September 30, 2004 / Book Organization / Coverage / Design / Fall 2004

Quietly Smashing Concepts

Written by Susan Massy

Our yearbook concept is not new. We are following the workshop adage: yearbooks should echo the year, the school, the students. And yet, something is changing.

The evolution of the Lair was not my idea. It took shape over several years. It resulted from talking yearbook with yearbook advisers who had a variety of experience. It came into being at my school as a result of the “let’s see where this takes us” attitudes of the editors of the past three yearbooks. Basically, we didn’t know what we were doing and where it would take us, but we did it anyway and found yearbooks that give voice to the teens living in the early 21st century.

The style, the look, the feel of today’s yearbooks are changing to mirror what is happening in technology that teens use, in fashions that they wear, in the hurried lives that they live. The stories sound like a 16-year-old is telling them. The pages feel more cutting edge, more like teen fashion. Within that look, the compartmentalized sections of the past are beginning to disappear. The move started nearly a decade ago as staffs began to combine the traditional seven sections of the yearbook into only four or five sections and, at the extreme end, seems to be culminating in their elimination.

When you stop and think about this elimination of sections, it makes sense. The lives of the students we are writing about are not neatly compartmentalized. Sports, clubs, academics, and jobs are all pieces of student life. A meeting overlaps a practice; practice ends five minutes after the athlete was supposed to be at work or home for dinner. Homework is squished into whatever time remains. Class time is spent listening to the teacher, focusing on an upcoming competition, daydreaming about the most recent crush, or completing work for a different class. Why, then, would we insist on carefully dividing a presentation of those lives into totally fictional sections?

We do it because: we have done it like this for decades; because somebody said we were supposed to; because we are afraid of the press association judges; or because we have not thought of a better way. Believe me, once you have tried doing a book without sections, it will be difficult to go back. You will not believe the freedom, flexibility, creative latitude, and the decrease in panic when a story does not come through. Say the color guard story photos need to be reshot, but the gymnastics spread is ready. No problem. Switch ’em.

But what about reader service? How can you have a table of contents if there are no sections? How will the reader find the homecoming story if he does not know where the student life section is?

I worried about those same questions. But I learned the typical reader did not know what sections were, except for sports and people. The typical reader flipped first to the index to see how many times he or she was listed, and then searched for those pages. If he wanted to find the marching band story, the index had the answer. If anybody missed the table of contents, she did not call me.

In our 2004 book, the opening copy begins on the cover, continues on the endsheets and the unsectioned book begins on page 2. I did hear about that. People missed the opening section – the “warm up” before the book began. Interestingly, they still did not notice or care when I pointed out to them that there were no sections.

But the change has not been as simple or superficial as removing the divider pages. Our stories and the way we cover them have changed. The traditional lead-quote-transition-quote-transition story formula has been cast aside. We are looking for stories to tell, not report. We want stories that matter to high school students; stories that sound like a teenager told them. And yet, to say that we are no longer reporting is inaccurate. We are reporting, recording and presenting, but we do it by telling stories. We focus on the experience of one person who can represent what it was like for most people or we focus on a single moment that was either typical of the year or a turning point. Most importantly, we do not go into the story with preconceived notions about what we will find to write about.

Yearbook writers who pay attention to what is being said around them have little trouble finding the story. We work with the information to find the best way to tell it. Sometimes we use quotes and background information and write in third person. Sometimes we write in first person and tell the story through our own experience or the experience of someone involved in the event, activity or performance. Sometimes we get a group of people together who talk about an issue and present a cross section of the opinions, feelings and emotions of the entire student body. Even the perennially forbidden second-person story, which employs the use of “you,” showed up in this year’s book. We’ve learned there is no “right” way to present a story for the yearbook; but often the story will dictate the best way.

One thing to guard against is students’ desire to write many of their stories in first person, otherwise the perception may be that the yearbook staff is only interested in its own members and their views. Some writers will use first person as an excuse not to quote or pay attention to the experience of anyone but themselves. This is not the point of a first-person story. This type of writing should take the reader into the experience with the writer. It still will contain quotes from other people and scene-setting details. It differs from a traditional story only in point of view, not in the amount of work to get background information. The first-person story has a place in the book, but like any other method of telling the story, it should be used only when it is the best way to relate the story to the reader.

Last year, the story about Environmental Education was presented in first person.

Rocky Mountain oysters. Bull testicles. It seemed synonymous with disgusting. When Mrs. Jessica Meade asked our class if anyone would be willing to try them, I was sure that no one would. But slowly, one hand raised. Then another and another — until four hands were in the air.

“I wanted to do it because it was something I would never forget,” Josh Ibarra, sophomore, said.

I couldn’t believe it. That part of the anatomy was not meant to be put in your mouth. I was sure that this was one of those mean tricks that teachers play on their students — the kind you read about in the “Can You Believe It” section of a teen magazine. There was no way that she was going to bring in bull testicles for the class to sample.

But sure enough when I walked into class the next day, the distinct aroma hit me.

In the third person, we could not have captured the feeling of absolute revulsion that the writer conveys. In first person, we react with her. It is all about immediacy. We are there with the writer, seeing the situation through her eyes.

The ultimate presentation of immediacy can be the second-person story. In this form, the writer inserts the reader into the story without naming them. When a staff writer wanted to make everyone feel like they were in an English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom, she resorted to second person.

You pass the locker room filled with determined athletes, round the corner and are greeted by the sound of machines buzzing in the classrooms of the industrial hallway.

Halfway down the hallway, a door is open. A sign is glued above the door:



You can only guess at what the words mean. You feel lost, out of place. For brief moment, you understand what it is like for them — the quiet ones who sit in the back of the room and mumble the answers under their breath.

You take a deep breath and begin to think as they would. What if they don’t understand me? Will my two years of Spanish be enough? What if I say something wrong — will they laugh?

The use of “you” forces the reader into the story. He feels the discomfort of the ESL student and through that feeling can perhaps begin to understand it.

The blog phenomenon was on the minds of students in 2004. When the Lair staff set out to cover this topic, no particular point of view seemed to work well. They just did not capture the feeling; quotes seemed stilted. We could not find that authentic voice that had shown up in other stories. Finally, the writer suggested creating a flow chart to show how one comment related to the next and so on. Finally, the story found its focus and the teen voice rang true.

When stories sound like teens, the page design had better continue that feel. Bolder colors, edgier graphics and typography, texture, or any other elements that affect the mood of the page must extend the feeling created by the story. Look at current magazines such as Black Book, Blue, Outdoor, and Metropolitan. Entertainment Weekly still has some of the best headline presentations around — verbally and visually clever.

Although each spread in the 2004 Lair echoes the mood and feel of the others, no two spreads are identical. Textures, borders, typography, strong contrasts between photo sizes, color usage, and bold folios appear consistently throughout the book, but not on every spread. These elements are selected, arranged and rearranged so that each spread is a unique but related graphic creation.

Photographs also must be more closely related to the story. This means the photographer and the writer will have to work together closely. In a perfect world, the writer would follow the photographer every time he shoots or the photographer would accompany the writer every time he does an interview or attends an event.

In the end, the concept, coverage and design changes in the Lair have been subtle yet dynamic. Like every yearbook, we are working to tell the story of this year and what makes it different, related and a repetition of every other year. We are also trying to make sure that through words, pictures and graphic design, it provides a mirror image of the same. It’s about setting a mood and repeating the feel of the world we walk through each day.

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Susan Massy

Susan Massy is the yearbook adviser at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in Shawnee, Kan., where her Lair yearbook staffs have been demonstrating excellence in writing and design for the past two decades. The Lair recently won its 18th Pacemaker award from the National Scholastic Press Association under Massy’s guidance. In 1999, Massy was chosen the National Yearbook Adviser of the Year by the Journalism Education Association. In 2013, Massy was inducted into the Kansas Scholastic Press Association Hall of Fame.