Selected by Rebecca Butler.
Whether school is a safe place or a nightmare scenario or somewhere in between on any given day, it is a place most of us have experienced on some level. In celebration of the new school term, I have selected ten of my favourite school stories which might serve to console or inspire…No essay required!
Twelve-year-old Virginia, better known as Rusty, is sent back home to England after having been evacuated to America in WW2. This is the story of her readjustment to life in England and her misadventures at a girls’ boarding school. The Head Mistress’s dismissive attitude towards Rusty’s American education still haunts me with her judgement, ‘Small Latin, less Greek, Oh Dear!’ A searing portrayal of loneliness.
Friends and Traitors
Helen Peters, Nosy Crow, 978-1788004640, £7.99 pbk
Sidney Dashworth is evacuated with her school, St. Olave’s, to a secluded country mansion. This book features impressive writing by Peters about the motivations of Nazism. It also encourages readers to examine our notions of class and privilege and not to assume that a high social class necessarily makes a person more honest. Peters’ novel contains a deeply felt rendering of childhood grief and guilt connected with the presumed death of loved ones. The contrasting ways that adults handled grief in the 1940’s and now are made apparent.
Upper Fourth at Malory Towers
Enid Blyton, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-1444955392, £10.99 (books 4 – 6)
This maybe a controversial choice for some, given the conflicting attitudes to Blyton’s work. I have revelled in the adventures of Darrell and Felicity Rivers since the age of seven. In this one, Darrell becomes head girl of the Upper Fourth despite her notorious temper. She also meets many challenges during this year including the common theme of exam anxiety.
Tamsin Winter, Usborne, 978-1474979078, £7.99 pbk
This is a very modern school story which deals directly with social media and its use among teens. Amelia Bright is thirteen, a cello prodigy who also loves debating. She gets high marks, that is until she meets a boy called Evan Palmer. She sends him a semi-nude selfie which she assumes, wrongly, will stay private. What will be the consequences for them both? It is really refreshing to have a protagonist who is academically able but still makes glaring social mistakes.
Kate Saunders, Scholastic, 978-1407196510, £7.99 pbk
Flora Fox is a spoiled contemporary teen. She is annoyed to be sent away to boarding school so that her parents can bring back her ailing grandmother to live with them. Flora time travels to the 1930’s and her best friend in the time period is her grandmother. This encourages readers to question their perceptions of age and youth and the values our society places on each. Flora and her concerns leap off the page in this extremely memorable tale.
Out of My Mind
Sharon M. Draper, Atheneum, 978-1416971719
This was originally published in America and deserves to be much more widely known. Melody Brooks is an eleven-year-old who is non-verbal and a wheelchair user. She has cerebral palsy. She is highly intelligent but is still being taught the alphabet in Year 6 at a Special School. Will Melody ever get a chance to show her true intelligence? This story closely mirrors my own experience, apart from being non-verbal. I and many other readers, adults as well as children, have been captivated by it. The infamous airport scene will remain in the minds of readers long after they have finished the book.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Alice Tonks
Emily Kenny, Rock the Boat, 978-0861542055, £7.99 pbk
This is an outstanding debut novel by an autistic author. Alice Tonks is an eleven-year-old who has autism. In a rare combination of a fantasy narrative with a neuro-divergent protagonist, the author has merged two unusual subjects. When Alice arrives at boarding school, she discovers she can talk to animals and they can understand her. What is the purpose of this talent and what is Alice’s mission? You could describe this book as Malory Towers with animals and it will hook you from page one.
L.D. Lapinski, Orion Children’s Books, 978-1510110922, £7.99 pbk
Jamie is an eleven-year-old who identifies as non-binary. They and their family are faced with a dilemma. Which of the two single sex secondary schools should Jamie attend and should they be forced to attend either school when doing so, would require them to identify as a particular gender? This story is about their struggles to find a place where they truly belong in society. There are also age-appropriate explanations of gender-related terms. This book has stayed with me long after I finished reading it. Lapinski also places great importance on the role of friends in supporting those who identify as non-binary.
Jummy at the River School
Sabine Adeyinka, Chicken House, 978-1913696047, £5.99 pbk
Set in Nigeria, Jummy passes the exam to the elite River School where pupils are expected to garden and clean as well as study. Her friend, Caro, is equally bright but cannot afford the fees so she works at the River School as a servant. She is forced to do the work of the school bully who is privileged but did not pass the entrance exam. Can Jummy and Caro uncover and correct the injustice? A fascinating glimpse into the education system of another culture.
A Bad Spell for the Worst Witch
Jill Murphy, Puffin, 978-0241607930, £7.99 pbk
A classic I have loved from childhood. Apart from Mildred Hubble’s endearingly scatter-brained ways, this is the first book in which Murphy gives us a glimpse into the back story of Miss Hardbroom, the deputy head of Cackle Academy, whom I have both feared and are now fascinated by. Also, there is a misadventure with a frog who turned out to be a teacher. I have met very few children who do not identify in some way with Mildred Hubble.
Dr Rebecca Butler writes, lectures and tutors on children’s literature and is a regular reviewer for Books for Keeps. She is also an active member of the IBBY UK committee.