A List of Boarding School (and Boarding School-esque) Young Adult Novels
By REBECCA, September 21, 2012
On Monday, our guest reviewer S. Dubbs reviewed Vampire Academy, reminding me of the complete and utter delight of boarding school books and reminding me that I’d been intending to a post about them. Here ’tis.
But why exactly is boarding school such a potent setting for young adult novels? Let’s find out!
1. A recipe for success!
A. Take several hundred people at the most developmentally volatile moment in their lives.
B. Put them in very close quarters for school, eating, sleeping, grooming, dating, leisure, mischief-making, escapism, experimentation (sometimes even in the same room as each other).
C. Make these quarters totally isolated from the rest of the world, allowing their inhabitants to feel as if it is the whole, entire world.
D. Throw in a heaping cup of lust, a dash of self-loathing, a sprinkle of jealousy, and a level cup of anxiety and stir until combined, being sure to stand back in case the entire thing EXPLODES, splattering hormones all over your recently cleaned kitchen!
2. No Parents = New Personalities!
Without their families around, boarding school characters’ personalities are up for grabs. Instead of being tied to who they always were growing up, they can create new personae that are totally different from who they were at home. For some characters, this means they get the opportunity to be who they really are and express themselves without the threat or censure of familial expectation. For others it means they can decide who they want to be—and, while this sometimes seems childish or affected, I think it’s often a mechanism for teens who are still exploring who they are to try on different potential versions of themselves. (Sarah Dessen’s non-boarding school novel, What Happened to Goodbyeis an extreme example of how this can happen.)
In The Liar, Stephen Fry’s hilarious and gorgeously written homoerotic homage to boarding school classics like Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (awesome in it’s own right, really!), Adrian Healey learns, among other things, the incredible importance of toast.
Or, they could be like the students in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, who don’t have any parents and develop their entire personalities surrounded only by their peers.
3. Intense Friendships!
When people are trying to figure out who they are, they look to their peers in order to copy what they like and distance themselves from what they don’t. In boarding school novels, characters have no one except their peers, and they get a lot of exposure to them. This swirling mess of identification, disidentification, the desire to express themselves, and the desire to be understood lead to some of the most intense friendships ever! Sometimes this is about wanting to be like someone, like in Kathe Koja’s Headlong, where the arrival of new student Hazel changes everything for boarder Lily. Or, it can be the literal I-would-die-for-you of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
Sidebar: I will go ahead and assert that, legion though boarding schools in fiction are, Hogwarts is far and away the awesomest boarding school ever.
The flip side of these intense friendships, of course, is staggering isolation. In Jo Walton’s wonderful Among Others a young girl’s truest friends are the characters in the science fiction and fantasy novels she so loves.
3. A Motley Crew!
Speaking of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, one of the best things about boarding school is the total randos who end up there. There are the people who are there because it’s prestigious, or because their parents don’t like them or want them around, or because their parents love them but are too busy to raise them, or because they were dumped there as charity, or because they convinced their parents to send them there. The list goes on, but no matter how you slice it, it’s an interesting subset of random folks, usually without the great roommate-matching skills of the Sorting Hat.
Sometimes you might find love, like in John Green’s Looking For Alaska. Sometimes you might find yourself drastically downgraded from near-princess status to an attic room and a mop and bucket, like my favorite childhood boarder,
Shirley Temple Sarah Crewe, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. P.S., has everyone seen Alfonso Cuarón’s A Little Princess, starring Liesel Matthews (who, apparently, is heir to the Hyatt fortune and did theatre after college)? Because it’s awesomely gorgeous, similar to his Great Expectations, aesthetically.
4. Politics and Secret Societies!
Since boarding schools feel like their own worlds, they are often hotbeds of social and political unrest. Or social and political complacency that one brave character smashes wide open. Such is the case in one of Tessa’s faves, E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and in Daisy Whitney’s The Mockingbirds. In Disreputable History, Frankie is excluded from her boyfriend’s boys-only secret society and so she becomes a pranking criminal mastermind in order to topple patriarchy! Speaking of secret societies, in The Mockingbirds, Alex is date raped and, rather than stay silent and preserve the reputation of the school, she turns to The Mockingbirds, a secret society dedicated to “righting the wrongs of their fellow peers.” Also, did I mention, SECRET SOCIETIES!?
5. Mysteries and Long-Buried Secrets!
Mkay, this is my favorite thing about boarding school novels. What is it about an isolated setting crawling with teenagers (and, let’s not forget, teachers in various stages of despair and despotism) that makes for murder, accidental death, and their coverups? Seriously, if I ever had a kid I would never let it go to boarding school for fear that it’d be murdered, “disappear”, or be subjected to some creepy initiation rite, like in Priscila Uppal’s The Divine Economy of Salvation. In Sheila Kohler’s Cracks (a “crack” is a crush—it’s set in South Africa), the members of a boarding school swim team are infatuated with their swim instructor, and vie for her favoritism when they’re not tormenting other students. When a new student comes along and becomes her new favorite, shit gets out of control.
One of my favorite books of all time, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, is not strictly a boarding school novel because it’s set in a college (Hampden, based on Bennington college where the author went). But because Hampden is a very small school in the middle of nowhere Vermont, it feels a lot like boarding school. (I write about The Secret History HERE, too, in a review of The Secret Diaries, which are really a not-very-different adaptation ofTartt’s novel.)
In Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (made into a killer movie by Peter Weir!), a group of girls go for a picnic at Hanging Rock (it’s set in Australia) on Valentine’s Day, 1900. Three of the girls and one teacher mysteriously disappear while climbing the rock. One girl is later found, but has no memory of what happened, and another girl returns in hysterics but cannot explain why. And, in googling Picnic at Hanging Rock just now, I have learned the following, which delights me to no end: apparently independent theater company Breaking Bread Theatre is planning a musical of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Most importantly, in Weir’s film the costumes are amazing! They all wear these great white things (above)!
6. Potential to be Diabolical Training Grounds!
While long-buried secrets abound in realist boarding school novels, we can’t forgot that sci-fi and fantasy have their own style of boarding schools. In Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger, the first book of one of my favorite YA series, Hahp is one of nine boys sent to a school for wizards that’s about as different from Hogwarts as a decapitation is from a paper cut. And there is no guarantee that any of them will ever graduate. And, in case it wasn’t clear, by “graduate” I mean “live.” You can check out my full review of Skin Hunger HERE.
And, of course, what would a list of boarding schools be without . . . yes, you guessed it: BATTLE SCHOOL! In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, children are monitored from an early age to see if they are eligible to attend the highly prestigious Battle School (you know, in space) and train to fight the next Bugger War. Ender Wiggin is one such launchie, and his time in Battle School combines all the most stressful and harsh things about realist novels’ boarding schools only, in addition, he is TRAINING FOR BATTLE. Come on, that is so much harsher than homework, no?
So, there you have it: the glory of boarding school novels, from Hogwarts to the Hegemon. What about you—what are your favorite boarding school novels? Tell me in the comments!