Lizzie wasn’t the first student at Verity High School to kill herself this year. But the difference is, she didn’t go quietly.
Lizzie’s reputation is destroyed when she’s caught in bed with her best friend’s boyfriend on prom night. With the whole school turned against her, and Angie not speaking to her, she takes her own life. But someone isn’t letting her go quietly. As graffiti and photocopies of Lizzie’s diary plaster the school, Angie begins a relentless investigation into who, exactly, made Lizzie feel she didn’t deserve to keep living. And while she claims she simply wants to punish Lizzie’s tormentors, Angie’s own anguish over abandoning her best friend will drive her deep into the dark, twisted side of Verity High—and she might not be able to pull herself back out.
The S-Word one LIZZIE WASN’T THE first person to kill herself this year. Five months prior to her final ascension Gordy “Queerbait” Wilson hanged himself in his basement. Rumor has it he used the belt his father beat him with. For two hours he hung there, feet hovering above the ground, before Daddy came down the stairs in search of a cold one.
I guess that’s the difference between Gordy and Lizzie.
Lizzie didn’t go quietly.
I’m Angelina Lake. I was Lizzie’s best friend. We were inseparable, until she hooked up with my boyfriend at the prom. Maybe you’ve heard about it? Every jackass in the blogosphere had a field day with the story: Little Miss Perfect Steals Prom Queen’s Beloved. My Lizzie with my Drake. The whole school came to my defense. And while Drake got off with a boys-will-be-boys slap on the wrist, Lizzie became the Harlot of Verity High.
It started with a single word, painted in the corner of her locker. I was coming out of English when I saw it. It was the Monday after prom, and Mrs. Linn had asked me to run some papers to the office. I’d barely taken three steps when Lizzie’s locker caught my eye.
The word was unmistakable. Even in tiny black writing, the marker stood out against the beige. I stepped up to it, running my fingers over the word.
Why had they written this? Heartbreaker would have been a better word. Backstabber. But slut? Lizzie never touched anybody before Drake. She was Princess Prude.
Still, there it was.
For a second, I thought about erasing it. I slid my nail across the S to see if it would chip. It didn’t, but I had plenty of pens in my bag. Three seconds and the word would be blotted out. Hidden, and even the vandal would forget. But if I left it there, and everybody could see it . . . well, how long before another one appeared?
Yeah, even then, I knew the word would multiply. I don’t know how. I could just feel it at the base of my neck, like fingers scratching me there. Warning me of what was going to happen.
The bell rang.
People poured into the hallway. My locker had been next to Lizzie’s all year, so no one batted an eye at the sight of me hovering there. Besides, most of us were still suffering from that two-day, post-prom hangover funk. Walking on shaky legs. Stumbling. Then everything went quiet, like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the hall. I knew people were watching me, even though my body blocked the graffiti.
The hallway pulsed with bodies, but it didn’t matter. Lizzie’s were the only eyes I could see. It was the first time I’d seen her since prom night. The first time I’d looked at her since her limbs were entangled with Drake’s. Here she was dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, quite the departure from baby-blue satin and ivory lace. She didn’t look like a princess anymore. Her eyes caught mine and we were frozen, both of us staring across the crowded hall, mesmerized by the wreckage of our friendship.
Everyone was watching.
My skin felt hot, and I didn’t want to move away from the locker, to reveal what was written there. Would she think I’d done it? Should I care? In the two days since I’d stormed out of the hotel room, leaving Drake to zip up his rented tuxedo pants while Lizzie tugged at the broken strap of her dress, I’d checked my phone a thousand times, waiting for her to explain.
Drake had called. Drake had apologized. Drake had begged for my forgiveness.
Drake had blamed Lizzie.
That’s when I told him to fuck off. It takes two to tango, and these two did way more than that. But my God, at least he’d called.
So there I was, mouth open, lips trying to form the word: Why?
Why hadn’t she called?
Why wasn’t she sorry?
I searched Lizzie’s face, trying to separate the image in front of me from my darkest memory. But everywhere I looked, I saw him. I saw his fingers tucking a strand of pale hair behind her ear. I saw him staring into her eyes, telling secrets. Did his lips trail in a semicircle around the curve of her chin, teasing and teasing until she gave in? Did they think of me at all?
I closed my eyes.
The movement hurt. My eyes stung, but it went deeper than that. I could barely swallow, my throat felt so sore. And Lizzie just stood there, pretty pink lips—kissable lips?—pursed in a frown.
Are you sorry?
I took a step forward. The crowd parted to let me pass.
Do you care?
Lizzie opened her mouth, as if to speak. But she must’ve thought better of it, because those kissable damn lips closed.
Or was I just the girl you used to get to Drake?
I tried to turn.
But I couldn’t. I was waiting for something. Maybe just for Lizzie to say my name. For godsakes, this was the girl who’d slept over at my house every Saturday since we were five, who’d held me when I cried over my parents’ divorce.
I tried to catch her eye. She studied the floor.
Lizzie, look at me.
Tell me you’re sorry.
Tell me you don’t hate me enough to hurt me this way.
Lizzie said nothing. When the tardy bell rang, she walked away. And as all the dramatic tension oozed out of the hallway, the onlookers left as well.
So did I.
Over the next few days, I checked my phone less and less often. My stomach didn’t drop quite so hard when I opened my locker to find no notes. A week went by, and still, Lizzie said nothing.
And when the second scribbling of SLUT appeared on her locker, I said nothing too.
IN THE WEEKS that followed, things got significantly worse for Lizzie Hart. Our once Untouchable Saint was now the Slut. And that word did exactly what I thought it would do. It multiplied, making little S-word babies. It spread to Lizzie’s notebooks, her book bag, even her car. It burrowed its way under her skin like a disease, poisoning her from the inside.
You could see it.
I could see it.
I said nothing.
Then someone created that playing card. You know, the one of Lizzie wearing nothing but a crown of stars? People passed it around and added little details. Some genius even came up with a title:
Lizzie Hart, Queen of Sluts.
That name followed her everywhere. I thought she’d never get away from it. But Queen Lizzie found a way. She did the one thing we never expected.
She died. And the S-word died with her.
It’s the Monday after Lizzie’s funeral, two weeks shy of graduation, and someone’s written SUICIDE SLUT all over the senior lockers.
And the weirdest thing? The words are in Lizzie’s looping scrawl.
This reading group guide forThe S-Wordincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.
In The S-Word, Chelsea Pitcher delivers an unflinchingly acute look at the world of high school students today. Seniors Angie and Lizzie have been friends since they were five, but when Angie walks in on Lizzie and Angie’s boyfriend, Drake, together in a hotel room on prom night, their worlds fall apart. Shattered by betrayal, Angie stops speaking to her once best friend, and it seems the entire school is backing her up when they cast Lizzie as a “slut.” When Lizzie then commits suicide, strange things start happening: incriminating pages from Lizzie’s diary show up in the lockers of the students who harassed her, and the words SUICIDE SLUT show up on Lizzie’s locker—in her own handwriting. Angie decides to punish the guilty parties and will stop at nothing, even when her vendetta threatens to consume her. With razor-sharp wit and keen sensibilities, Pitcher illuminates and explores some of the most pressing, deeply relevant issues for modern teenagers.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Angie refers to getting a dose of “high school,” a term Kennedy used, to justify why “SLUT” was first written on Lizzie’s locker (p. 11). How does the high school environment portrayed in the story compare to your experience? In what ways is it less or more restrictive?
2. Labels at Verity High are powerful and prevalent: prude, slut, queerbait, easy, Drama Queen, Homecoming King, whitetrash royalty. Angie contemplates, “I suppose it’s hard to treat someone appropriately if you don’t know what her classification is” (p. 54). Which characters seem to embrace their labels, and how are they treated by their fellow classmates? What happens to those who reject their assigned labels?
3. Early in the story Angie ponders the fallout from Drake and Lizzie’s prom-night encounter, explaining, “while Drake got off with a boys-will-be-boys slap on the wrist, Lizzie became the Harlot of Verity High” (p. 1). Why do you think some people are judged more harshly for their actions than others? Is it simply based on gender, or are there other factors? Have you ever been judged for things you’ve done by people who didn’t know the full story?
4. Jesse explains that he’s an outsider because “I’m Mexican and I’m wearing a skirt. The kids that don’t want to beat the queer out of me want me deported” (p. 47). The students at Verity seem to feel entitled to condemn the sexuality of people like Jesse and Gordy, and then treat them badly because of it. Were you ever in a situation where you judged someone for his or her sexuality, even when it had nothing to do with you? Why do you think people feel the need to go from maybe being uncomfortable with something, like homosexuality, to outright attacking it?
5. I n a conversation with Angie, Jesse says that when he was growing up, people treated him “like stilettos were going to show up on their feet without their permission” (p. 189), simply because he dressed differently. In your experience, has anyone ever challenged your idea of how people “should” dress? Have you ever used clothing in a way that challenged people’s perceptions?
6. Angie dismisses her mother as “the parent who doesn’t want me,” while her father is “the one who can’t support me” (p. 157). How do her very different relationships with her parents affect her and inform her choices? Does she share any characteristics with either parent?
7. As her quest for justice progresses, Angie finds out there is more and more that she didn’t know about Lizzie—things her own best friend didn’t tell her. Angie thinks she would have accepted Lizzie if she had known the truth, but do you think she would have? Have you ever discovered something surprising about someone you thought you knew well? How did it affect your relationship? Were you able to be as understanding as you thought you’d be before you found that thing out?
8. When Angie begins to seek justice against those who wronged Lizzie, she feels righteous as a vigilante. Is Angie right to seek this type of justice, or is she merely sinking to the level of the bullies, as Jesse suggests? When bringing wrongdoers to justice, at what point do we cross the line? When, in your opinion, does Angie come near, or even cross, that line?
9. Throughout the course of her investigation, Angie uncovers many of her classmates’ secrets. Kennedy’s secret, in particular, seems to require further action. What is Angie’s responsibility in this situation? Have you ever discovered something that made you feel like you had to intervene, even if you knew people would be angry with you? How would you have handled things if you were in Angie’s shoes?
10. I n her diary, Lizzie explored her feelings on being branded a “slut,” writing, “Ask a hundred people the meaning of that word and you’ll hear a hundred answers. It means absolutely nothing” (p. 89). While many of Angie’s classmates used the word slut with relative ease, they seemed truly shaken when suicide slut appeared. What is the S-word? Chelsea Pitcher’s website suggests the additional words severed, silence, secret, shame, separate, shunned, shattered, and scorned. Which word or words carry the most resonance for you in the story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Lizzie, Jesse, and others in The S-Word are victims of bullying. If you are comfortable, discuss personal experiences with bullying, how it affected you when it happened, and whether it still affects you today.
2. Think of what you might do next time you see someone being bullied or singled out for ridicule. Planning out your actions ahead of time can help you know what to do when an actual situation arises and you’re under pressure to act.
3. Read (or reread) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle or Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, two of the books on Lizzie’s bookshelf. Consider the ways the stories address religion and science, and why that would have held significance for Lizzie.
Chelsea Pitcher is a karaoke-singing, ocean-worshipping Oregonian with a penchant for twisty mysteries. She began gobbling up stories as soon as she could read, and especially enjoys delving into the darker places to see if she can draw out some light. Chelsea is the author of The S-Word and This Lie Will Kill You. You can visit her at ChelseaPitcher.com and follow her on Twitter at @Chelsea_Pitcher.
"Debut author Pitcher explores the consequences of bullying and social stigmatizing with swagger in this noirish mystery. When Angie's boyfriend cheats on her with her best friend Lizzie, Angie is devastated and ends their friendship—never expecting that Lizzie will be branded a slut (someone repeatedly writes the word on her car and locker) and driven to suicide. Following Lizzie's death, the graffiti reemerges; eerily, the handwriting mimics Lizzie's and reads, "suicide slut." Pages stolen from Lizzie's diary also find their way into students' lockers (and into sections of the book). Angie launches a covert investigation, and her interrogations of her suspects—including a femme fatale who reclines on pianos in the drama department when she's not running the newspaper, a misogynistic math geek, and a hard-drinking cheerleader—put a playful spin on the detective genre. When Angie is immersed in her role as sleuth, her cynicism and blasé attitude toward school can come across as phony, but the vulnerability shown when she falls for a cross-dressing outsider and her reflections on her friendship with Lizzie soften the hardboiled edges. Ages 14–up."