School has always been a fertile setting for storytelling, and perhaps that’s because so many of us first learned to tell stories while in a classroom. Some of my favorite young-adult novels from the last year have been set at school, a place that can evoke instant memories and intense emotions even in those for whom school is too long ago to even admit. If you can’t resist a story with a school setting, especially during the back-to-school time of year, here are three novels that will take you back to the classroom.
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper is the rare book that I can recommend to everyone. This novel is told from the point of view of an 11-year-old girl who can’t walk or talk but is ridiculously smart. Melody has cerebral palsy, is confined to a pink wheelchair, and can’t do anything for herself. Except think. The story chronicles her struggles with the school system and being taught the alphabet in her special-ed classroom in fifth grade despite having a photographic memory and a brain to rival Stephen Hawking’s. Draper shines a light on the daily realities of what it must be like to be able to learn and comprehend but not get a syllable out beyond “buh.” With the aid of a talking computer, Melody moves to the “mainstream” classrooms, joins the Quiz Bowl team, and is recognized as the smartest kid in school. Yet Draper somehow manages to show what it must be like on both sides—to feel brilliant, but caged, and also to be able-bodied but completely unsure how to interact with someone who is so confined. It’s a triumphant story about living with a disability and an eye-opening read.
Ah, secrets and guilt. They are the bedrock of a good boarding-school tale. Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard is the story of 16-year-old poet-in-the-making Alex at a boys’ boarding school in 1982. He and his buddies were goofing off by the river on a fall day and one of them drowned. But was this death truly an accident, and if not, who is responsible? That’s what this remarkable book unravels through poems, narrative, and Alex’s journalistic accounting of the events, all while the hero is falling deeply in love with his English teacher. Through carefully placed clues, and whispered confessionals, the truth of what happened at the river eventually comes out. It can’t end well for all involved, but who will take the fall will keep you guessing until the end. From the beautiful language to the thoughtful exploration of classic themes like guilt, deceit, and loyalty, Paper Covers Rock has the weight and heft to stand besides novels like The Chocolate War and A Separate Peace.
Of course, school is not all guilt and dangerous secrets. In Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, narrator Violet navigates the strict rules of her uptight all-girl’s educational institution with her best friend, Katie, by staging Harry Potter tours, publishing satire in the lit mag, and tracking the dating records and bases earned of their classmates. What makes this novel work is its completely authentic story of friendship and by showing its vital importance to young women, even when two people start to grow apart. But this story also stands out in another way because of its humor. Violet’s witty observations about her life—from her commentary on her cousin’s encyclopedic knowledge of cable channels, to her remark about an Internet video of a mama polar bear eating her young, to her wish to include gratitude for Mint Milanos in her Thanksgiving Day thanks—had me laughing out loud.