An introduction to the school story – ten titles to begin your reading journey

So you know I have a bit of a thing for school stories, right?

Just in case that comes as a bit of an awful surprise to you, you’re either new (in which case, hi!) or haven’t been paying attention (in which case, remedial prep for you and Antoinette will bring ‘anchovy’ toast to your study later).

So, to clarify, I do enjoy the school story and the girl’s boarding school story genre in particular. Here’s a thing I wrote about why you should read the genre itself but what I want to do in this post, is tell you about a few titles (nb: in no particular order) which I think will serve as an excellent introduction to the girl’s school story.

I’ve picked titles from The Dawn Of Time and also some very contemporary books and over a fair few differing age groups and I have, I know, omitted a few very popular authors. It’s one of the problems and joys of lists of this nature. What does, however, unite all of these titles is that they are great and lovely things and I have hugely enjoyed them all. I hope you have the chance to do the same.

And do let me know what you’d add as number ten?

(My thanks to @nonpratt for inspiring this post! She wrote an excellent book btw, fyi and all that.)

 

1: The Chalet School in Exile – Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

As an introduction to a genre, Exile rather a complicated beast in that the Chalet School is sort of resolutely its own genre and I don’t think this is the place to begin a discussion of that. So why am I including it here in this list, this list of introductory titles to the genre as a whole? I’m including Exile perhaps for the way it steps out of its genre, the way that it uses the signifiers of the genre (for example a female dominated staff …) in order to say great, remarkable and terrifyingly brave things about the state of the world. Published in the middle of the world war, Brent-Dyer was using her nominally little book in a genre for school girls (school girls! the great abandoned tribe!) to talk about pacifism, Nazism, the difference between Germans and Nazis and how one was not necessarily the other, the ways for women to fight war (through independent thought and action and mind) and presenting a definition of bravery that the average schoolgirl was able to adopt and use as her modal of behaviour.

Like I said, a remarkable and outstanding book. It should be read. It should always be read.

2: Murder Most Unladylike – Robin Stevens

I stalked this book across the internet, like a slightly inept lion stalks its prey and when I finally read it (greedily, hungrily), I beamed with joy and then promptly burbled about it to the world and I don’t think I’ll ever stop burbling about the great gift that this book is.

So why is this a good introduction to the school story genre? The key thing for me with MMU is how it subverts the genre; how it plays with expectations and how it genuinely loves the context that it’s in. Stevens knows her genre. She knows it well, she knows the hallmarks of it – the joys and the failings of it – and manages to make it accessible, funny and fabulously readable for the modern day reader.

3: Beswitched – Kate Saunders

Another modern title for you now, but again one that knows its genre and plays with it to beautiful and engaging effect. Reading something like Charlotte Sometimes meets Back To The Future, this charming book is a gorgeous introduction to the genre. I admit that when I read it, I found a little lacking in places but you need to reconcile my slightly coughobsessivecough stance with that to an reader being introduced to the genre and for that, Beswitched is perfect. Saunders is a strong, characterful writer and she’s another who clearly knows the rules and therefore is able to play with them, subvert them and challenge them.

4: The Worst Witch – Jill Murphy

I think the thing about this list so far is that I’ve picked books that are almost anti-genre which is an odd thing to do with a list that is supposedly an introduction to the genre. Both Murder Most Unladylike and Beswitched shine a glass on the genre and refract that to modern readers, and The Chalet School In Exile is so fiercely of itself that it’s hard to tie it into a solid discussion of genre (though I could, don’t tempt me).

What we need now is a title that is rather gloriously A School Story, one that Teaches The Rules Of The Genre, one that Involves Broomsticks and is basically just a Proper Good Story.

The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy is such a story. The opener to a seven book series, it tells the story of Mildred Hubble who has envy-inducing black plaits and is the worst witch in the school. All the hallmarks of what makes a school story good are in here, and they’re handled by a writer who is gloriously competent at what she does. And it’s just good, you know? It’s funny, bright and wants to be read and enjoyed. There’s such a heart to this book.

5: Alice-Miranda at School – Jacqueline Harvey

There’s a strong Eloise influence to Harvey’s puckish, funny, brave little creation. Alice-Miranda is a rather fabulous creature who does The Right Thing without sacrificing Who She Is In The Process. This is not your traditional school story (though all of the traditional aspects of it are present). What it is, is a sort of resolute lesson in holding onto who you are and what makes you special – which is, now that I think about it, one of the key messages that runs throughout the genre. The school story offers a chance for people (boys, girls and um, murderers – I’m looking at you, Murder Most Unladylike for this one) to find out what makes them special and how to be the best person that they are.

6: The Luckiest Girl in The School – Angela Brazil

Angela Brazil (pronounced Brazzle, because that’s how she razzled rolled) is pretty much the lady who defined the school story. Writing at the turn of the century, she was one of the first authors to write schoolgirls as they were – giving them their own language, quirks and idiosyncrasies rather than writing them as smaller adults. A vast amount of her work is available on Project Gutenberg and is well worth a browse. Her work shifted a huge amount back in the day and it’s very much thanks to her that we have this genre in the first place.

A lot of Angela Brazil’s work has dated, as will many things written so many years ago, but what hasn’t dated is her sheer verve. The Luckiest Girl In The School is a brilliant introduction to her style, her stylistics and, er, Nazis, family secrets, stupid brothers and girls discovering how to stand on their own feet and be who they were meant to be.

7: Back Home – Michelle Magorian

By now, you’ll be getting that one of the big threads that runs through the girl’s school story is the idea of empowerment. These books were usually written by women for girls and were a way for girls to learn about the world (pre-internet remember) and gain a sort of solidarity and bonding. They could see the girls inside the stories learn about themselves and have the feeling of being part of the community, be that the Chalet School or Miss Macey’s School. (A lot of these books had huge fan followings back in the day and still do – that feeling of community, of being part of something, hasn’t left)

Back Home by Michelle Magorian is a beautiful, beautiful book and one that is ripe with feminism and empowerment. It’s both a coming of age story and a coming of self story. Rusty has returned back to the UK after being evacuated to the USA during WW2. Now that the War is over, Rusty is back and she doesn’t understand the world she left. She’s a stranger walking the footsteps of a memory. After she is sent away to boarding school, in order to be the girl that she is told she should be, things do not go well.

As an introduction to the dark side of the genre, the stiff and stifling side of it, this is excellent stuff. Magorian’s writing is vivid, huge, and you will cry. There’s a thing that the school story can do, right there. It can make you empathise because we’ve all been there. We’ve all been bored in Maths or whatever. We know how that feels and so, to see it on the page, has an immediacy and an edge because we’ve lived it. We are this genre.

8/9: Malory Towers / St Clare’s – Enid Blyton

This is a total cheat, but it’s my list and things like this always have some sort of a cheat. Plus it’s actually a cheat with a bit of a basis in fact. These two series by the great and terrifying Enid Blyton are almost insperable inside my heart. They both have issues, they both have problems, but they both have vivid and intense and wonderfully acute moments that make them almost the dictionary definition of a school story.

Malory Towers is centred around Darrell Rivers and, eventually, her sister Felicity who both attend this glorious school by the seaside in Cornwall. One of the great things a good school story can do is make you desperate to attend it, even if you’re living the most perfect life ever. Malory Towers does that. Each book follows Darrell throughout her time at the school and new girls are introduced in each and it’s basically just perfect.

St Clare’s is a similar premise, but this time we follow the ‘don’t care twins’ Isabel and Pat O’Sullivan. They’re not happy being sent to St Clare’s as they wanted to attend the substantially posher Redroofs but soon fall in love with their new school and the life they live there. The acclimitasation is not easy for all concerned, and we learn much about the perils of living in a community and being true to yourself in the process. Again, this latter point is a big (and when poorly handled – heavily didactic) theme in school stories. Do you mess about and let your family down – or do you play up and play the game?

As an introduction to the genre, these two series are superlative. I love them greatly. There’s a part of me that wants to swim in the pool at Malory Towers and go riding with Carlotta and have a midnight with Claudine. They’re almost addictive, these books and that’s when the series factor kicks in. You want more. Always the good sign with a school story, when you want more.

10. ????

This one’s all yours. What would you recommend as an introduction to the genre? (And if it’s Althea Joins The Chalet School, we might have to have a word 😉

1/8 Update: Well, I think that from the feedback I’ve got on Twitter, the number ten slot belongs to the great, glorious Antonia Forest and Autumn Term, with Trebizon running a close second. Hurrah for Antonia!

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6 thoughts on “An introduction to the school story – ten titles to begin your reading journey

  1. I love a good school story and have read some, but not all of these. I see Worst Witch is being reissued this month. I went through that one with my Kiddo when she was young and the TV show from Canada was on. What fun! I’m going to definitely give Murder Most Unladylike a try and maybe Beswitched. Both look good. Thanks for this list.

  2. What about Nancy Breary? The four Drusilla Cathcart novels are perfect. They are very funny without being silly and explore the values of the genre, especially friendship. Oh and some wonderful school plays.

  3. I read ‘Alice-Miranda at School’ recently and adored it. It was such a fun and over-the-top-but-in-a-good-way read. As for my suggestions for #10, ‘Jenny and the Syndicate’ by Harriet Martyn is quite a good read, and I’m biased towards the ‘St Brigid’s’ series by Geri Valentine as they’re Irish 🙂

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