The leaves are turning and the crisp air announces the arrival of fall. Wherever you are, the start of school brings new experiences. On high school and college campuses, students are assessing their coursework, breaking open new books, and making friends. The novels and memoirs below feature the ups and downs of campus life. From the pressures of academics to the excitement of new relationships, they present the challenges we all face navigating the social life of school.
Educated is Tara Westover’s inspiring memoir that shares her struggles to break free from unhealthy familial bonds in pursuit of her full potential. Bright, but uneducated, Tara is determined to learn more about the world despite her survivalist parents’ choice to live in relative isolation from society, in the mountains of Idaho. Their distrust of the government instills fear and distrust in Tara and her siblings, and prevents them from attending school. Throughout her childhood, the family struggles to survive in the face of limited job opportunities. However, after suffering severe emotional and physical abuse from an older brother, Tara gains the strength to forge her own path in the pursuit of knowledge. She finds the courage to strike out on her own and manages to attend college despite unsupportive parents—eventually attending Harvard and Cambridge Universities, earning both bachelor’s and doctoral degrees.
The Hate U Give
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, tells the story of sixteen-year-old Starr Carter who witnesses the shooting of a childhood friend, Khalil Harris, by a police officer. Starr lives in an impoverished inner-city neighborhood but attends a privileged prep school where most students don’t understand the dangers of growing up black in America. It doesn’t take long for the shooting to make national headlines and for protesters to erupt in her community demanding justice. The publicity threatens to plunge Star into an unwanted spotlight. As she navigates between her neighborhood and school, she must decide whether to risk the safety of her family and future by speaking up against the murder of her friend or remain silent about the brutal killing.
A Separate Peace
A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, is a coming-of-age story about the tumultuous relationship between best friends, Gene Forrester and Phineas. Set at an exclusive prep school in New Hampshire during the early 1940s and World War II, the roommates, who have opposite personalities, become unlikely friends. Although the war is not being fought in their country, the boys feel its threat since they are close to the age of enlistment. Overtime, Gene feels increasingly threatened by Phineas’ athleticism. Eventually, the boys’ close bond devolves into a destructive rivalry that drives Gene to commit a brutal act of betrayal against Phineas. Both boys are forced to confront their motivations, fears, and the grim consequences of Gene’s selfish actions which change their lives forever.
Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli, is a novel about an odd high-school student who calls herself “Stargirl.” At first, she is embraced by other classmates despite her unusual behavior of carrying a pet rat and breaking out in celebratory song and dance. Stargirl’s enchanting presence entertains and inspires other students, including Leo Borlock, who begins to fall in love with her. However, after she commits a series of selfless, but misunderstood acts of kindness, her new-found popularity begins to diminish. Leo encourages Stargirl to act more “normal” so they can continue their relationship. When she complies, she still can’t shed the negative label of being different; the dramatic change threatens to destroy her magical persona. Stargirl and Leo are forced to question the value of abandoning uniqueness for the sake of conformity.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli, is a novel about a gay sixteen-year-old, Simon Spier, who struggles with keeping his sexual identity a secret. He is excited to cultivate a hidden relationship by email with an unknown admirer named “Blue,” until his classmate Martin threatens to “out” him after inadvertently seeing their heart-felt correspondence. Meanwhile, Simon’s involvement in the school musical and interactions with other students keeps him guessing who “Blue” might be. Eventually, as social pressures to disclose his secret mounts, Simon is forced to confront his worst fears and find the courage to reveal who he truly is to classmates, friends, and family.
One of Us is Lying
One of Us is Lying, by Karen M. McManus, is no ordinary depiction of high school drama. It’s an unsettling murder mystery that keeps the reader guessing. As rumors swirl around four classmates in different cliques, one student outcast, Simon Kelleger, is determined to destroy their reputation through a scandalous gossip app he created called About That. When Simon dies suddenly while serving in detention with Addy, Bronwyn, Nate, and Cooper, all four students become prime suspects. An investigation into the app by police reveals unpublished exposés of each, which leads the authorities to surmise one of them could have committed an act of murderous revenge. As the four classmates conduct their own investigation into the mysterious circumstances surrounding Simon’s death, they soon learn to question the unfounded assumptions they hold about each other.
The Secret History
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, is a novel following six privileged but disturbed students who attend an exclusive college. Each has their own demons to grapple with as they descend into a spiral of debauchery that eventually leads to murder. They are encouraged by their amoral professor, who teaches Ancient Greek studies, to immerse themselves in their research. The group of intellectual deviants push the boundaries of their studies by trying to replicate a Dionysian ritual practiced by the ancient Greeks. Tragedy occurs when their debauchery leads to the accidental, but savage death of a man. Their relationships slowly unravel as drug addiction and blackmail cause them to spiral into further emotional instability and acts of violence and murder.
Bunny, by Mona Awad, is a fantastical novel about a lonely MFA student, Samantha Heather Mackey, who finds friendship with a clique of wealthy classmates. These unscrupulous but imaginative women, who call each other “Bunny,” seduce Samantha with erotic tales, drugs, and magic. When they invite her to collaborate on their collective literary project, she is coerced into the bizarre ritual of turning rabbits into handsome young men that are killed by the “Bunnies” once an inadequacy is discovered. Samantha, desperate for companionship, delves deeper into drugs with the shameless encouragement of her friends. Soon, she must choose between an authentic and healthy relationship with a poetry student or the “Bunnies” guiding her on an uncertain path to self-destruction.