Boarding schools are prevalent in children’s literature – especially books for younger children. No, let me amend that. In books for younger children, boarding schools are presented more positively than in books for adolescents and teens where boarding schools are cesspools for evil and demonic activity – sometimes. Below I will look at some books set at boarding schools in some detail and try to discern the reasons they may be popular in the sense that children like to read about them though they probably wouldn’t like to separate from their family and go attend a boarding school.
Enid Blyton wrote many books and many of them, like Malory Towers, were set at boarding schools. Her boarding schools were obviously not co-ed and did not discuss the grittier, realistic issues that adolescents grapple with. Instead, they presented idealized versions of femininity (according to Blyton’s sensibilities) and were often overtly didactic in tone and content. That said, Blyton’s stories did make the young me yearn to go to a boarding school. Obviously as a sheltered child in Fiji, I had a weak grasp of what boarding school actually entailed. I just knew that it meant being with friends 24/7, getting to do whatever I wanted if I were smart about it and midnight feasts! Midnight feasts are a big deal in Blyton’s books. Being invited to a forbidden midnight feast, successfully carrying off a midnight feast even with the vigilance of the teachers around gave you a high status in the hierarchy of the school. Food and friends, you guys. How much easier can it be to appeal to children?
How can I talk about boarding school without talking about Hogwarts? I mean really, Hogwarts is as integral a character to the series as Dumbledore is. For Harry, Hogwarts is an escape from the dreary life that he has been living with his Aunt, Uncle and cousin. Themes of building a community of like-minded people are prominent in the novel. Finding acceptance and a place to belong to also rank high on Harry’s list of “Why I Must Go to Hogwarts.” The mechanics of the boarding school, I’d argue, are far less important (though, hey Houses!) than the fact that Harry, at last, finds himself among people he can call his own. That the niggling sense of wrongness that he has felt his entire life out in the human world is finally explained.
The Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray (and if you haven’t read her yet, you really should) is also set in a boarding school and those the school itself has less prominence in the narrative compared to the other series we have looked at, it does play a role in bringing together the main players and building a sense of community that the main characters choose to subvert. The series focuses intensely on friendship and what it means as is common among stories set in boarding schools.
Jellicoe Road is fantastic for many reasons and its setting at a boarding school is one of them. I can’t say much about it right now without getting into the details and I’m saving that for friendship month but let’s just say the concept of community is particularly strong in this one.
So from our rather hurried examination of these few series and novel, I think we can safely conclude that boarding schools make for such fun reading because they allow readers to transport themselves from often grimmer realities to places where one can find acceptance. For children who have to go to school (no matter how much they protest), idealized (because most of these do not deal with the terrible bullying and other not so palatable stuff) school stories that focus on friendship and acceptance offer an escape from their own lives. They offer a glimpse of freedom because teachers, though all powerful, cannot be around 24/7. And as smarter people than me have theorized, they let children place themselves in situations and work out from themselves, through the fictional lens, solutions for conflicts they may be facing in their real lives. For example, how the protagonists deal with bullies in novels may inspire them to do something about their own worries.
Are there any boarding school stories you loved as a child? Tell me about them!