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Back-to-School Reads

Is there a heat advisory while I’m typing this back-to-school themed article? You bet! Am I imagining that there is a hint of summer losing its bite in the air? Always.

I am not an adult who views school days with a lot of nostalgia. I didn’t have horrible experiences in school—just your average teen angst paired with social anxiety and questionable hair choices.

Still, it’s no wonder that high school and college are mined so frequently as sources of literary inspiration. Even the most average school experience is rife with possibilities for characters (administrators, teachers, parents, students) and the chance to explore an intensity of emotion that is rarely replicated in any other time of life.

My favorite school settings are ones with some underlying darkness. Murder? Sometimes. Secret societies? Always welcome!

But most often, it’s just the darkness of becoming—the reckoning that comes with recognizing your capacity to inflict hurt, or make a terrible choice, or act out of self-interest.

For me, a good coming-of-age novel should always have some element of the protagonist’s shadow self. We need to see some of that dark side, so that a coming-of-age story feels authentic.

There’s no shortage of dark in these back-to-school titles. Some are satirical and witty, some mysterious, and some introspective, but all will take you back-to-school without your having to attend your high school reunion (yikes!).

I hope you’ll find one or two to enjoy and that these will magically usher in fall weather. All annotations are from NoveList unless otherwise specified.

I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai

An engaging story of a boarding school high school murder being solved 20 years later by true-crime podcast enthusiasts. Or is it a story of memories and how you interact with them, depending on your stage in life, your emotional state, and your own biases, or one about how as a teen you simultaneously know everything and know nothing? Or is it all three? (from LibraryReads)

Election by Tom Perrotta

A comic story about a philandering high-school history teacher in the midst of a student-body election gone haywire.

Trust Exercise by Suan Choi

Falling in love while attending a competitive 1980s performing arts high school, David and Sarah rise through the ranks before the realities of their family dynamics and economic statuses trigger a spiral that impacts their adult lives.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

A transfer student from a small town in California, Richard Papen is determined to affect the ways of his Hampden College peers, and he begins his intense studies under the tutelage of eccentric Julian Morrow.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

The unconventional secret childhood bond between a popular boy and a lonely, intensely private girl is tested by character reversals in their first year at a Dublin college that render one introspective and the other social, but self-destructive.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A reunion with two childhood friends—Ruth and Tommy—draws Kath and her companions on a nostalgic odyssey into the supposedly idyllic years of their lives at Hailsham, an isolated private school in the serene English countryside, and a dramatic confrontation with the truth about their childhoods and about their lives in the present.

Rebecca Howard is the regional manager of Tulsa City-County Library. During her 15 years with Tulsa City-County Library, Rebecca launched the readers advisory service Your Next Great Read, and served as TCCL’s county-wide Literacy Coordinator. Rebecca writes Public Radio Tulsa's monthly column Imprint.