A school story is something both universal and otherworldly, an experience that a reader both recognizes and that is completely foreign. The school story is a literary work that is focused primarily on characters’ experience in an educational setting. The setting becomes an integral part in the characters’ development and growth.
As one of the most popular subgenres in children/adolescent literature, the school story is generally defined as a narrative where the school is more than mere setting; rather, it is an integral part of the plot that helps dictate, through its own societal structure, the way in which child protagonists interact with one another and how they view the world both in school and outside of school. Elements of moral developments, coming of age, and school as a community and culture are large parts of what makes a school story.
The school story holds many forms. It can simply be the setting, a place where the plot unfolds for the characters. Many such school stories remove their character from their home life and take them to this magical world of the school – for instance, the Harry Potter, series, in which the adventures begin and end at the school and take place around the formative events of the school year (such as the welcoming feast, exams, and holidays). The school story can also be the foundation of the community that the story takes place in. It is the microcosm of the larger world, the place where we can examine social structures and ideas under a microscope.
School stories often focus on learning in some form, whether that be formal classroom education, outside experience, or both. The school story goes beyond just the setting then. The school story can create a sort of ‘character’ out of the school itself and this happens in a lot of ‘school story novels.’ The school, or school environment, as a type of ‘character’ influences the way that the protagonists ethics, morals, and ideas develop. For example, in Harry Potter, Hogwarts holds the houses in high regards and Gryffindors are seen as brave and loyal, consequently, Harry demonstrates brave and loyal behavior living up to the standards of the school. However, in Star Girl, Leo recognizes that school has taught him to be close-minded and to stereotype people who are different and he now faces the task of challenging what the school sees as ‘normal.’
School stories have a long and varied history.
The school story primarily began in privately owned boarding schools, or the English “Public School system.” as these boarding schools were very popular, the stories often promoted this system of education. This setting eliminated almost all adult influence besides teachers and instead shows a culture run and regulated by students. The school story promoted interest in moral education, character forming, and socialization.
Thomas Hughes Tom Brown Schooldays (1807) is considered to be prototype that popularized the form of the genre. In it “the book charts Tom’s moral evolution from his arrival at the school as a naive young boy through his maturation into a man upon his departure from the school at age nineteen.” Earlier predecessors include Sarah Fielding’s The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy (1749) and Charles and Mary Lamb’s Mrs. Leicester’s School(1809), but they didn’t have many of the elements of the genre.
By the end of the 19 century, the typical school story lost some popularity as it was considered oversaturated and cliched. Then, like most Young Adult Literature, a movement towards a more ‘realistic’ novel took place. Instead of portraying the child who goes to school, learns, and becomes an outstanding citizen the genre took a turn towards more ‘relatable.’ Rudyard Kipling’s book Stalky & Co. (1899) rebelled against the typical stereotypes of the “good boy” with its trio that sought to break out of that norm and, in the words of John Townsend, “it was difficult ever again to assert the innocent values of the classical school story.” The reaction against the typical framework continued through the 70s and 80s where a darker more realistic side, a side not represented by the typical school story, became popular. This was seen in works such as Rosa Guy’s The Friends (1973), Robert Cormier’s semi-tragic The Chocolate War (1974), and Gene Kemp’s Carnegie Award-winning The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler (1977) that held this realistic tone. In more recent years, Harry Potter has made a dramatic burst of popularity back to this genre.
The Modern School Story
Today, the “school story” has largely moved away from the boarding school setting to the more typical day-only schools that most students attend today. This shift brings changes as it involves more of a homelife and a setting where all students attend, not just those that just have the means to pay for boarding school. Examples include Star Girl by Jerry Spinelli, in which an eccentric girl shakes up one boy’s view of his normal school; and the Regarding the… series by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise, in which the lives of everyone in a particular school are changed by a mysterious, adventurous fountain designer who becomes one classroom’s pen pal. The idea of the boarding school lives on as well, mostly in literature aimed at older teens and giving more autonomy and leadership roles to students. Examples include John Green’s Looking for Alaska, which examines how a group of subversive kids at a boarding school find how much they learn from one another; and Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, set at an elite private girls’ school for training spies.
Today, a school story is most likely to be used in some way to create autonomy for teenaged characters. Especially in the case of boarding school stories, the removal of parental controls allows for teenagers to rise to positions of authority (whether officially sanctioned or not) and for them to test their own ideas and convictions. School stories also allow for a focus on character relationships of all types: with other characters, with authority, with education, with the world at large (or the microcosm of the world), and with the character’s own self. Too often though, in modern schools stories, the environment is one filled with drama where the characters feel need to conform and fit in. This is exemplified in the Gossip Girl series and the many series like it.
The most important qualities included in a school story are the setting in the school and some importance to the education that characters develop there. Another key element is a strong sense of characters building relationships or community. Most school stories will focus on the principle character and their closest friendships or relationships, and will usually include some kind of guiding mentor figure or figures that instruct the main characters on conflicts that extend beyond the main character’s knowledge or experience. Many school stories also feature some kind of antagonist that is the direct opposite of the protagonist and usually their own age.
“School Stories.” Childrens Literature Review. N.p.: Gale Literature Collections, 2008. Encylopedia.com. Web. 15 May 2016.
Tucker, Nicholas. “School Stories, 1970-1980.” Children’s Literature in Education 13.2 (1982): 73-8. Web.