Jennifer Castle Dishes on Her Favorite Reality Shows

What’s it like to grow up with cameras following you around? At age six, Justine, Nate, Rory, Keira, and Felix became the most well-known kindergarteners in the world. They were chosen to star in documentary that followed them around every five years. Now teenagers, the four have drifted apart . . . are they ready to show their lives to the world again?

Jennifer Castle explores the problems of teens and fame in her new novel You Look Different in Real Life. She stopped by Figment to talk about her favorite reality shows and documentary films that helped inspire the book.  You should check them out too!

I love watching documentary films and reality TV for the same reason I love writing contemporary YA fiction: I find life pretty damn fascinating.

It’s not actual life we see on the screen, of course. It’s life carefully arranged by producers and directors and editors. But we always manage to see a little of ourselves in these versions of reality — whether it’s inspiring or horrifying or just plain funny — and I guess that’s why we can’t look away. Here I give you some favorite examples.

 My Top 5 Documentaries About Young People


21 Up

In 1964, director Michael Apted was part of a filmmaking team who chose 14 British seven-year-olds and interviewed them about their hopes for the future. Then Apted came back seven years later . . .  again, and again, most recently with 56 Up. 21 Up is one of the best because you see the kids become young adults, and the beginnings of their life paths. Does the premise sound like a certain book I just wrote? That’s no coincidence. I have always been riveted and deeply inspired by this series.



The Education of Shelby Knox

Over the span of several years, Lubbock, Texas teenager Shelby Knox evolves from a premarital-chastity-vowing Southern Baptist “good girl” into a feminist activist for sex education and gay-straight student alliances. It’s an epic coming-of-age tale.




 Hoop Dreams

Two African-American high school students in Chicago pursue their dreams of playing professional basketball while attending a predominantly white high school. The film manages to say something about, oh, pretty much everything that’s important today. You just can’t make up these kinds of stories (but fortunately, if you’ve got mad filmmaking skills, you can document them).




Follow eight diverse kids as they prepare for the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee . . . in fascinatingly different ways. You think your parents pressure you? Pshaw! You’ll be biting your nails with suspense toward the end.






I’m putting this on here because every young person needs to see this film, which highlights five students who face bullying on a daily basis, as well as the families of students whose persecution drove them to suicide. Yeah. Not a pick-me-up. You might actually feel ill while watching. But watch anyway, especially for the scenes in which Alex Libby rides the school bus. You might be changed.



My Top 5 Favorite Reality Shows

An American Family

Unfortunately, this is only available on a few bootleg YouTube videos. But this is sort of the one that started it all: a PBS series that followed the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara for several months. When it aired in 1971, nobody in America had seen anything like this. It was the first time anyone thought that watching ourselves, could be entertainment. Enjoy the HBO dramatic film version Cinema Verite because it’s awesome and features the late, wonderful James Gandolfini with 70s hair.



American Idol, Season 7

David Cook vs. David Archuleta. AKA Smoky Voice vs. Buttery Voice, AKA Grown-Up Hot vs. Teeny Bopper Hot. I have never been more satisfied with the outcome of a reality TV competition.



So You Think You Can Dance, Season 7

It’s very hard for me to pick a favorite season of SYTYCD, because I love them all. But I’m going to go with this one because of the introduction of the “all-stars.” Also: Kent. Lauren. Robert. Billy Bell. And, of course, the tragedy that was Alex Wong’s torn Achilles tendon. (I may have actually cried at the time.)



The Real World, Season 3 (San Francisco)

Okay, MTV. I will give you this: you broke ground with the first season of The Real World. And oh, fine. You get props for Season 3 because of how it portrayed the late Pedro Zamora living with AIDS and gave us one of our first true reality TV “villains” in Puck. Don’t get all smug about it.


The Osbournes

Another trend-starter by the cursed MTV. Look, he’s a heavy metal rock star but he mutters in his bathrobe like anyone’s goofy dad! Their dogs poop everywhere! Kelly and Jack totally fight all the time! I have never been so proud to be a voyeur . . . when I could understand what anyone was saying.



What’s your favorite reality show or documentary film? Tell us in the comments.

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