Old school/new school

In the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail,” Tom Hanks’s character tells his anonymous online penpal, played by Meg Ryan, “Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly-sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.” He’s got something there. Even as an adult, as September approaches, something makes me want to dive into those back-to-school aisles at Target. Surely I need new desk supplies and a lamp that has built-in space for notepaper, pens, and my phone charger.  Part nostalgia, part ingrained feeling that fall can also herald new beginnings, this change of season always stands out to me.

For those of you who get that nostalgic feeling, a book set in school might just scratch that itch, from Muriel Spark’s classic, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” to a modern satire, like Jane Smiley’s “Moo.” You’ll find a list of school-centered stories on our Back to School for Grown-Ups booklist.

Still, nostalgia doesn’t suit every reader; new beginnings can take us completely out of the places we know. If your tastes run a little beyond the lockers, water fountains and blackboards of yore, let me draw your attention to a few books that focus on stranger, sometimes darker, types of education.

In Sarah Gailey’s “Magic for Liars,” a hard-drinking private detective is called in to solve a murder at the last place she expected to visit: a school of magic, where the students (and staff) have prophesied destinies and terrible secrets. 

Josh Malerman’s “Inspection” follows J, a young man at an extremely private boys’ school led by a mysterious man the boys know as “Father.” Kept entirely within the school and trained to be geniuses, the students, and their unknown female counterparts at another school nearby, begin to wonder what might be behind their extraordinary and isolated education.

R.F. Kuang’s grimdark “The Poppy War” follows Rin, an orphan determined to qualify for the elite Sinegard military academy. As her training begins, Rin finds that nothing is what she expected, and a growing conflict takes her education to the battlefield.

Check out our booklist of Strange Schools to enroll in other schools for magicians, assassins, psychics, and children with various curious abilities and destinies.  Whether you want to relive your own schooldays or imagine how things might have turned out, school stories can still surprise you.

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash.

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