Jessica Goodman’s YA debut explores “young girls doing dark things.”
There’s a photo on Jessica Goodman C’12’s Instagram: a thick stack of white papers squeezed together by a large binder clip. It’s the galley of a new young adult novel, They Wish They Were Us. Goodman’s novel.
It’s been a long time coming. She started it nine years ago, during the fall of her junior year at Penn. In 2010 the creative writing major, who planned to work in magazines, decided to try some courses outside of her nonfiction bubble. Melissa Jensen C’89 Gr’93’s class, “Writing for T(w)eens,” landed at the top of her list.
“It’s definitely one of those classes that people were like, wait, what are you taking? That’s a real class here?” Goodman recalls. “It was just so specific and wonderful. I’d always loved YA fiction as a reader, so I wanted to see if I could do it.”
As a semester-long project, Jensen’s students wrote several chapters of their own YA novels. When Goodman turned in her 50-page story about Jill Newman, a high school senior entangled in a Skulls-esque secret society, Jensen returned it with an encouraging note: “I can’t wait to see this published one day.”
As of August 4, 2020, it was.
Goodman’s YA thriller garnered advance buzz from Entertainment Weekly, Marie Claire,and Cosmopolitan (where she is an op-ed editor). “[T]he talk of the town for months,” EW wrote, adding that the book’s acquisition “came about in a heated, competitive auction.” And though it went through significant changes since first receiving the workshop treatment from Penn writing students inside Fisher-Bennett Hall, Goodman’s debut novel was both born and nurtured on campus.
They Wish They Were Us follows narrator Jill Newman through her years as a scholarship student at an affluent Long Island prep school, blending her fish-out-of-water discomfort with secret society mischief and a murder mystery plot around the violent death of Newman’s best friend, Shaila.
“It’s a miracle anyone gets out of high school alive,” the book begins. “Everything is a risk or a well-placed trap. If you’re not done in by your own heart, so trampled and swollen, you might fall victim to a totally clichéd but equally tragic demise—a drunk-driving accident, a red light missed while texting, too many of the wrong kinds of pills. But that’s not how Shaila Arnold went.”
The novel centers on Newman’s time as newbie and then senior member of the Players—a secret society that demands often-humiliating, often-dangerous tasks of freshmen aspiring to join. These “pops” range from tame (washing seniors’ cars while singing ’80s songs), to servile (carrying “little fanny packs filled with Player essentials: Juuls, mints, tampons, pencils, mini Snickers, condoms, Advil” to dole out at older members’ request), to extreme (we won’t spoil those).
It’s hard not to wonder if Goodman, a former vice president of Sigma Delta Tau sorority, drew any inspiration from the Greek scene at Penn. (“Nothing specific,” she says.)
On top of her classes, Goodman credits her growth as a writer at Penn to 34th Street Magazine—the Daily Pennsylvanian’s weekly arts and culture publication. She started off as a copy editor there her freshman year, and by her senior year had become Street’s editor-in-chief. “I learned the most about what I wanted to do career-wise from working there, and I loved the team aspect of putting a magazine together,” she says.
By the time she had graduated and finished a master’s degree in magazine journalism at Columbia, Goodman wasn’t thinking much about the YA novel she’d tinkered with her junior year at Penn. She began working in entertainment journalism, and in 2015 she became an editor for articles about music and books at Entertainment Weekly’s website.
“It was a hard, energizing job,” she says. Still, “after a while, I realized I wanted another creative outlet to play with.” She also had a new understanding of the book publishing world through editing EW’s insider-type stories about book deals and trends. So after four years, she went back to those 50 pages from Jensen’s class.
She spent the next three years writing and editing and rewriting them into a full book. In early 2018, she landed an agent. By that fall, she had a deal with Razorbill—a Penguin Young Readers imprint. Another nine months of intensive edits followed.
“It’s been a long journey,” she says. Still, she stuck by this particular story. “I was just so in love with the characters and the setting and the idea of creating a secret society in high school,” she says. “I knew I wanted to tell a prep school story. It just took me a really long time to figure out what exactly that story was and how best to tell it.”
They Wish They Were Us drills deeply into the teenage experience, capturing the passion of an early love, the all-consuming urge to fit in, and the suffocating pressure to land a spot at one’s Ivy League school of choice. At heart, it’s a book about clinging to the veneer of perfection while trying hard to ignore the messiness of real life.
Though she finished the book more than a decade removed from her own high school experience, Goodman says her “spirit age” has always been 16. “I just feel so in touch with that teenage version of myself,” she says.
“I think there’s no other time in a woman’s life when you’re so raw and open and searching for something,” she says, noting that until very recently, teen girls were too often written off as flighty or overly emotional or love-obsessed.
“Now there are so many more books and TV shows and movies that explore the inner workings of young women’s brains in ways that feel respectful and reverent,” Goodman adds. “I wanted to capture that as well. I wanted to explore how fragile our brains are at that age. How intensely we feel when we’re young. I never felt as deeply as I did in those tender ages. That’s always what drew me to writing about that time period.”
Goodman’s day job also keeps her embedded in stories about women’s lives and experiences. She became a senior editor at Cosmopolitan in 2017 and moved over to op-ed editor last fall. Some of the essays she’s overseen have included “I’m Risking My Life to Save Your Grandparents, but I Could Get Deported Any Day,” “The Dangers of Being Asian American Right Now,” and “The Coronavirus Doesn’t Have a Race Problem—America’s Systems Do.” That last one, written by activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham, received an enthusiastic tweet from Hillary Clinton.
“I think anybody who has misconceptions about what [today’s Cosmo] is probably isn’t paying attention,” Goodman says. The stories about acne breakouts and sex toys are still there. But as that small sampling of essays illustrates, “we do some of the best, most cutting-edge journalism in terms of what comes out of magazines these days,” she says.
Still, “I can’t tell you how many times somebody has talked down to me because of coming from a women’s magazine,” she adds. “I think it’s so unfortunate that that stigma still exists.”
As COVID-19 continued to spread across the country in mid-summer, Goodman—who lives in Brooklyn—was still juggling full-time magazine work with her own fiction writing in the early mornings and on weekends, just as she’s been doing for the past five years.
They Wish They Were Us landed her a two-book deal with Razorbill, and she’s already finished writing its follow-up—another standalone YA thriller, slated for release next summer. She can’t say much about that one yet, other than that it’s “also about young girls doing dark things.”
—Molly Petrilla C’06