On Behalf of Burnt-Out Students, Thank you Alice Oseman – Radio Silence Reviewed

Ellie Tucker

Alice Oseman is fast becoming a household name in Young Adult Fiction. Noted for her inclusivity and representation, Oseman recently entered the spotlight when her Heartstopper graphic novel series was adapted for television by Netflix. However, I believe that her other works, such as her 2016 novel Radio Silence, deserve just as much attention. 

Radio Silence follows academic high-achiever and secret fangirl Frances Janvier. Everyone at school knows her as hard-working, head girl ‘School Frances’. What they don’t know about is her obsession with a YouTube podcast called Universe City. When Frances meets Aled Last, for the first time in her life she feels like she can be 100% herself. 

As well as hosting an inclusive cast of loveable characters, artfully approaching numerous important themes, and boasting accessible, readable prose, Radio Silence touches on something which deserves more discussion – academic pressure and burn-out.

Frances works extremely hard at school and this has meant that her true personality has been overshadowed by her academic success. She worries about not living up to her potential, wasting her intelligence and hard work. She’s getting straight As but still feels like she’s not doing enough. Her conflict between being herself and living up to everyone’s expectations is the central source of trouble in the book. 

I first read Radio Silence as I was preparing to go to university, just like Aled and Frances, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself so clearly in a character before. It felt like Alice Oseman looked into my teenage brain, extracted everything I was feeling about sixth form and university, and put it in a book.

This book also reminded me of the Gifted Kid Burnout phenomenon, which describes someone who as a child “found everything easy, was praised constantly by their elders for their abilities” but later in life “failed to adapt, dropped out; they were done.” It’s an internet term that’s quite controversial. Some see it only as a relatable meme. Others identify it as a psychological problem. Many see it simply as an excuse lazy twenty-something-year-olds use when struggling to enter adulthood.

I think it’s a valid issue, but maybe that’s because I can somewhat empathise with the feeling. Not the complete academic dejection, but definitely the internal pressure to live up to the potential everyone kept saying you have. I think people forget sometimes that, to many students, their grades mean everything. It’s all they’ve ever known and their sense of value is all tied up to what letters appear on their report card.

On the surface, it sounds rather pathetic. When the intelligent kid complains about their high achievement, it’s hardly met with much empathy. But this stops people speaking out when they’re crumbling. Academic success is fantastic. It’s useful. It’s temporarily gratifying. But soon it stops being about achieving. It’s simply about not failing. Good grades aren’t a cause for celebration, they’re just another swerve from disappointment.

The theme of France’s suffocating academic pressure goes hand in hand with Oseman’s discussion of the skewed priorities in our education system. Too much pressure is put on teenagers to be academically successful. Creativity is often overlooked and undervalued; schools want scientists, mathematicians, and academics, not artists, dancers or actors. In my experience at least, students are often made to feel like the only correct next step for any of us to take is academia. Academic success is not the only form of success. Let’s re-evaluate.

Oseman also brings up academic exhaustion. Teenagers are always tired, we all know this. But when did being exhausted every day become the accepted norm? Everyone is tired at school. Everyone is writing essays until the early hours, juggling deadlines, not sleeping. It should not be normalised. Being tired all the time and mentally unstable should not be a relatable personality trait. It should be a concern for school and society. 

I think the way Oseman tackled these issues was fantastic. I have never read a book which put into words the crisis I experienced a few years ago, and it instantly made me feel okay. It is refreshing to see something other than high-strung school romance taking centre stage in a YA novel, and hopefully it prompts helpful conversation across homes and classrooms alike. 

Thank you, Alice Oseman.

Categories: Fiction, Literature