Monday, March 28, 2011

Boarding Schools in Kids Literature: Fantasy, or a Good Alterative to Killing Off Parents?

For the last two days, I've been gobbling up e. lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks  (after recently hearing her read during the NYC Teen Author's Festival). And while I can't put it down - its smart prose and witty dialogue earned it a Printz Award and National Book Award Finalist mention -- it's making me wonder:

what's with all the boarding schools in young people's literature?

As a daughter of immigrants, and public school attendee, it wasn't until I went to my (yes, rather elite) East Coast college that I even found out that BOARDING SCHOOLS WERE REAL. It's true. Until I kept meeting alarmingly confident classmates from schools with names like Andover and Exeter and Miss Porter's, I actually thought that boarding schools were a thing of historic or foreign climes - only alive and well in England or Europe. As a naiive public school 17 year old, I actually thought that boarding schools were only something that you read about in books.

And now, that I'm delving into this wild and woolly career of kidlit, I'm beginning to wonder: why ARE there so many boarding schools in books?

Although they do, obviously, still exist in the U.S., surely their representation in YA and MG literature is out of proportion to their actual existence in YA and MG readers' real lives? Think about it - boarding schools are EVERYWHERE:

1. There are magical ones: The classic example being Harry Potter's Hogwarts

2. There are paranormal ones: From The Vampire Academy to Hex Hall
3. There are ones that break you of your phobias (like School of Fear

4. There are ones that are less schools than camps training demigods to, er, fight cyclops and demons of the underworld and stuff like that (see Camp Halfblood in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books)

5. There are ones that are less schools than training facilities for teen virgins learning how to, er, slay killer unicorns: (See Diana Peterfreund's Rampant, etc.)

6. Finally, there are ones that are 'contemporary'/'realistic': well, if contemporary/realistic kids were as breathtakingly smart and witty as Frankie Landau Banks or the characters in John Green's Looking for Alaska.

Why is this? Why so many boarding schools of so many varieties? Options:

a. It's a fantasy: not just the wizards and Olympians, but for authors who didn't attend boarding school, is it some sort of imagined bliss to counteract the years of social humiliation and pep rallies that was our real middle school/high school experiences?

b. It's an Alternative to the Ol' Dead Dad Syndrome: We all know that kid and teen main characters in kidlit must have agency - they must drive the plots of their narratives without pesky things like parents in the way. With that in mind, is boarding school just an easier alternative to killing off old mom and dad before the end of the prologue?

c. School is such an important part of kidlit - boarding school is a way to place that front and center.

While I love so many of of the titles above, I'm a bit curious about the boarding school setting in kidlit, because, while giving kids agency, and focusing on the school experience, what else boarding schools do is effectively erase home life, family, and, yes, parents from the picture. And these seem, to me, such an important part of the growing up experience.

What are your favorite boarding school based books? Why do you think they are such a popular kidlit setting?



  1. I don’t know that this is a fair assessment of young adult literature.

    For one thing, you can’t really include fantasy literature in this because there are certain archetypes that are often used to place the story in its psychological and emotional place, even if the setting of the story itself is unreal, fantastic, out of this world. Typically, the hero is an orphan. Harry Potter, the young King Arthur (before he becomes king), etc. By setting a wizarding school or a vampire academy in a boarding school setting, the writers are effectively using this archetype without necessarily killing off the parents. Ron and Hermione both have living parents. (More fantastic is that their parents are not divorced and remarried. Talk about unrealistic.)

    For another, your list is short. Very. I can’t really think of many contemporary novels that include boarding schools, except for a very few and those coming out of Britain and not America. The Chronicles of Narnia and Tom Brown’s School Days come to mind but neither is remarkably contemporary. But the former is in that gray “fantasy” area. A Separate Peace? Catcher in the Rye?

    But what about Judy Blume, who has written a whole library of young adult novels, none of which, if memory serves, has a boarding school setting? None of the American Girls books my daughter read when she was young included a boarding school. Anne of Green Gables doesn’t go nor teach at one (although she herself boards in homes to teach at one of the schools).

    I could list the individual novels—Annie on My Mind, Brave New Girl, The Book Thief, Flashcards of My Life, Speak, Number the Stars–but the list would be endless and tedious for me to write and for you to read.

    Given the full library of books that can be called “young adult” to point out a short list and say “See the pattern” is like my looking at my family and saying, “There is a pattern of brown eyes here so there must be a lot of brown eyed children born in the 80s, even more than usual.” Or to say, “Children born in the 80s are slender and have really thick hair” because I have observed a few that are. Yes, there are a few out there but this does not suggest an overarching theme or pattern within literature.

    This observation, that there are a lot of boarding schools in young adult literature, does not hold. It is certainly not as strong as the “dead dad” observation or even the MIA parents that seem to be endemic in young adult literature.

    But you got me thinking, before 6am even! I’ve been watching My So-Called Life, a show I’d never seen before. It is not a great show and I’ve been trying to think of where the flaws in the show lie. I think responding to this post has helped me synthesize some of my own feelings about the show.

    Of course, Angela isn’t in boarding school so connecting that show to your blog post is pretty tenuous.

    PS: As for my favorite, they would all fall into the fantasy genre: Harry Potter, the Wizard of Earthsea, etc.

  2. I recently read FALLEN and TORMENT by Lauren Kate. Those are set in boarding schools for fallen angels--with some humans thrown in. In the second book, the parents do come to the story a little more during the holidays, but the series has so far been taking place in the boarding schools (there have been two different ones already). I do think it is a convenient way to get the parents out of the picture without killing them off.

  3. @satia - i agree it's a common trope in fantasy lit (probably a post Harry Potter phenom) but I'm not sure why that takes that genre out of the running in re: the presence of boarding school tropes in YA. And of course this is by no means a scientific study :) - just that every book I seem to pick up lately has boarding schools in it!
    @kelly - oo I'd forgotten fallen - that too! thanks for visiting and the follow...

  4. Ah, my 8yo just reminded me that "Dragon Slayers Academy" is another one.. Satia's comments are getting me thinking - is this mostly a fantasy phenomenon that can be traced to the incredible brilliance and success of Harry Potter? (oh, yea, let's put kids in a school and teach them something... magical or paranormal?)

  5. OMG! Sorry to keep responding to my own post but I literally JUST picked up "Jellicoe Road" - another Printz winner, thinking I'd start it today after finishing Frankie Landau-Banks yesterday -- it's a contemporary but the girl is apparently in... a BOARDING SCHOOL (at least on the jacket flap!)...

  6. I think the boarding school setting does a few things: gets the parents out of the picture. but it also allows "typical" readers (those not attending boarding schools) to read/dream/fantasize about what life would be like with almost no adult supervision. Running your own schedule, responsible or the case may be, able to sneak out and incur the wrath of some teacher instead of a parent...I love boarding school stories. But they also have some sinister aspects -- the social/cultural stuff involving hazing and bullying in an atmosphere without parents as a buffer or protection can be ..well, scary!

  7. You will LOVE Jellicoe Road. And (ahem...) I feel I must tell you that this is one that I told you about (like Looking for Alaska) on a certain train ride...and you shrugged your shoulders and said something about not liking comtemporary/edgy YA. HA!!! :) I brought you over to the dark side!!

  8. @kari - ok, ya got me! :) similarly you will LOVE Frankie Landau-Banks, full of that snarky/witty voice I love so much!

  9. I think that the boarding school, in addition to eliminating those pesky parents and adult supervision in general, creates an environment where nobody is "more on their home turf" than anyone else. The self-contained environments of these schools mean that the social position of the characters can be much less about where (and who) they are from than who they are, because everyone has the same rules, the same resources, and with uniforms, the same clothes. The boarding school environment also allows "school" and the social and academic challenges that come with it to be all consuming. You're at school all the time, and with your classmates all the time. It creates an intensity of experience and narrative that just isn't possible if everyone goes home at night.

    As a real life alumna of the fabulous Miss Porter's School... I can say that I think that those latter two things are a part of the real boarding school experience: you are much less aware of who is on scholarship and who is an heiress when everyone wears sweats to class, eats the same dining hall food and shares a 10X10 room with a friend. And the educational experience is more intense when there's no leaving. The complete absence of rules and adult supervision.. not so much. We have romantic notions of late nights studying intensely by the fire in the common room, but in real life, the rules are in line with what would be expected by the strictest of parents. Of course, that's where the fantasy comes in.

  10. Thanks for the thoughts and visit Maggie, yes that is a really well thought out explanation for why boarding schools work in literature, and also some of their RL dynamics. One of my college friends was a Miss Porter's grad - I cannot tell you how incomprehensible that world was to me as a 17 yo - kind of like hearing about a world you thought only existed in stories come to life... My friend too absolutely loved the education she got there (and debunked a lot of my story-book based notions of what it 'must have been like'!) :)

  11. grrr. I posted a whole comment with lots of books listed and it got eaten.

    Anyway, there are a TON of "boarding school books" out there right now. A list of contemporaries (NON fantasy or historical) includes: Prep, Principles of Love, Looking for Alaska, Better than Yesterday, Anna and the French Kiss, Viola in Reel Life, the entire PRIVATE series by Kate Brian, the entire (20 book) Canterwood Crest series, and Ally Carter's Gallagher series.

    A list of fantasy boarding school books includes: Vampire Academy, House of Night, Hex Hall, Fallen, Chloe Neill's books, Libba Bray's books, some of Maureen Johnson's books...

    In addition to what Sayntani pointed out, another reason they are popular is -- esp. in the case of books liek Private _- it's got that Gossip Girls "aspirational" edge to it where "regular" high school kids can peek into this rich and glamorous world.

    And, speaking as the writer of four college-set adult-but-YA-friendly books, there is also an element of marketing going on. I regularly receive emails from writers of manuscripts set in college who tell me that prospective publishers would like them to rewrite their books to be highschool boarding school books instead. The reasoning I've heard is that college set books are a tough sell for YA (please, no arguments about why that is or is not the case -- the fact is that publishers believe it to be) and too young for adult, but that boarding school books can get that "feel" without being deemed "too old." So who knows how many of these boarding school books are costumed college books?

    But the sales figures bear out. I'm not a bestseller, but a lot of these boarding school books are.

  12. FANTASTIC list Diana - and great point about that Gossip Girls "aspirational" edge - so interesting - something that IS so culturally present now vs. when I was a high schooler (and literally didn't know such worlds existed)... Thanks for visiting and, ahem, you ARE a best seller in my book, I love those unicorn butt kicking heroines of yours! :) (and, on a serious note, your ability to handle something like sexual assault in a real and - for the character - dignified way...)

  13. Also this thing about that weird "college age" category is fascinating - I wonder how many people got asked to "age down" to fall into YA (boarding schools coming to stand for college)... thanks for all this insight everyone!

  14. Oogh, my last comment got eaten! A short version: boarding schools are a big part of a certain narrative of childhood. I read a lot of Brit. kid lit, and growing up, I read mostly boarding school stories--Billy Bunter, The Chalet School, Enid Blyton's St. Clare's and Naughtiest Girl and Malory Towers, Nesbit, P.G.Wodehouse's school stories, the Narnia kids etc. I'd speculate that British parents who were posted to the "uncivilized" colonies sent their kids very thankfully to such schools, so there's quite a lot invested in these narratives--playing fields of Eton etc. etc. I'm sure there's a PhD thesis or about this topic somewhere.
    Anyhoo, I just wanted to say that the historical roots of the boarding school narrative go deep--down to Tom Brown's Schooldays, which was the mid 1800s, I think?

  15. @niranjana and diana - oh no, sorry blogger is being so cranky and eating your posts! @niranjana - I agree re: the British boarding school narrative. In fact, 'till college my only real knowledge of boarding school was from Enid Blyton and P.G. Wodehouse (in fact, in e. lockhart's delightful "Frankie Landau-Banks" novel referenced above, the main character gets ideas about boarding school from Wodehouse - very meta). Indeed, must look up Tom Brown's Schooldays again!

  16. I think that the world of boarding school is foreign to everyone that hasn't actually been there. That's probably another thing that makes it so appealing. In today's world, it's a rare, but I think easy to imagine experience. And because each school is (necessarily) something of a self-contained world, an author can create any rules, norms, traditions and back-story that pushes their tale forward and it doesn't read false.

    I love that your introduction to boarding school came (in part) from a fellow Porter's ancient. It is an institution that would be truly delighted to hear its graduates referred to as "alarming confident." You made me smile this morning thinking about how much that description would have made my head of school's day.

  17. Thank you very much, Sayantani. I have to admit, I never really thought about the "Hogwarts" angle in my books until I read your post.

  18. @Maggie - hah. happy your headmistress (do they still say that?) would be pleased with the "alarmingly confident". Makes me laugh.
    @Diana - thank You very much! Love that Astrid.

  19. Hey! Recently read The Education of Hailey Kendrick by Eileen Cook--the interesting thing about this one (which I loved) is that Hailey at the boarding school is all about her relationship with her dad (or lack of) and how it affects her behaviour, what she see's her role in that relationship being. Thinking on your overall question, still. _Great_ post and food for thought!

  20. Hey Deb - thanks for the visit! (looking forward to working together at Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors). Thanks for bringing this one to my attention - I haven't read it but now it's on the TBR pile - interesting that it's a boarding school tale ABOUT family connnections...

  21. Boarding schools usually have small class sizes.Classroom settings are often specifically designed to encourage student participation and eye contact among everyone in class.IB Schools in Bangalore