Back to School: Authors on Their Favourite School-Centric Stories & Books
It sneaks up on us every year, but it's nearly that time - back to school time. Even if you've been out of the hallowed halls of learning for many years, you can't help but notice it every September.
To get in the back to school spirit, we asked some brilliant Canadian writers to tell us about their favourite "school" books; novels, non-fiction, children's books, and more that are set in or deal with school-related stories and subjects. The answers that came back will inspire you to get schooled for your next reading experience. Read on to hear from Lisa de Nikolits, Alicia Elliott, Koom Kankesan, Lesley Krueger, Ben Ladouceur, James Lindsay, Rebecca Rosenblum, Mark Sampson, and Vikki VanSickle.
Lisa de Nikolits
School Book: The Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton
I loved the books for their sense of kinship, camaraderie, and adventure, not to mention the midnight feasts! I haven’t read them since the 1970’s and it would be really interesting to go back and take a read now. I do recall liking one character, Gwendolyn Mary Lacey and when I looked her up now, Enidblyton.net had this to say about her: “Gwendoline Mary Lacey is the blonde baddie. Gwen's unsuitability for boarding school life is shown right away by her having to brush her hair one hundred times before bed, and falling foul of Miss Potts for not wearing plaits. Gwen is vain and shallow, attaching herself to any new girl she thinks is glamorous or rich. She has to leave the sixth form early when her father falls seriously ill.”
My new book, Rotten Peaches, contains a note to readers: With regard to the South African aspects of this book, I wanted to present the psyche of apartheid, including the abhorrent language and the prevalent attitudes of the time. We write in order to make amends – if we pretend that things never happened, we are complicit. I ask readers not to confuse the attitudes of any of the characters with that of the author.
And perhaps, had Enid Blyton been writing about a retrospective time, rather than a time in which she lived in and accepted, she would have written one too. She’s been largely condemned (and rightly so) for being racist and I feel awful imagining myself as a child in South Africa, happily reading books that subscribed to that racist mentality. The Toronto Reference Library has one copy of Malory Towers and it would be interesting to read it now.
- Lisa de Nikolits' newest novel is Rotten Peaches (Inanna Publications)
School Book: Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
(and all the other nine books in the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series, to be honest)
Yes, these books are meant for teenagers. Yes, I still bought them as a reward for passing my classes every year of university. Georgia Nicolson is a total icon and comedic goddess. Definitely read these if you want to be reminded that books can be fun.
- Alicia Elliott's A Mind Spread Out On The Ground will be published in March 2019 by Doubleday Canada
School Book: A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence
Laurence captures the emotional agony of a primary school teacher trapped in a life of being a charge for little children, but not having any of her own. As with her other books, Laurence really invests her work with a method-like emotionality that is rich and close to the bone. This is doubly rewarding because novelists often write about university professors but seldom about public school teachers.
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Bonus School Book: The Tamil Dream by Koom Kankesan
My book is set over the course of the school year leading up to the Tamil protests in the spring of 2009. It alternates perspective between a high school teacher working for the school board and a student at his school.
- Koom Kankesan is the author of The Tamil Dream
School Book: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
In Elizabeth Strout’s collection of short stories, Olive Kitteridge is a teacher, and I don’t think she’s particularly loved by many of her students, probably most of them. She isn’t inspirational, and some teachers honestly are. She’s also not a good or easy mother, nor an easy partner to her pharmacist husband. She’s cranky and raging and awkward and admirable. She’s human and she cares, one time getting into a car uninvited to try to stop a former student from committing suicide. All of which means that Olive Kitteridge, in Strout’s plain-spoken and lambent prose, is the other side of the story. I like going behind the scenes, jonesing after invitations onto film sets (screenwriters aren’t usually aren’t invited), finding ways to get backstage at museums or stables or construction sites. Strout’s book is an invitation backstage, and as school starts up again, it’s also a reminder that even the teacher you don’t particularly like is worth listening to. We all learn in crooked ways.
- Lesley Krueger’s most recent novel is Mad Richard from ECW Press.
School Book: The Group by Mary McCarthy
Following eight girlfriends from Vassar College Class of 1933, The Group does a great job of capturing the lonely terrors of life immediately after school, when friendship groups disperse, responsibilities proliferate, and all the lessons learned on campus (inside and outside the classroom) prove useless.
- Ben Ladouceur's next book of poetry, Mad Long Emotion, will be published in March 2019 by Coach House Books
School Book: Deschooling Our Lives, edited by Matt Hern
Edited by deschooling advocate Matt Hern, this is a wide-ranging collection of pieces that tackle the history of public education and its alternatives. With selections from everyone from school reformer John Taylor Gatto, philosopher Ivan Illich, and Leo Tolstoy, this book was hugely influenced on me as I was struggling towards the end of high school and unsure of what I wanted to do next.
- James Lindsay is the author of Ekphrasis! Ekphrasis! (chapbook) with Anstruther Press
School Book: I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin
My pick is I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin. It’s a YA book about young women in their first year at college, written in emails and texts between two best friends.
It’s very funny but also covers some of the real tough stuff that first year away brings up for many of us.
- Rebecca Rosenblum is the author of So Much Love
School Book: The War with Mr. Wizzle, by Gordon Korman
All of Korman's Macdonald Hall books are wonderful portraits of student life, but this one, the fourth in the series, is a cut above. I recall it not only being rib-crackingly hilarious, but it also expanded my vocabulary (I encounter words like 'demerit' and 'computer' for the first time when I read it) and really showed the elaborate - and comical - lengths kids can go to when standing up to mindless authority. This is The Caine Mutiny for the middle-reader set.
- Mark Sampson is the author of The Slip
School Book: Miss Nelson is Missing, by Harry Allard (illustrated by James Marshall)
My favourite school book is the classic picture book, Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall, in which a rowdy class who enjoy terrorizing their sweet teacher gets a taste of their own medicine when mean Viola Swamp steps in as a sub. This book was first introduced to me in a truly spectacular act of subliminal messaging when it was read aloud to my class in elementary school by a teacher. It is a perfect example of how text and illustration work together, as the illustrations include clues that suggest that Miss Nelson is in fact Viola Swamp. This is the first book that taught me to really look at pictures, and I've been scouring illustrations for conspiracy theories ever since.
- Vikki VanSickle is the author of The Winnowing