I first wrote this page in 2007 and it definitely needs updating. I’m consistently surprised at how many people check out this page and love this type of book as well. I’ve definitely got newer titles to add to the list. In the meantime, I’ve got a recent post up at The Hub featuring a look back at one of my all time favorite boarding school books, along with some other recommendations. Please check it out here:
You might be surprised at how many books are set in a boarding school. Based on how many there are I know that I can’t be the only person out there who loves reading stories set there. In reality I think I would hate boarding school and I only know of two people personally who have ever attended one. But books have me believing they are lovely places, filled with midnight hampers, hijinks, and in YA books the kind of freedom one doesn’t normally experience until college.
Here is a list of boarding school books with a few notes about what I remember about them, or why the book was special to me. It’s not a comprehensive list of books of the genre by any means, but that’s because I’m not including books that I feel “eh” about. Sure, I know Spying on Miss Mueller was in a boarding school, but I barely remember the book and thus, that’s the last you’ll hear about it from me.
The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom–where it all started. I must have read this book way back in 2nd or 3rd grade, and reread it many times. Victoria and Martha are 8 year olds away from home. They form a fast friendship, complete with their own language and hideout in the woods. Vivid image? They dress as matching chocolate chip mint ice cream cones for a Halloween costume party. Difficult to have fun in, but worth it for being the best costume.
Luvvy and the Girls by Natalie Savage Carlson–this book had the exotic appeal of not only boarding school, but also nuns. Luvvy and her many sisters all attend a convent boarding school. So many things in this book fascinated me–a special snack from the nuns was bread with butter and sugar; the classes were Older Girls and Younger Girls; they were allowed to sit on a porch to dry their hair after they washed it once a week; fathers and brothers were the only males allowed to visit; Luvvy didn’t feel pious enough compared to many of the girls but prayed as hard as she could to save a goody goody named Agatha. Alas, Agatha died.
And Both Were Young by Madeline L’Engle–this one formed my image of what true boarding school should be like. It was the school of my fanatasies–Lake Luzerne; skiing; a commons room; a wonderful sensitive teacher with a special cozy room. The European setting was so sophisticated to me, the love story made so much sense (why wouldn’t you just happen across someone in the snowy woods to whom you have a connection?), this was a treasured book in my personal library that I read over and over again.
Looking for Alaska by John Green–last year’s Printz award winner! A modern boarding school book-so very different from those first books I read, what with all the sex and drinking, sneaking out, etc. This is a moving and wonderfully written (see: best YA book of the year award) work. You can read more about it at his site or the Printz site.
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray–Ahhh, now here is a book that is so superb. It’s romantic, gothic, slightly supernatural, and at boarding school. This would make an excellent movie, though it’s so vivid in my head I don’t know that it could live up to anything on film. A British girl raised in India has visions and sees her mother die at the hands of…something. She’s packed off to an uptight class conscious boarding school in rural England. There she sees the exotic young man she saw in India. With three other girls she ends up exploring a supernatural realm and uncovering the school’s deep dark secret and how her mother was a part of it. I’m not sure I can convey just how entirely excellent this book is (which has a beautiful sensuous cover, to boot.) Everyone should read it! There is a sequel, Rebel Angels, which, of course, is not as good.
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett–One of my favorite books from childhood. The scene of their midnight feast sets the standard in my mind for such a boarding school standard. And Sara’s treatment as a wealthy student versus a charity case is just classic, an element repeated, as you’ll see, time and again. If you’ve somehow missed this story during your own childhood, go back and read it now. But please, only the edition with the illustrations by Tasha Tudor.
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling Clearly nothing needs to be said about these books at all, but I do include these on my personal list because the fact that they were all set in magical boarding school is one of the primary reasons I love these books. Diana Wynne Jones’s Witch Week also features a magical boarding school, and her books are also enchanting and funny.
Principles of Love by Emily Franklin– This is a new YA book, which I enjoyed, though honestly couldn’t tell you what happens at the end even though I read it only two months ago. Love is a teen whose dad is a new principal at a prep school. She has the double whammy of trying to fit in at a new school, as well as coping with her dad being the principal. I thought the relationship with her dad was very nice (amazon.com review says it’s Gilmore Girls-esque, with which I agree) and I did like the budding romances. Again with the modern boarding school–sneaking out to drink, as opposed to sneaking into your friend’s room to have a snack late at night. And on that note…
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld–This was one of the best adult books I read the year it came out. Lee is a scholarship student at an exclusive prep school. She tries so hard to fit in, but never really does. Even when she’s “dating” someone you can see that she’s just being used for sex. Throughout most of this book I just cringed for her, hoping she’d stop making foolish choices, and quit hanging out with some of the people she did. The big denouement in particular just leaves you thinking “I’ve wished all I could for you, Lee. If you are that stupid to blab to a reporter and not think it’s going to come back to get you, well, then I give up on you.” A lot was made of this book when it came out and how the author was a boarding school kid herself. Thus, when I read this I believed it to be a very accurate portrayal of current boarding school life.
Pulling Princes by Tyne O’Connell– …And here would be a less accurate portrayal. Or, maybe it’s accurate for some, but hard for me to imagine (which makes it all the more exotic and wonderful.) You know how in these books the girls’ schools are always having dances and mixers with a nearby boys’ school? Well imagine that because your school has lots of kids of famous folk and royalty, and so does the boys’, that you meet the prince of England at one of them? Yep, that’s what happens to Calypso. She also sufferes the “I-don’t-fit-in” fate of many of these protagonists, but don’t feel too bad for her. Even though she’s a fish out of water American, her parents are famous, too. This is a really fun book, with a few that follow it. Calypso is a likable character and it’s definitely fun reading about such a “posh” school.
Finding Hattie by Sally Warner–Here’s a book that really needs a personal recommendation. The cover and title are totally boring, (note to publishers: historical fiction doesn’t have to have ugly covers. See how lovely A Northern Light is?) but the story is anything but. Set in the 1880s orphaned Hattie lives with her somewhat awful aunt and uncle. She does get along with her cousin, Sophie, and they attend a young ladies’ seminary together. There Hattie experiences the age old struggle of finding her own way, making friends, and standing up for herself. There is a lot of prejudice against the charity cases (of which she is one), which seems to be something that shows up in these books regardless of which year it is set in. This had such great historical detail meshed with a lovely YA story, that I encourage you to look beyond the cover and give this one a try.
Bloomability by Sharon Creech–This 1998 novel was immediately appealing to me as it was reminiscent of And Both Were Young. Domenica is an American sent to her aunt and uncle’s boarding school in Switzerland, on the Italian border. She resents being there, struggling with learning Italian, and coping with her family’s apparent dismissal of her. Over the course of the year she makes wonderful friends from around the world, enjoys European experiences, and finds a loving family in her aunt and uncle. This is wonderfully fulfilling story. One of the ways it differs from And Both Were Young is that Domenica experiences Europe as a middle schooler who has never been there before. She is suitably impressed by the things she sees and experiences. In And Both Were Young, the character struggles to adjust, but the setting is not exotic and new to her.
My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman–The most recent adult boarding school book I’ve read, and it’s by an author I really like. Frederica grows up at a boarding school as both of her parents are dorm-parents. Her parents have always been super liberal and strove to give her a very loving upbringing, seeing the college as her family.–[I realize as I remember that this is set in a college, but I'm keeping it on this list because Frederica might as well be Love from Principles of Love] When Frederica’s father’s first wife shows up, she wreaks havoc on all their lives. I really enjoyed this portrayal of dorm life, family life, family secrets, and destructive people. A very good read!