You Look Different in Real Life

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
You Look Different in Real Life Book Poster Image
Gripping novel of kids filmed every five years for docu.

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age 12+
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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids will learn about the process of documentary filmmaking and how directors of nonfiction narrative movies are not supposed to "stage" situations but merely capture them. The story may also encourage readers to discuss important issues, like sexual orientation and divorce.

Positive Messages

You Look Different in Real Life illustrates the importance of friendship and honesty between children and parents. When they let their guards down and confide in one another, the five teens help one another come to terms with their personal challenges and differences. A teen with autism overcomes serious phobias and reconnects with an old friend. Bullying, divorce, autism, sexuality and popularity are all addressed in a positive way that will open the door for teens to talk to their parents.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Each of the five documentary subjects makes a revelation or changes his or her life throughout the novel. Justine is extremely self-aware and willing to admit when she's wrong and make amends; she finds her calling behind a video camera. Felix slowly realizes he's gay and that he should admit it to himself and his family and friends. Keira follows her need to find the mother she hasn't seen in five years. Rory faces her fears and overcomes them with the help of her friends. Nate tells the truth about being bullied and explains why few people know the real him.


A teenager pushes two college guys who assume that he's gay.


Two characters kiss a couple of times, and Justine mentions that her father occasionally spends the night with her mother (they're amicably divorced) and "not on the couch."


The occasional "s--t," "assh--e," "bitch," and milder curses and insults such as "damn," "hell," "stupid," "jerk."


Saab station wagon, the movies The Big Lebowski, Gone With the Wind, and a few songs and artists, including David Bowie's "Heroes."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Undergrads drink at a college party (so we can presume most of them were under 21). Justine bums a cigarette off a waitress and smokes it. Justine mentions the one time she drank, and how it messed up her stomach.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that You Look Different in Real Life is a contemporary YA novel about a group of five 16-year-old classmates who've starred in a documentary series chronicling their lives every five years since they were kindergarteners. As the five teens face being followed by a film crew for the third time, they must each come to terms with the changes they've gone through from 11 to 16. There's occasional cursing, but nothing stronger than some uses of "s--t," "assh--e," and "bitch." The romance is limited to flirting and a couple of kisses, and the underage drinking/smoking is also scarce -- one undergrad party where there's drinking, and one scene where a teenager smokes a cigarette. The author explores tough issues like sexual orientation, divorce, bullying, parental abandonment, and autism.

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What's the story?

In YOU LOOK DIFFERENT IN REAL LIFE, Justine is a typical 16-year-old high-schooler in all but one way: She and four classmates are the stars of a documentary film series that chronicled their lives at age 6 and then at 11. Now that the five kids are 16, the husband-and-wife directors Leslie and Lance are back in the Upstate New York college town to film them one more time: smart-aleck Justine; swim team star Nate; history-obsessed Rory; budding musician Felix; and glamorous Keira. At first Justine, worried she'll look uninteresting, wants to refuse to participate, but a mysterious email from one of her friends convinces her that they're all in it together. After the directors fail to capture much that's movie worthy, their producers insist the teens attend a team-building retreat together. Things take a dramatic turn when Keira runs away to look for her long-lost mother in Manhattan and the other four follow, with Justine behind the camera for the first time.

Is it any good?

Jennifer Castle doesn't shy away from hard topics, but You Look Different in Real Life is considerably lighter than her debut book, in which a teen girl loses her entire family in a car accident. Using the device of a documentary series (like the famous British 7 Up) to highlight how a group of kids have interacted since kindergarten, Castle is able to explore the dynamics of friendship and school life at ages 6, 11, and 16. Although the action takes place when the five documentary subjects are 16, there are plenty of flashbacks to the other two ages that shed light on why the kids are perceived a particular way. Felix, for example, the only full minority (he's Dominican), feels marginalized and ready for what he believes is his well-earned close-up in the newest documentary. While Nate, the son of the town's leading farming family, has completely changed his reputation from round-face bunny-loving bully victim to gorgeous swim star.

The three girls also have fascinating transformations and backstories. The novel's protagonist, Justine, had the most screen time in the second film, Five at 11, but she no longer feels she has much to contribute. She's worried about interacting with Rory, her former best friend, whom she dropped soon after his autism diagnosis, and she's suspicious of the relationship between Nate (whom she can't help but find attractive) and the beautiful Keira, whose mother abandoned her during the shoot five years earlier. In an age where so many teens engage in reality television and social media, You Look Different in Real Life captures the way leading a semi-public life (even just every five years) has deeply affected these teens who aren't always sure if they're acting for the cameras or being themselves. When everyone thinks they know you, how do you know yourself? In the end, each of the five kids has his or her moment in the spotlight (whether through tragedy, triumph, or both) and ends up the better for it.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the huge difference between being 11 and being 16. In what ways do the characters change in those five pivotal years, and in what ways are they the same?

  • How do the rumors and half-truths spread about the five documentary subjects affect how the kids act? How does being part of the documentary change each of them?

  • Felix has trouble coming to terms with being gay, because of how hard it will be for his family to accept. What resources are there for kids who want to come out of the closet? To whom should teens turn if they need to discuss their sexuality without judgment or fear?

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