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Since I work in education, September feels more like a new year than January does. When I go back to work, sometimes I want to pick up a book that mirrors my current season. If a book is set inside a school or is about a professor, I’m interested right away. I’m not sure if my intrigue stems from working in schools or fond memories of college, but no matter the reason why, I love academic settings and characters. Today I’m sharing ten books that are just right for back-to-school season. Sharpen your pencils, and let’s begin.
Adequate Yearly Progress by Roxanna Elden
This novel presents a satirical look at a public high school in Texas. We meet an earnest English teacher who yearns for a deeper connection with her students. The principal ends up in the news for saying something controversial on camera. Other main characters include a math teacher, biology teacher, football coach, and a second-year history teacher who blogs about the school and starts to go viral.
I found this novel to be equal parts funny and insightful. Many of the characters are people I feel like I’ve met over the years. If you’re looking for a lighthearted book to welcome you into a new school year, this is the one.
The All-Night Sun by Diane Zinna
I wrote about this book in last week’s recap, so I’ll repeat what I said then:
Lauren is a lonely, 30-year-old woman teaching college writing near Washington, D.C. She lost her parents years ago in a car accident and is still trying to find her way after their deaths. When Siri shows up in Lauren’s classroom, the two women strike up a friendship. Siri has also lost her parents, so the two feel a special kinship. Siri invites Lauren back to her home in Sweden, and Lauren, blurring professional boundaries, accepts.
The All-Night Sun follows the two women through their time in Sweden. This novel explores friendship, loneliness, and professionalism through beautiful prose and memorable characters. The cover of this book caught my eye at my local indie bookstore, and I’m so glad it did. I think most literary fiction fans will enjoy this story.
Good Girls Lie by J. T. Ellison
Good Girls Lie is set at a prestigious all-girls prep school in Virginia. The Goode School is for the rich and influential, the types of girls who will head off to Yale and Harvard. Beneath the impressive exterior is a secret society whose members push past the strict behavioral lines the administration has drawn for them. When a popular student ends up dead, people say it was suicide, but there are too many questions about the death for the interest to end there.
While I didn’t love this book’s conclusion, I did love the setting and the story’s fast pace. Good Girls Lie is the perfect escapist novel for anyone in the mood for a dark academic tale.
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Looking for Alaska is the first novel by young adult legend John Green. (It’s also my favorite of his books.) The story follows a boy named Miles who attends a coed boarding school. It’s there he meets a girl named Alaska. He’s immediately smitten and is soon drawn into her fascinating, self-destructive world. When tragedy strikes, Miles is forced to reevaluate everything he thought he knew.
I’ve read all of the novels Green has authored alone, and this is the one that has stuck with me the most. He writes teenagers so well, and their desperation and strivings toward adulthood are profound in this story.
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
In some ways, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the opposite of Adequate Yearly Progress. While that novel was satirical and followed teachers at a struggling school, this novel is much darker and primarily follows students at a school full of privileged families. The staff member readers get to know the most is a new teacher named Molly. She’s unaware of a tragic event that happened in middle school, an event still reverberating through the high school years later.
I appreciated how Lindsey Lee Johnson juxtaposed privilege and tragedy, earnestness and facade. This novel felt achingly real and has some critical things to say about how our actions can haunt us.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
As the #MeToo movement continued to pick up steam in 2017, allegations come out against Jacob Strane, the man who groomed and started a relationship with his student Vanessa when she was just 15. The two are still entwined years later, even though Vanessa is in her late 20s and living her own life. Because of the allegations, she’s forced to remember what she had with Strane and reevaluate it. In her mind, she was in love. She’s not a victim. She chose Strane. Or did she?
This novel focuses on an abusive relationship between a high school teacher and his student, so know that My Dark Vanessa is not for everyone. It’s sad and disturbing, but I ended up loving it. It has important things to say about responsibility and consent.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
This novel is set at a small, elite college in New England. A group of eccentric students grows close with an equally eccentric classics professor. Readers find out within the first few pages that one of the students is dead. The tension of this book is how it got to that point.
The Secret History is probably the most popular, beloved book of the dark academia theme, and for good reason. It’s beautifully written and is full of memorable characters who you’re never quite sure you trust. This book is one of my all-time favorite novels, one I wish I could read again for the first time. It’ll never leave my personal library.
Stoner by John Williams
Stoner is a simple book with a simple story. The novel follows a man named William Stoner throughout his life in Missouri. Stoner is expected to take over the family farm, but he is fascinated by literature and becomes a professor. We follow Stoner through his work life and marriage as he struggles with the things we all struggle with: being present, working hard, and showing up for the people who need us.
This book has been called a perfect novel, and I wholeheartedly agree. Stoner is not to be missed for readers who appreciate character development and a deep look into a person’s mind and spirit. It might be a simple story, but John Williams has profound things to say about being human.
Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber
If you like nonfiction, here’s a recommendation for you. Surprised by Oxford is a memoir of Carolyn Weber’s time as a student. She begins attending Oxford as an agnostic but ends up becoming a committed Christian. This book is the story of how and why she converted. It’s a love story between Weber and Jesus, but also between Weber and her future husband.
Weber talks about faith with such nuance, intelligence, and warmth. The prose in this book is gorgeous, and you can’t ask for a much better setting than Oxford. If you’re a fan of Lauren Winner or Sara Miles, make sure to find a copy of this book and read it immediately.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
This novel begins in the 1980s at a performing arts high school. The two primary characters are students David and Sarah, who fall in love. Their classmates’ rolling eyes can’t dim their passion or commitment. About halfway through this book, something changes, and readers are faced with a new reality that’s hard to explain.
Trust Exercise is a book that has kept on surprising me. The initial twist surprised me when I read it and ultimately left me disappointed. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after I finished it. The characters and their stories kept rolling around in my head. While Trust Exercise won’t be for everyone, I do believe it’s worth your time. (And so did the people who gave it the National Book Award.)
That’s my list! What novels would be on your back-to-school syllabus?