Back To School, Young Adult Style

by REBECCA, September 18, 2013

my so called lifeNo matter what age I am, September is Back To School month. The smell of new pencils + paper + too much hairspray  is in the air, summer is over (thank god!), and the start of a new year makes it seem like anything’s possible. I love that feeling. So, since I don’t get to start school, being long past that age, here is a list of my all-time favorite Back To School YA!

Harry Potter by J.K. RowlingOne of my favorite YA tropes is the Starting A New School trope! The Harry Potter books are perhaps the greatest Starting A New School books ever, because the new school Harry’s starting is a school of WITCHCRAFT AND FREAKING WIZARDRY. I find Starting A New School books so satisfying because the reader gets a crash course in what may as well be a whole new world—new social landscape, new rules, new potential disasters, etc. It also capitalizes on what is, for most of us, a pretty familiar feeling: the self-consciousness that comes from not knowing where you’re going to fit in. In the Harry Potter books, there’s also, of course, the anxiety that comes from knowing that in addition to having to start school and learn that magic exists, you also have an evil nemesis who wants you dead. Now that’s first-day anxiety for you.

If Harry Potter is the most exciting Starting A New School series, my favorite has to be The Secret Circle series. As I wrote in my plea for people to read this amazing series even though the CW made an abysmal show based upon it, Cassie’s experience starting a new school has all the components that make the experience both so dramatic and so banal. Starting a new school always necessitates:

The Secret Circle by L.J. Smitha.) An evaluation of who the character is and who she wants to be, sometimes resulting in delicious tension when she decides to reinvent herself but some event causes her old traits to out.

b.) The anthropological assessment of the new school—you know, what clique does the mysterious soul in your math class belong to; who, exactly, eats at the tables by the windows during lunch; does the fact that the intimidating girl in your writing class can cause spontaneous combustion mean she’s part of a local coven . . . you know, just the usual.

c.) The shaking up of the status quo. Every time a character arrives in a new social setting, she necessarily changes it; it’s like the observer effect. Naturally, some people welcome change while others resist it. This creates . . . drama!

Winger by Andrew SmithAs we have well established on Crunchings & Munchings, we love boarding school books, and they are often the most dramatic of the Starting A New School books, since that experience is not just about school but about life too. One of my favorite books of the year, Winger, by Andrew Smith, is a wonderful boarding school book. It’s not strictly a new school, since Ryan Dean West attended it the year before, but it may as well be, because this year he’s been put in a new dorm (for trouble makers), which changes his whole experience and his friend group, giving him a new best friend (not to mention some new enemies). The Tragedy Paper, by Elizabeth LaBan, tells the story of Tim Macbeth, a recent transfer to boarding school, and what leads to a tragedy that a returning student writes about a year later. In Openly Straight, by Bill Konigsberg, Rafe is a teenager who’s been openly gay since 8th grade, but is sick of being The Gay Guy. He decides to go away to boarding school where no one knows him and decides that he simply won’t mention being gay. It’s a great book about how much the stories we tell about ourselves impact how we’re perceived.

The Secret History by Donna TarttThough the New School in question is a college rather than a high school, The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (one of my favorite books EVER), is a perfect Starting A New School book because Richard Papen, who moves from bland suburban California to attend a small liberal arts college in Vermont, is such an outsider. Through his eyes, even the styles of jeans his new classmates wear are unfamiliar. Janice Harrell’s The Secret Diary series, which, as I discuss HERE, is a near-total ripoff of The Secret History set in high school, is also a satisfying Starting A New School book. Joanna, like Richard Papen, starts a new school and immediately falls in with a tight clique of students who are hiding a terrible secret.

Twilight by Stephanie MeyerWhatever I think about the Twilight series (and most of it is unflattering), the first book is a great Starting A New School book because of Bella’s relationship with Edward. I thought the movie did a particularly good job of capturing that confluence of new school weirdness and my-lab-partner’s-a-mind-reader weirdness. Of course, it would have been more interesting told from Edward’s point of view, which would then make it an Interesting New Student book. I was curious to read Midnight Sun, the retelling of Twilight from Edward’s perspective . . . until I read it and it was really boring. Sidebar: being able to read minds would totally change the way you view the world; why doesn’t anyone get it right?

Wonder by R.J. PalacioIn Jennifer Lavoie’s Andy Squared, twins Andrew and Andrea Morris have always shared everything—including their future plans—or so they thought. When new student Ryder arrives from Texas, he changes Andrew’s life and shows him that his future isn’t as set in stone as Andrea has made him think. R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is told from multiple perspectives, making it both a Starting A New School book (for Auggie) and an Interesting New Student book (for everyone else). Auggie, born with a facial deformity, has always been home schooled. When his parents convince him to try out school for the first time, Auggie has a lot of new experiences, but his classmates’ experiences are just as significant. Other Back To School hybrids include Siobhan Vivian’s Same Difference, featuring a teen from suburban NJ who attends a summer art school program in Philadelphia and Deborah Hautzig’s Hey, Dollface, in which Val and Chloe are new to each other, forming a close friendship because they’re the only ones who think their NYC prep school classmates are lame.

So, what about you? What are your favorite Starting A New School and Interesting New Student books? Tell me in the comments!



  1. I had to hop over here after seeing that pic of MSCL in my feed! One of my all-time faves!

    This is a fab list of “Starting School” themed books. I’ve read a few of these and I need to make note of the rest to check out. WINGER is on my shelf and I can’t wait to dive into it.

    The Reece Malcolm List is a good one that fits the topic- it’s about a girl that moves to a new city with her estranged mom and starts at a performing arts school. Perks of Being a Wallflower fits too.

    Happy fall!

    • Thanks, Lucy! The Reece Malcolm List has been on my list, so it’s good to have a recommendation for it. Yes, great call on Perks of Being a Wallflower. I loved the movie too!

      A very happy fall to you!

  2. Margalit

     /  September 18, 2013

    Terrific post on a wonderful topic! Made even better by the inclusion of the gang from “My So-Called Life”! My favorite is both a Starting a New School and an Interesting New Student book, but it isn’t YA. It’s the children’s book “Molly’s Pilgrim,” by Barbara Cohen, about a 3rd grader who’s an outsider in several ways, and whose attempt to participate in a class assignment is transformative for her and her classmates. At 32 pages, a small treasure.

  1. ULTRAVIOLET CATASTROPHE by Jamie Grey: A Five Reasons Review | J.C. Lillis ULTRAVIOLET CATASTROPHE by Jamie Grey: A Five Reasons Review | YA author
%d bloggers like this: