5 of My Favorite School Novels

We’re halfway through May now which means the school year is finally winding down. I have about four weeks left until I’m on summer vacation from my library job. Thanks to all of the graduations, tests, and year-end checklists, I’ve thought about school a lot lately, and I’m using that as inspiration for today’s post featuring some of my favorite novels set in a school or focused on students. A couple of these books deal with suicide, so if that’s not a topic you’re comfortable reading about this would be a good post to skip. Let’s dive in!

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Connell and Marianne meet in high school. He’s popular but poor. Marianne is a social outcast, but she comes from a wealthy family full of terrible people. Though these two would never speak at school, they’re brought together when Connell shows up at Marianne’s house to pick up his mother who works as the family’s maid. They soon embark on a romantic relationship that Connell is desperate to keep secret so as not to jeopardize his social standing. Normal People follows Connell and Marianne through their high school love and explores how their bond is deepened and tested throughout college. Sally Rooney has important things to say about class and gender, and her dialog is fantastic. I’d been looking forward to this novel for months, and it didn’t disappoint.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth book cover

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

During his eighth grade year, a bullied boy named Tristan kills himself after a love letter he wrote a girl is shared on Facebook. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth tells the story of the students who were involved in Tristan’s life, examines their guilt in the aftermath, and presents a harsh yet realistic look at life in high school. In addition to the students, readers meet Molly, an earnest new teacher hoping to make a significant impact on her students. The novel switches back and forth between perspectives, and I was fascinated by each one. I haven’t heard many people talk about this book, but it’s worth your time and attention, especially if you work with teens like I do.

Dare Me book cover

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott’s books are adult fiction, yet she writes teenagers so well. In Dare Me, she tells the story of a high school cheerleading squad living in the aftermath of a suspicious suicide. As an investigation into the death begins, the girls form new alliances, bond with their cool new coach, and treat each other with a viciousness masked by pompoms and the perfect routine. This book is chilling and impossible to put down. Abbott is one of my favorite writers, and Dare Me is an excellent place to start if you haven’t read her work before.

The Secret History book cover

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

In the first few pages of The Secret History, readers find out that a student at an elite college has died. The rest of the novel explores why and how. Richard is the main character, and when he transfers to Hampden College, he joins a group studying Greek classics under the direction of a professor the students nearly worship. Donna Tartt explores friendship, morality, literature, and devotion with great care and nonstop drama. The Secret History is suspense fiction at its finest, and one of my favorite novels of all time.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics book cover

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Blue lives with her professor father and has moved a lot for his work. When she’s a senior in high school, she and her father finally settle down, and Blue falls in with an eccentric group of students and their beloved teacher. Special Topics in Calamity Physics has been compared to The Secret History because of its plot, but this book has a lighter tone, though it too involves death and mysterious circumstances. This novel is what got Marisha Pessl added to my “I’ll Read Everything They Write” list. I’ve never read anything else quite like this book. I adore it, and I think literature-lovers who appreciate quirky fiction will, too.


What are your favorite school novels? What should I read next based on these books? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

3 Things I Learned While Earning My English Degree

As an undergrad student majoring in English, the one question I got all the time was, “So you’re going to teach?” My answer always has and always will be “no.” Teachers are amazing, but teaching isn’t my calling. If I taught, the students and I would both be crying a lot, and I find it best to avoid mass crying.

Though I don’t use my degree to teach, it’s come in handy a time or two over the years. Today I want to share the three most important lessons I learned while getting my degree and how I’ve put them to use.

I LEARNED HOW TO REALLY READ.

I’ve always been an avid reader, but it wasn’t until college that I learned how to read through various lenses. Whenever I read anything before, I read it through the lens of a white, middle-class millennial. But in college, I learned how to read through the lens of the Victorians, the Romantics, and the audiences who witnessed Shakespeare’s plays. As I earned my degree, I learned that when I read, I need to think about context, such as:

What time period was this written in?
Who was the original audience?
What would stand out to them that can inform my opinion today?

That knowledge has been incredibly beneficial and opened up texts to me in whole new ways.

I LEARNED THERE’S A REASON WHY SO MUCH CLASSIC LITERATURE IS REVERED, EVEN IF I DON’T LOVE IT.

Reading Moby-Dick wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had, but I’m glad I read it. Melville’s story of an obsessed man going on an epic quest is a timeless story about longing and revenge. I’m not Shakespeare’s biggest fan, but it’s astounding to me that people are still analyzing and enjoying his words even now. His use of language amazes me. I might not pick up Paradise Lost or The Scarlet Letter for light weekend reading, but those stories tell us something profound about humanity, sin, and judgment. I didn’t love all the reading I was assigned in school, but I did discover books like The Monk by Matthew Lewis and Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain. I also encountered contemporary works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Good fiction always tells the truth, and those books tell it beautifully. Even though I didn’t like every text I was assigned in school, I’m better for having read them, and I was exposed to some great writers along the way.

I LEARNED WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A FEMINIST AND THAT I AM ONE.

In my last semester of college, I took two classes that paired perfectly. One was an English class teaching the theory and fiction of the women’s movement thus far, and the other was a sociology class about gender. I went into those classes pretty neutral about feminism. It wasn’t a word I used to identify myself, but if someone else used it, that was just fine with me. I couldn’t have given you a good definition of the term at all until I read the passionate words of Audre Lorde, Naomi Wolf, and others like them. I didn’t fully understand how hard women had to fight to vote or to buy a house on their own. I couldn’t have explained why feminism is so important before I watched a documentary in my sociology class about how women are objectified. I knew that was true, of course, but it wasn’t until I saw scenes of women allowing members of a rock band to throw pieces of deli meat onto their skin to see if it would stick that I realized just how little women’s lives matter to people who only see them as entertainment.  Learning about how the world has mistreated women and how so many have fought back shaped me in ways that I’m still uncovering.


What are the important things you learned in school? I’d love to hear them!


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Why Bother Having a School Library?

For the past seven years, I’ve worked as a library clerk for a public school district. I spend my time in three different buildings working with elementary and high school students. I love my work and believe it can make a difference.

When you think of a school library, maybe you think of old books, slow computers, and encyclopedia sets from 1982. Perhaps you imagine the librarian glaring at you for talking too loudly, or you still feel a bit guilty about all those library fines. If you don’t have good memories of your school library or maybe never even used it, you might wonder if they matter. I think they do, and here’s why.

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STUDENTS CAN SIMPLY BE IN THE LIBRARY.

There are many demands placed on students by their peers, parents, and teachers. There’s constant pressure to perform and excel. While such pressure is necessary for success, kids need a break from it sometimes. The library offers students something unique because when they walk through the doors, they can just be. They can come in with friends to chat and study together. They can come in and sit alone, enjoying some quiet time. They can read, listen to music, do research, play computer games, flip through a graphic novel, or create something. In short, they can relax. I don’t care about homework, grades, reading level, or popularity. I care that students can visit the library and feel free to be themselves.

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A LIBRARY IS FREE FROM JUDGMENT.

Not all libraries are judgment-free zones, of course, but that should be the goal. Students should be able to use the library to learn and discover without being evaluated. They should feel free to research what they’re interested in without raised eyebrows. They should be able to choose books about tough topics knowing that what they read will stay confidential. I hope when students use their school libraries they’re greeted with kindness and warmth. Kids know when they’re wanted and when they’re not. Those of us who have the privilege of working with students every day need to remind ourselves that our small acts of kindness toward them make a more significant impact than we know.

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STUDENTS CAN BE CURIOUS IN THE LIBRARY.

Whether a student wants a book or online resources, they can use the library to examine what they’re curious about. I’ve had students ask me for information about many different topics, including computer coding, drawing, writing, religion, mythology, and so much more. Once I had a student ask for books on World War III, and I had to reassure him that hasn’t actually happened yet. Kids are naturally curious. The library provides a place where that curiosity can be fostered.

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THE LIBRARY IS FUN!

Focus and hard work are essential if a student is going to succeed, but having fun is important too. If we want kids to love reading and learning, they have to enjoy themselves in the process. I’ve worked in libraries where elementary students have access to stuffed animals, bean bag chairs, puzzles, games, and art supplies. A high school I worked in had computers with specialized software so students could edit photos, videos, and music. The high school I’m assigned to right now offers chess sets to kids. Learning is a big part of the library, but fun is vital if students are to be lifelong library users. I’d hate to think someone never sets foot in public libraries as an adult because they were so bored in their school library.

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STUDENTS ARE REPRESENTED IN THE LIBRARY.

The schools I’ve always worked in have been predominantly white. That’s why it’s so important that when I do social media posts and book displays, I feature people of color. Students who look around at their peers might not always see other kids or teachers who look like they do, but it’s essential that they see themselves reflected somewhere. I want students of color to recognize themselves in their library’s book collection. I want them to see lives and stories like theirs in the titles we display and the posts we share. People have an innate need to feel seen, and school libraries can help as long as they make diversity a priority in both their collection and marketing.

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THE LIBRARY IS A PLACE WHERE STUDENTS HAVE A VOICE.

Another way libraries make sure students feel seen and represented is to give them a voice regarding the library’s direction. After years of research and experience, I’ve developed a little trick I like to call asking. Ask kids what books they’d like to see on the shelf, and they’ll know you care about their opinion. Ask the ones who always run toward the computers what kind of programs they’d enjoy, and they’ll know you noticed their excitement about technology. Ask the student who says your horror section is too small what books she’d suggest the library purchase next and she’ll know you care about her favorite genre. Asking for feedback is such a simple thing, but it helps students understand their opinions count for something.


I could go on (and on and on), but these issues are the ones I’m most passionate about at the moment. How do you feel about school libraries? What did you like or dislike about the library as a student?