Over the last year and a half, I’ve read almost 70 books featuring tweens and teens as the main characters.
(I guess if you’re here reading the blog, you probably already knew that, though.)
As you might expect, this means that I’ve spent a lot of time getting reacquainted with the experience of being back in school — winding my way through crowded hallways between classes, trying to find the perfect seat in the cafeteria, and hoping to find the right friend group. It really is amazing how much life is lived in these school buildings, and the books I’ve read for the podcast have been a reminder of that for me!
With that in mind — and knowing how many students, parents, and teachers are smack in the middle of back to school season as I write this — I thought it would be fun to compile a few of the school stories that I’ve loved most in coming back to them for SSR! The titles below feature great teachers or school friends… or even just a generally awesome school vibe. I was always a big fan of school myself, so it’s really satisfying to see authors reflect that experience right back to me all these years later.
When I went to see the movie adaptation of The Princess Diaries when I was 11 (before I found my way to the book), I felt like I had never related to a character the way I related to Mia Thermopolis. Yes, she was a few years older than I was and yes, she lived with her mom in a funky converted fire station in San Francisco, but other than that, we were living the same life. Like Mia — and so many other girls in that age group — I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and unsure of how I was supposed to fit in at my school. While I don’t remember my first time reading the book quite as clearly as my first time seeing the movie, I can only imagine that it was a similar experience.
While I wasn’t crazy about Mia’s attitude toward some of her classmates when I reread The Princess Diaries for an early episode of the podcast, I did appreciate the way that author Meg Cabot described the ins and out of high school society. She does such an amazing job in this book of expressing the emotional highs and lows of being a teen, and she also drives home the importance of being able to set all of those distractions aside so you can focus on the people who really love you the most.
LISTEN: Episode 02
Has there ever been a book that does more to put a love of reading and learning center stage? Personally, I can’t think of one!
Weirdly, this was not a book that I was crazy about when I was a kid, but in coming back to it as an adult, I realized how cool it is that Roald Dahl made Matilda’s thirst for knowledge her primary — and perhaps most endearing — quality. Although Matilda’s parents try to conceal her smarts, they can’t hold her back! Her school is objectively terrible, but the special relationship that she builds with Miss Honey is proof that sometimes, all it takes to make a difference is one teacher!
LISTEN: Episode 03
Ella’s time at finishing school is actually a pretttttty small fraction of Ella Enchanted as a whole, but I can’t help but give a shoutout to any book that features a magical school setting like the one we see in this book. I always think it’s so interesting how teen and middle grade authors find unique ways to ground their characters in a fantasy world by plopping them into what may seem to many kid readers like the most mundane place in the world… school! Seeing the ways in which different fantasy authors imagine those schools is a super fun element of world-building.
LISTEN: Episode 12
So many YA books are about characters trying to find their way into the “norm” of high school culture. Stargirl is different. In the end, it’s about the title character’s journey to find her way out of that norm.
In order to get there, Stargirl does have to dabble with her fair share of conformity, but her grand entrance at the prom in the book’s final chapters is a reminder that she can never fully fit in with her classmates. And why would she want to? Stargirl is one of my favorite characters across all of my SSR reading. I’m so glad she found a way to be herself, and I like the way that author Jerry Spinelli shows her navigating that tension throughout the book.
LISTEN: Episode 26
The vast majority of the first book in the Anastasia series takes place at home, but what strikes me most about the main character’s experience with school in this title is the way that her relationship with her teacher evolves over time and ultimately teaches her an important lesson about the value of staying open and giving people the benefit of the doubt. For much of the story, Anastasia is at odds with her teacher, largely because she doesn’t feel like her creativity is appreciated in the classroom (which I totally get!). At the end of the book, though, her teacher calls her house to check in after she finds out that Anastasia’s grandmother has passed away. Our main character realizes that she doesn’t actually hate her teacher, after all.
There’s also a fun scene in this book where Anastasia gets to go to class with her father, who is a college professor. I think it’s a fun little peek into higher education for younger readers!
LISTEN: Episode 46
Although the main character in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is dealing with several challenging, unusual experiences, much of the high school society in which he finds himself is reminiscent of quintessential teen-dom. You’ve got the football games and the cool seniors and the parties and the quirky social norms and the crushes and the drama and so much more. You’ve also got a really impactful teacher who helps the main character navigate the tougher moments in and out of the classroom.
While I personally couldn’t relate to a lot of Charlie’s specific circumstances, I heard the echoes of my own high school experience in suburban Pennsylvania throughout this story. High nostalgia factor on this one!
LISTEN: Episode 55
Has there ever been a school more fun to read about than Hogwarts? I’ll wait…
I already mentioned above my fascination with school settings in fantasy worlds, and J.K. Rowling is (clearly) a master of it.