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Staff Selections, Special Edition: Boarding school books

To connect with this year's PLS Big Read, Old School by Tobias Wolff, 'Staff Selections' veteran George offers some reading suggestions which share a common setting: boarding schools.

George: "When I was a kid, I was always fascinated with the idea of going to boarding school.  I assume that the attractive thing about it for me was the idea of not living with my parents, a greater degree of freedom, the feeling that I would be a step closer to being “grown up” since I felt I’d be taking care of myself, and best of all, I'd be living with my friends.  I imagined sort of a never-ending sleepover. 

"I’m quite sure that all of those ideas were not necessarily realistic and that I glossed over some of the disadvantages of boarding school life, but I’ve always enjoyed reading books set in them, and it seemed like a natural fit with this year's PLS Big Read, Old School.

 "I feel that I must mention the Harry Potter series (available in print or ebook format), probably the most famous series of books set in a boarding school.  I won’t review them because I’m sure everyone knows what they are about- but I will say that if you’ve only seen the movies, READ THE BOOKS!  The audiobooks (available in CD or downloadable mp3 format) are brilliant - probably some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard in an audiobook, and I say that as someone who listens to a lot of them!
Spud by John van de Ruit
 "This is a hilarious book set in South Africa in 1990, during the time that Nelson Mandela was released from prison and Apartheid was falling.  The titular character, a boy named John Milton (nicknamed “Spud”) is beginning boarding school.  Spud keeps a diary, and the book is structured as if you are reading his entries throughout the year. 

"Spud is very funny.  From the pranks and illicit adventures that Spud and his dorm mates (called the Crazy 8) get into, to his relationship with one of his teachers, The Guv (probably the funniest character in the novels.)  It's set against the backdrop of the rising racial tensions in South Africa after Mandela’s release.   Like many books of this type, Spud deals with things like finding his place in the society of his school, deciding how he feels about the political situation in South Africa, having his first experience with dating a girl, academic/athletic success and failure, coping with his bizarre family situation, etc.  It is a great book, very humorous and well done."

Fun fact: John van de Ruit went to Michael House school in South Africa.  The school Spud attends is based on that school- even some of the landmarks of the school mentioned by Spud are real, such as a statue outside Spud’s window that has its own inappropriate nickname!  We have the first two books of this series here at the library.  The last two have not been published in the US yet, but hopefully they will be soon.  There has been a movie made that is also not yet available in the US.  In it, the character of “The Guv” is played by John Cleese, which is a nearly perfect casting based on how I imagined the character in the books. 
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
"This is a classic novel set in the early years of WWII at an exclusive prep school.  It tells the story of a friendship between two boys named Gene and Finny.  The friendship is very intense, and well-drawn, but it proves ultimately to be a destructive one, as it brings out both positive and negative characteristics of both boys.  The story ends with a tragic and violent act that ends the innocence of both Gene and Finny.  The novel touches on the concept of evil, and on the realization of the narrator that we must live with our decisions and their consequences. 

"I read this book when it was assigned to me in high school, and I enjoyed it then.  Reading it again through the eyes of an adult has been a surprisingly interesting experience.  It’s fascinating how our perceptions change over time.  This book has been called a much less in-your-face version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies."  

Fun fact: Knowles attended Phillips Exeter Academy, and based the novel on his experiences there.  The character of “Brinker” is based on Gore Vidal, the famous American author and essayist.  Vidal attended Exeter at the same time as Knowles. 
Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

"Potter fans, don’t despair!  I’ve included a book set in a Wizard school…  but it’s a far cry from Hogwarts.  This book has been called a very dark Harry Potter; think Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games.  In this book, we follow a teen boy named Hahp through Duey’s darker version of magic school.  In this school, the student’s first lesson is that they must learn to conjure up their own food….  Or they’ll starve to death.  Our other main character, Sadima, was born on a farm and can communicate with animals.  Sadima keeps this a secret until she is forced by circumstance to reveal it, drawing the attention of the apprentice of a powerful magician.  It’s a good book - the first of a trilogy, although the last book has not been written yet."

Fun factSkin Hunger was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007. 

Looking For Alaska by John Green

"This novel takes place in a co-ed boarding school. The main character, ironically nicknamed “Pudge” because he is extremely thin, comes to Culver Creek boarding school to reinvent himself after a lackluster social life in the public school he attended before.  His roommate (called “The Colonel”) introduces him to school life at “The Creek”- like prank wars against the rich kids that only stay at school during the week before going home on weekends to their mansions (they’re called “weekday warriors” by the Colonel and his friends), sneaking cigarettes at the “smoking hole” and the tradition of getting ejected from the audience of all basketball games due to disruptive behavior.  But most importantly, the Colonel introduces him to Alaska Young, who Pudge promptly falls in love with. 

"We’ve all known someone like Alaska - a person whose impulsiveness and “highs” make them incredibly fun to be around, but whose behavior can also be very irritating or destructive when that impulsiveness is combined with low periods or moodiness.  This book is incredibly well-written.  There is humor, love and loss.  The characters are very well crafted, and the story is great.  Green does a great job dealing with some of the psychological and emotional responses to things that occur in this novel- I won’t be more specific than that so that I don’t spoil anything."

Fun fact: This book won the Printz Award for young adult literature from the American Library Association in 2006, and was a New York Times bestseller.

The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks by E. Lockhart

There are a lot of books and series set in girls' boarding schools.  You want to go to vampire boarding school? (Vampire Academy series) A spy-girl boarding school? (Gallagher Girls series)  How a bout a boarding school for witches? (Hex Hall series)

I picked The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks because I like humorous books.  Frankie, like Pudge in Looking For Alaska, had a chance to reinvent herself.  Between her freshman and sophomore year, she develops from a gawky teen girl to a very attractive young lady, and ends up getting into a relationship with a senior at her co-ed boarding school.  Soon she discovers that her boyfriend is a member of an all-male secret society that is dedicated to pranks and other illicit adventures.  Barred from the group because of her gender, but determined to prove that she is every bit as capable as the boys, she quickly infiltrates and assumes power over the group, without the knowledge of its members. This isn’t really a “serious” book, but it is funny, entertaining, and fairly well-written.     

Fun fact: This book was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Printz award for young adult literature.

Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy

"OK, so this book doesn’t take place in a boarding school, per se.  It takes place at a military college called the Carolina Military Institute during the Vietnam War.  I would argue that the themes of this book are the same as the other novels in this list.  The experience of the main character, Will McLean and his classmates more closely parallels that of a high school boarding school student than it does regular college students, who are usually free to do whatever they want instead of having to submit to the rigid control of the Institute.  This is also the only book on this list that is not classified as Young Adult fiction.  In my opinion, it is by far the best book on this list. 

"The Institute is a southern military college.  In order to graduate, cadets must survive the brutal plebe system.  There is terrible hazing during the first year, designed to weed out those not worthy to graduate, and to “wear the ring.”  Will and his classmates endured terrible suffering that first year, even to the extent of psychological/physical torture, but they have made it to the start of their senior year. 

"Will is a basketball player, and an English major.  He is seen as somewhat of a failure militarily (his shoes are never quite shiny enough, his uniform never crisp enough) and he detests the plebe system because of what he went through when he was a “knob,” which is Institute slang for freshman.  He regularly uses his wit and humor to joke about the system, and he tries to use his status as an upperclassman to protect “knobs” that he feels are being pushed too hard, which does not endear him to those that look at the military aspect of the Institute with an almost-religious fervor. 

"As the story begins, McLean is given an assignment before his senior year begins by Col. Barrineau (called “The Bear”).  Carolina Military Institute held out as long as it could against desegregation, but the first black cadet has been accepted, and will start his “knob” year.  Many at the Institute have vowed to run Cadet Peirce out to preserve what they view as the racial sanctity of the college.  McLean is well known for his attitudes about equality, so he is assigned by the Bear to make sure Pierce is treated fairly.   During the course of the year, McLean enlists his roommates to help him with his task, and in so doing, they run afoul of a secret society called “The Ten” that has festered on the campus for many years, but whose existence no one will acknowledge.  The influence of the Ten runs so high that Will finds himself unable to trust anyone except his roommates because the bonds of their friendship were forged in the fires of the excessive and nightmarish plebe system. 

"During the course of this story, Will must not only confront hatred and adversity at school, he must also cope with a secret relationship he has with a rich southern woman that is in Charleston to hide her pregnancy until the baby can be born and quietly adopted, and he must decide once and for all how he feels about the Institute overall, how he feels about the war in Vietnam, and what the concepts of honor, friendship, and loyalty mean to him. 

"Note: it should be obvious from the description, but I should say that this book contains some really ugly racial stuff.  For those of us who were not alive in the 60’s (especially in the south), it can seem very foreign and even unrealistic, because most of us (thankfully) have never experienced or witnessed it."  

Fun fact: Pat Conroy graduated from the Citadel.  The “institute” of the novel is a very thinly-veiled version of his alma mater.  The terminology and slang (like “knob” or the concept of “bracing”), the importance of “the ring”, even the physical description of the barracks and quadrangles are 100% Citadel.  For many years, possession of this book by a cadet was a punishable offense on the campus of the Citadel.  Alumni felt that Conroy did a great disservice to the school, and accused him of exaggerating the brutality of the plebe system in order to hurt the college.  Conroy was finally allowed to give a commencement speech a few years ago, healing the rift between him and the Citadel.  In a strange corollary to his novel, Conroy strongly supported the admission of the first female cadet in the 1990s.  She had to get the courts to order that she be admitted.  She left after a couple of days, after receiving death threats and being subjected to intense hazing.  Conroy paid for her college education at a different school. But even though she left, she paved the way for female cadets at the Citadel, and today there are almost 300 women who “wear the ring.”     

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