think is influenced by the Jack Kerouac stories and how much do you think is influenced by his missing father?
6. From Roger to Mr. Prescott and Trevor, Doug hardly respects any of the men around him. How do you think that furthers the plot? Do you think this is influenced by his father leaving?
7. The love of Doug’s life doesn’t notice him the way he wants to be noticed and neither does his mother. Do you think that he has a misplaced need for attention?
8. Doug often has very elaborate fantasies, most involving being seen and recognized. Some of them come from what he’s experienced watching television, or reading books. Talk about some of these fantasies. What do they say about both Doug’s desires and fears?
9. The author uses vivid imagery to describe the meth lab. Talk about the sights and the sounds.
10. When Trevor returns from the military, what is revealed about him? How is this different from Doug’s description?
11. Doug makes a reference to the “Okie caste system.” How are his caricatures of people similar in other parts of the country?
12. Do you think Doug is a reliable narrator? Can you trust all of his judgments and his perceptions of people?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Check out the book On the Road by Jack Kerouac to get a better perspective of Doug. How does your interpretation of the book differ from his?
2. Doug spends a lot of time discussing Oklahoma’s class layout. Take a look at a map of the state and see if you can find any of the neighborhoods he mentions?
3. Think about or visit your childhood bedroom. What do your posters say about you? How do they differentiate you from someone “ordinary”? Have the posters on your wall(s) always been the same? Have they changed as you’ve gotten older? How?
A Conversation with Maya Sloan
Q: Doug is very smart, but he makes many bad choices. How did the voice of Doug come to life?
A: Doug is a teenager from Oklahoma. I was a teenager from Oklahoma. For years I’d only write about places I lived after I left my state—New York City, California. Places I thought were more romantic and interesting than where I was raised. Then, one day, I decided to try and write about Oklahoma. Just like that, Doug showed up. And he wouldn’t shut up. He basically wrote himself. He’s a lot like I was at that age, only in guy form.
Q: Why did you make Jack Kerouac such a strong influence on Doug? Are you a fan of the author?
A: I went through a serious Jack Kerouac stage. And even today, no matter where you go—big cosmopolitan cities or little rural towns in the middle of nowhere—you’ll probably still find some teenager in a coffee shop pouring over On the Road. Like so many other teenagers in high school, I figured I was different than everyone else in the entire universe and no one would ever really get me. And here are these Beat writers who reveled in being outcasts. They didn’t seem to care what anyone thought. I wished I could be that way. The characters in On the Road create their own lives and identities. They have these crazy adventures, travel, pack up and take off . . . they did all the things I could only imagine doing while I was stuck in my high school cafeteria eating chicken fried steak and cramming for a sixth-period Spanish quiz. Of course, in reality, many of the Beats burned out young and died way before their time . . . but I didn’t see that part of the story until I was much older. All I saw was the Beat legend—total freedom. At some point I moved on to other writers, but those books will always be a part of me.
Q: Part of the subtitle reads, “the perks of being perfectly ordinary.” Why do you think people, particularly teenagers, feel so bad about being ordinary in the first place?
A: Nobody wants to be ordinary, I guess. And being a teenager, you feel so awkward and strange and full of questions . . . all you really want to be is normal. But then again, you’re a confused teenager and you know that probably won’t happen. Even if you appear normal, even if you are the most loved, popular kid in the school—some part of you is probably still questioning yourself. Who am I? Am I a fraud? Those years can really suck.
Q: How much research did you do on meth labs and meth culture? Are there any books or articles that you utilized?
A: I did a ton of research. I believe in research. But at some point you throw all that away and let the character take over. Ultimately, the book isn’t about meth as much as it is about Doug himself. But the thing about research . . . if someone asks me if I’ve done meth, I take that as a compliment. If I’d written about being a prostitute, and some asked me if I’d really worked the streets, I wouldn’t be offended. I’d take that as a compliment too. That means I’ve succeeded as a writer.
Q: You capture the language of teenage boys, displaying both their aggression and sexual fantasies. Can you talk a little about how you developed the voices of Dingo, Mitch, and Trevor?
A: It helps that I’ve taught teenagers and young adults for many years. I’ve gotten to hear their views on everything—literature, politics, pop culture, religion—at some point I started to understand the way they think. And in understanding them, I could see myself at that age reflected back at me. And that was bittersweet, and fueled many of my characters. I love how young adults view the world. I’ve noticed that they may not have the same references as their parents and teachers do, but if you really listen to them, they have an insight we often lose as we age. They call stuff as they see it. Their lives are an emotional roller coaster from day to day, and they remind me how exciting the world can be at that age. You feel like you are experiencing stuff no one has ever experienced before. You feel like you invented sex. You feel like—if the politicians would just listen to you—than you could solve every world crisis. You are finding your passions and recreating yourself every moment. I’ve learned a lot from my students, and they made it easy to fall into Doug’s skin.
Q: The women in your novel, although mostly thematic, are in a lot of pain. You allude to Angela having been sexually hurt in some way. Laurilee knows she’s messed up, and Doug’s mother is absent and totally obsessed. This novel seems like warning for female destructive behavior as well. Is it?
Q: Speaking of women, can you see yourself writing a female lead in the future?
A: Doug is actually one of my first male narrators. I mostly write from the female perspective.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I’ve got some ideas brewing for another novel. But if I told you, it’d just sound crazy. So I figure I’ll just write it and see what happens.