Fresh pencils, shiny shoes, and stuffed backpacks might not be enough to get you in the back-to-school mood, especially if your semester—or your kid’s—starts well before summer fades. Fortunately, plenty of good books distill that back-to-school essence. Here are five that will get you raring to meet new teachers and make new friends, or, if the depiction of school in several of these books is accurate, acquire new enemies.
Old School, by Tobias Wolff
Tobias Wolff’s terrific novel revolves around life at an elite East Coast prep school like the one Wolff once attended. During the 1960 to ’61 school year, the narrator, a scholarship student, vies to prove his literary mettle in a writing competition, hoping to win a meeting with three illustrious visiting writers: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. Wolff’s dialogue and observations are droll and authentic as ever, and the student writing samples he includes—misguided imitations of those famous writers—are hilarious.
Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt may have riveted the book-reading public with his first memoir, Angela’s Ashes, but before he wrote it he taught English in New York City public high schools for 30 years. He reports in Teacher Man that his students were often less than attentive: “Tell them to copy what’s on the board. They stare. Oh, yeah, they tell one another. He wants us to copy what’s on the board. Look at that. Man wrote something on the board and wants us to copy it.” Not only do the students fail to take notes, they also turn in excuse notes “blatantly forged under [his] nose” and research papers that are “an ecstasy of plagiarism.” In this free-form memoir, we watch McCourt evolve from a harried beginning teacher into an innovative instructor who realizes when he begins to advise his students on the finer points of creative writing that he ought to write his own book some day.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Okay, so maybe Halisham, the school depicted in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, turns out to be a totally creepy boarding establishment for cloned children whose organs will eventually be harvested, but Ishiguro’s descriptions of it before this is revealed portray it as a bucolic institution and estate in the English countryside, where the children are encouraged to get plenty of exercise and fresh air and display their creativity through regular art sessions. Lots of fun, if you just stick your fingers in your ears and say “la la la” so you don’t have to overhear any troubling rumors.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
At the Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh, teacher Jean Brodie tells her students that she’s in her prime, and singles out a group of six ten-year-old girls as her special favorites, her “set.” The children are soon in the thrall of this woman who says, “The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.” As much as Miss Brodie’s set loves their singular teacher, one of them will grow up to betray her.
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
Chabon portrays the madcap dysfunction of a university English department in his second novel Wonder Boys, which details the travails of writer Grady Tripp, an English professor at the fictional Coxley College who is struggling to finish a 2611-page second novel to follow up his successful debut. Instead of writing, though, he’s busy with other matters: his wife leaves him, his mistress announces she’s pregnant, and he becomes involved with a troubled student, James Leer, who kills the university chancellor’s dog and steals a priceless Marilyn Monroe collectible. Sounds like college!
What books put you in a back-to-school frame of mind?