Head Back to School with Novels for Students

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| By Sarah Robertson and Mark Mikula |

As students and teachers return to classrooms this fall, look to Gale’s For Students line for coverage of novels and other literary works with a back-to-school theme. Most notably, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling is 25 years old this month. The publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which was released in the United Kingdom in 1997 and then released in the United States under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, introduced Hogwarts, the school for wizards in training. It became a sensation through seven novels that fascinated readers with the flying sport of Quidditch, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, and the fickle whims of the Sorting Hat. The books were adapted for a film series released during the first decade of the 2000s.

Each book covers a year of the title character’s time at Hogwarts, and the journey of the protagonist calls readers to reflect on themes of death, good versus evil, racism and discrimination, free will versus fate, and love. Though all the novels remain popular with adults, at its heart, the series comprises a coming-of-age tale about Harry and his constant companions, Hermione and Ron. Much of the enduring series’ power lies in the fact that those eternal themes form a backdrop to a remarkably intimate and deeply realized fantasy world, where the strange and unfamiliar exist alongside the banal and the ordinary. Harry’s world is grounded in one we have all experienced: the world of scary schools, oddball teachers, tyrannical bullies, impossible exams, and young love. The Harry Potter series is covered in Novels for Students volume 62, which focuses exclusively on young adult novels.

Also set in an alternate universe, Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (volume 35), focuses on another trio of students, Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy. They are human clones who attend a boarding school called Hailsham in 1990s Britain; there, they create works of art under the guidance of teachers, called guardians. One of the novel’s themes is mortality. The clones have short life spans, so they learn to focus more intensely on the importance of relationships while they’re living.

Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (volume 47) deftly captures the churn of emotions associated with transitioning to the more adult world of teenage independence. It deals with such heavy situations as bullying, suicide, and childhood trauma. The main character, Charlie, processes his early high school experiences, especially as part of the party scene, through letters written to an unnamed recipient. The popular novel was adapted by the author for a 2012 film, starring Logan Lerman and Emma Watson (who, as it happens, also played Hermione in the Harry Potter film adaptations).

Angie Thomas’s timely contemporary young adult novel, The Hate U Give (volume 59), centers on the killing of a Black teenager by a white police officer. A witness to the shooting, Starr Carter (nicknamed Munch), has to process the event against the backdrop of the mostly white private school that she attends in a suburb of the fictional southern city of Garden Heights. Subjects like code-switching, in which people alter their language and communication style based on the people around them, and institutional racism, in which systems of oppression perpetuate discrimination, play a strong role in the storytelling.

John Knowles’s A Separate Peace (volume 2), published in 1959, is regarded by many high school instructors as a classic and deals with the nostalgia and lost innocence surrounding the school years. It focuses on the relationship between two young men, Gene Forrester and Phineas, at a boarding school in New Hampshire. The primary events of the novel take place in 1942, with the young men on the cusp of being eligible to serve overseas in World War II. The narrator is looking back 15 years on his relationship with Phineas and the critical role that he played in a tragedy that significantly altered the life of his classmate.

This selection of novels is merely a sampling of literary works covered in the For Students series that feature all types of schools as settings. Consider picking up one of these highlighted titles to join in on the annual fall tradition of heading back to the classroom in solidarity with students and teachers. Go deeper to learn more about the plots, characters, themes, and historical aspects of each work by exploring the entries in For Students that cover them.

About the Authors

Sarah Robertson is a writer, editor, and longtime contributor to For Students.

Mark Mikula is a senior content developer for several of Gale’s history databases and for For Students. He has competed in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and once lived in Bristol, Rhode Island, home to the oldest consecutively held Fourth of July celebration.

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