Belzhar and More of Our Favorite Boarding-School Novels

Meg Wolitzer's BelzharIs there any teen out there who doesn’t occasionally fantasize about being sent off to school far, far away from their parents? Sure, there are rules and teachers and things, but a boarding school is also a microcosm completely devoted to high-school students, sheltered from the outside world, ripe for all kinds of trouble and adventure. No wonder they’ve made great settings for novels from Jane Eyre to The Catcher in the Rye, A Little Princess to Harry Potter. This isn’t a definitive list of the “best” in the genre, but a smattering of favorites, each fulfilling a different literary need:

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
Forget for a second that John Knowles’ story, about a New England boarding schooler named Gene who thinks his charismatic best friend, Phineas, might be secretly sabotaging him, is a universal favorite of English teachers. This is a great example of how boys’ friendships can be just as messed up as girls. Also, don’t take dumb high jumps off of trees, everyone.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray
The world was still deep in the midst of Harry Potter mania when Bray published this very different tale of 19th-century boarding school girls dabbling in magic. While they’re learning how to be proper Victorian ladies at Spence Academy in London, Gemma Doyle and her friends are also exploring a magical realm that lets them fulfill their real (rather libidinous) desires for knowledge, love, power, and freedom.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
If no one told you Ishiguro’s novel is actually a cautionary sci-fi tale, you’d never know until the end. All you know at first is that Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are in a boarding school for special students, and their love triangle is one of the most restrained and tense relationships you’ll ever read.

Looking for Alaska, by John Green
By now, you know that no one does teen loss like Green. No one does crushes like him, either. His debut novel features both, as we follow Miles “Pudge” Halter to a boarding school in Georgia, where he meets troublemaking but golden-hearted scholarship students Alaska and Chip. Naturally, he falls in love with Alaska. Naturally, she is unattainable. But we readers fall right with him.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart
Unattainable is no longer a word in Frankie Landau-Banks’ vocabulary when she comes back to her elite prep school newly hot and confident. Even when she finds out her boyfriend’s secret society won’t allow girls, she finds a way not just to infiltrate it, but to direct it from behind the scenes. Lockhart was a National Book Award finalist for this fine bit of feminist fun.

Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins
The one big flaw in this story about a girl coming of age in a French boarding school is the fact that Anna is really pissed off her parents are making her go to a French boarding school. Wha? And yet, the charm of Perkins’ books is also how much we’re dying to be in her characters’ shoes.

White Cat, by Holly Black
We’d probably never want to be in the shoes of Cassel Sharpe, the protagonist of Holly Black’s Curse Workers series. The scholarship boarding school student comes from a long line of con artists. He thinks he doesn’t have the same magical powers—the ability to control others’ emotions, wipe their memories, or give them good luck with a mere touch—as the rest of his family, who are caught up in a crime organization run by the father of his best friend and love of his life, Lila, who he suspects he killed years ago. This is a love story, a noir thriller, and a paranormal high school drama all in one.

The Raven Boys trilogy, by Maggie Stiefvater
The majority of Maggie Stiefvater’s series takes place in the rural town of Henrietta, Virginia, home to Aglionby Academy, the kooky psychic ladies of Blue Sargent’s family, and perhaps a long-buried Welsh king who will grant a wish to whoever finds him. We barely see the school, but we fall in love with its students Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah, as they team up with firecracker Blue, who’s pretty sure she’s going to kill her first love with a kiss. In Stiefvater’s hands, each of the characters’ inner conflicts is every bit as important as the story’s rich-kid/townie tension and mystical goings on.

Winger, by Andrew Smith
It feels like a privilege to be inside the head of a Smith character, even one as insecure as Ryan Dean “Winger” West, a 14-year-old junior at Pine Mountain Academy. The intermittent witty illustrations and internal (relentlessly horny) dialogue make this one of the funniest (and most Salinger-esque) of this group, but there’s a deeper theme, too, as Ryan Dean learns what it means to be a good, honorable friend—to his BFF/crush Annie, his gay friend Joey, and his other rugby teammates. We can’t wait to see how he navigates senior year in Stand-Off, out January 2015.

Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer
Meg Wolitzer has often included elements of adolescent coming of age in her novels, but this is her first crack at a truly YA story. Jam Gallahue has been sent to a boarding school for emotionally “fragile” students after the death of her boyfriend. There she’s placed in a special English lit class, where she’s one of just five students doing a close study of Sylvia Plath’s work. Inexplicably, when they write in antique journals their teacher has given them, they’re thrown into a dream world where the horrible circumstances that brought them there are reversed.

What’s your favorite novel set in a boarding school?

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