In this week after Labor Day, which will always be Back-To-School week to me, a kid-lit-ophile’s fancy lightly turns to that venerable staple of juvenile fiction, the School Story.
The School Story, for the unacquainted, is just what it sounds like: a children’s novel where the action centers on what happens at school. School is, after all, a rich and varied place, and the centerpiece and touchstone of most western kids’ lives, so it’s not a big surprise that the school story has a lot of general appeal, or that examples abound.
In booklists and library textbooks and such, though, the school story is usually lumped in as a subgenre of realistic fiction, and that’s just wrong, wrong, wrong. Because such is the school story’s ubiquity that it extends into the distant future and the realms of fantasy. Here’s a sampling of stories set in schools that don’t look like the ones that you or anyone you know attended — unless you know a wormhole through the time-space continuum and have visited any of these first-hand. In which case, please see me after class:
Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones (Chrestomanci series). The note falls out of a geography book in class 6B: SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH. But witchcraft is forbidden! Who could have written it? Who could it be about? Is it even true? Soon all of 6B, and the whole school, are in a tumult. If a kid wanders forlornly into the library or bookstore or anywhere in your general vicinity looking for “something like Harry Potter,” this is the book to dangle in front of them while saying, “Diana Wynne Jones was writing funny stories about kids and magic practically before J.K. Rowling could even read. Try this!” One page and they’ll be off to the races.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Child genius is conscripted into military academy and trained to defeat alien armies. This SF classic has had a revival in recent years as a young adult novel, which is really what it was all along. Problematic, but riveting, and the depiction of group life in the academy can’t be beat.
The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen, by Delia Sherman. It’s tough to be the new kid at school. It’s even tougher when you’ve been homeschooled your whole life — or, more accurately, when, like Neef, Official Changeling of Central Park, you’ve lived since infancy under the guardianship and protection of your fairy godmother, and now must face the vicissitudes of Miss Van Loon’s School for Mortal Changelings and its 200-page Book of Rules, hundreds of changeling classmates from all over the city, the mandated gray Inside Sweater, and, oh yes, a quest to obtain the titular mirror from the titular mermaid queen, who is none too happy to hand it over. This sequel to Changeling has lots of the same delicious New York and literary flavor that made its predecessor so much fun to read.
Wizard’s Hall, by Jane Yolen. Thornmallow is far from the most promising pupil at Wizard’s Hall: he’s not so good at Cursing or Spelling, and his cleanliness leaves a lot to be desired. But he means well. And he really, really tries, which turns out to count for a lot. Wizard’s Hall is wry and witty, and compassionate towards those who aren’t at the top of the class.
A College of Magics, by Caroline Stevermer. Like Ender’s Game, this book was first published for adults, but it’s lovely for teens as well, especially those who wish they could major in Magic in an alternate-universe Georgette-Heyer-ish 1908. I have to admit that one reason I love A College of Magics so is that the fictional Greenlaw College bears a certain resemblance to the author’s and my shared alma mater; it’s also a little like Oxford, I hear. But even if you’ve never set foot on either campus, it’s well worth visiting this one.
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s a fantasy classic; it’s an acclaimed coming-of-age story. But how could I have forgotten that much of Ged’s story takes place at a school for wizards? Jeez. So, yep: it’s a school story, too.
The Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale. A gaggle of hardscrabble mountain girls are forced to attend the titular Academy after a prophecy decrees that one of them will marry the Prince. Don’t be fooled by the title; this is a kickass book with a kickass heroine. Not only does Miri use a kind of quarry-based telepathy to unite her academy classmates against their bullying teacher, but she negotiates her town into solvency and outwits a band of evil bandits into the bargain.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone et al, by J. K. Rowling. (included just in case anyone reading this has been living under a rock lo these past thirteen years.) The school-ish parts are my favorite thing about this series: the pranks and rivalries and prefectures and the buying of school supplies and the sports matches and all those House Points! Really the series — or the first five books, anyway — is just a riff on the old-fashioned British School Story, with a whopping huge dollop of magic stirred in. But while Rowling’s series might be the most famous of its subgenre these days, it’s got plenty of good company.
Elisabeth Kushner is a librarian and writer living in Vancouver, BC. She has spent way too much of her life in school, on one side of the desk or another.