It all started with Sara Crewe. Not even book (A Little Princess) Sara Crewe, but Shirley Temple-movie Sara Crewe in “The Little Princess” (1939). That was when I first fell in love with the idea of boarding school, even if I may not have thought of it in that way at the time. That’s not to say that I necessarily wanted to go away to boarding school, even if there were times when being away from my family sounded like the best thing ever. (Sorry, fam. But, don’t lie and say you didn’t sometimes wish I was elsewhere.) Boarding school sounded so exotic and interesting and vaguely glamorous–even if one was relegated to the attic and forced to do the other students’ chores. Some kids dream of running away to the circus or Disneyland or the zoo. I dreamed of running away to…school. The required reading of A Separate Peace in high school, rather than curing me of my infatuation (which it should have because that book does not hold up), only served to cement it.
I still deeply love a boarding school novel. Thankfully, so do middle-grade and young adult authors.
Ten years ago or so, my friend Colleen sent me an ARC of Spud and told me I was going to love it. My boarding school addiction was lying dormant at the time, with the exception of the Harry Potter novels (which don’t count because they could have taken place in a sewer and I would have still loved them), but this book reawakened my love. It’s not just because it’s a boarding school book, but because Spud is so identifiably awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin that anyone with even the most vague recollection of adolescence will be able to see at least a little of themselves in him. (Um, also there are apparently four books in this series but only the first two were published in the U.S. and now I wish I knew someone in South Africa who could send me the final two.)
Once my boarding school love was re-awakened, I couldn’t get enough. Some of the books that fed my addiction were Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty (and its sequels), E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Anna and the French Kiss (and its companion novels) by Stephanie Perkins, Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy books, Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell (although only about half of it takes place in a boarding school), and Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series. There were more too. Books whose titles and/or authors I’ve forgotten, but which still fed the craving in their way. But there is a series and a duology that are my go-tos for all the boarding school yums: Robin Stevens’s middle grade Wells and Wong mysteries and Andrew Smith’s YA Winger and Stand-Off.
The Wells and Wong mysteries combine a lot of my book catnips into one delightful series. They are mysteries (check) set in a British (check) boarding school (check) during the 1930s (historical? check) starring frenemies (check) one of whom is Chinese (protagonist of color? check). It’s like Robin Stevens crawled right up inside my brain and harvested my dreams to make her series. The only thing it’s missing is a ghost or some element of the supernatural, but they really don’t need it to be pretty much the platonic ideal of books for my inner ten-year-old.
For my inner adolescent boy (and, yes, I have one, but that’s a whole other essay), there are Andrew Smith’s books about Ryan Dean West. Upon first reading Winger, I was immediately reminded of all of the things that I loved about Spud, but with the added benefit of being set in the U.S. and so being even more easy to identify with. (And, to be completely honest, thirteen-year-old me would have been madly in love with Ryan Dean.) Not only are they thoroughly enjoyable boarding school stories, but they’re also a great recommendation for reluctant readers–especially boys–because they’re crass and crude and completely realistic.
I am never going to get my fill of boarding school novels and this list is a very incomplete inventory of those I’ve read and loved. However, I am more than open to recommendations, so hit me up in the comments. What are your favorite boarding school novels? Murder, hauntings or other spooky goings-on a plus, but not necessary.
Billie Bloebaum never got to go to boarding school and is still a little bitter about that fact. She works at Third Street Books in McMinnville, OR where she has to pass a boarding school every day on her commute, which doesn’t help.