School leaves a mark. Whether you’re currently engaged in an academic pursuit or school is a dim memory from long ago, the rhythms and tides of school are part of your life. Grown adults still sense the changing seasons based on their old school schedules, and for younger folks school defines just about every moment of their lives.
So it’s not surprising that a lot of novels are set at least partially in school. Some books go the extra yard, though, and set their entire stories within a single school year. In honor of everyone who is currently heading off to a new school year (or once had to), here are five books that are more or less set during one school year.
The Basic Eight, by Daniel Handler
Handler’s first novel is darker and crazier than A Series of Unfortunate Events even if it does depict, well, a series of unfortunate events. Set during Flannery Culp’s senior year at Roewer High School, the book is Flan’s diary from that year—after she’s edited, revised, and excised material from it, of course. This allows Handler to craft what may be the most unreliable of unreliable narrators ever created. Add in a plethora of school-inspired metafictional tricks, a murder, and some of the smartest observations about teens and teen-oriented fiction ever put to page, and the insane school year depicted in this novel goes by so fast you’ll have to read it a second time—especially after the major reveal that cements Flan’s unreliable nature.
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
Cormier’s classic story of rebellion and bullying is set over the course of Jerry Renault’s first year at an all-boy’s Catholic school. The fundraiser involving chocolate bars is something every kid and parent has some experience with, and serves as the catalyst for a book that remains controversial more than forty years after its initial publication, as the overbearing Brother Leon seeks to make his mark as school administrator by setting records for the year’s chocolate sales. The plan is threatened by Jerry’s refusal to participate, which leads to a series of increasingly crazy events involving the school’s secret society. Anyone who has ever dealt with peer pressure, bullies, or adults who have lost their way will feel this book in their bones.
Election, by Tom Perrotta
Perrotta’s second novel is likely best-remembered today for its film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon, but the book is better. Aside from its epilogue, the story takes place entirely during one school year, detailing the battle for Student Council President between irritatingly ambitious Tracy Flick and laid-back popular jock Paul Warren—an election increasingly (and incompetently) manipulated by popular teacher Mr. M simple because he dislikes Tracy. Anyone who has ever suspected that their teachers were no more mature and “together” than the students will find validation in this dark but hilarious story, but ultimately Perrotta’s message is that children have the excuse of being children for their bad behavior, while adults do not.
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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
One of the most interesting aspects of Rowling’s classic fantasy series is the way her characters grow and mature as time passes in the story. This allows every new generation of readers to grow up along with Harry, Hermione, and the rest. The books in the series correspond, for the most part, with Harry’s progress through Hogwarts (first book, first year, etc.), and each story finds the kids older, wiser—and slowly developing more mature concerns and problems even as their main concern is defeating Voldemort and stopping him from bringing a reign of terror to both wizards and muggles.
The Rules of Attraction, by Bret Easton Ellis
Ellis can be an acquired taste, unless your tastes run naturally to misanthropy and the decadent misbehaviors of rich, young, pretty things (which, if so, no judgments). The Rules of Attraction is set during one semester of school at fictional Camden College, a school year that involves a lot of parties and drama and very, very little actual school work. Darkly hilarious, almost everyone who lived on campus while going to college will find themselves recognizing some of the characters and situations, even as they are horrified and embarrassed by them, and the twisting love geometry and loose relationship to time makes for a wonderfully complex read.
What are your favorite books that celebrate school days?