The Best and Worst Boarding Schools in YA
August is coming to an end, and even though it’s been a few years since I’ve had the perversely strange pleasure of picking out new folders and pens, I’m thinking about school. I went to schools of varying degrees of quality and remoteness in a handful of Midwestern states, and while I’m appreciative in many ways of my public school education, there is a part of me that longed for the romance of boarding school. I loved reading stories about poor orphans—often of the saucy, 19th-century variety—being shipped off to boarding school. There they had a tough time at first, but then pulled pranks, made friends against all odds, and emerged as begrudgingly respected young scholars. I just ate these novels up. I think part of the magic of the posh boarding school was that it was so far removed from my actual small town, rural schooling experience. It was nothing like my school, so it was pure fantasy.
Now when I think of the idea of boarding school it seems more like a haven for wealth and nepotism at best and a punishment for bad behavior at worst. Even if my family could have afforded it and I was able to get into a private boarding school, I’m not sure that I would have thrived there. Too much keeping up with the Joneses and uniforms. But I still love to read those boarding school books and imagine the prefects and head girls in their best blazers and plaid skirts. It’s escapism at it’s best for a girl who went to a high school where traditionally the last day of school was unofficially Drive-Your-Tractor-to-School-Day, and we got the first day of deer hunting season off as a holiday. Did I mention my high school was pretty rural?
But not all boarding schools sounded like a good time. Some seemed downright tortuous and rife with bullies, cruel teachers, and often, unspeakable evil. So, in honor of September and to get you ready for school no matter what your age, here are my top five best and worst boarding schools to attend in YA fiction.
Let’s start with the worst:
5. Miss Minchin’s from A Little Princess by Frances Hodges Burnett
I certainly would not want to go to a school where the headmistress hates me. This was a favorite story growing up, but the best part was Sara’s courage throughout her entire ordeal of riches, to rags, and back to riches again.
4. St. Joan’s from Conversion by Katherine Howe
I immediately read this book when it came out, because it was set in my little corner of New England and modeled after a boys’ prep school—this is the one non boarding school on the list!—in the area. When reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible many of the girls at the school start exhibiting symptoms similar to the “bewitched” girls of Puritan Salem such as their hair falling out, uncontrollable shakes, or vomiting pins. The school, sensing a scandal on their hands, does their best to cover it all up. While it all gets sorted in the end, this is not the idyllic environment full of hijinks that I want from my fantasy boarding school experience.
3.Alabaster Prep from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Don’t get me wrong, Frankie is one of my favorite YA characters, and I love this book, but I don’t really want to attend this school. There’s nothing I hate more than an “Old Boys’ Club,” and Alabaster Prep seems uninterested in shutting the The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. It’s acceptable when it’s boys pull pranks, but when Frankie is determined to join? The school finally decides to crack down. I’ll take the pranks with Frankie and leave the sexism, thanks very much.
2. Battle School from Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
There’s nothing like an elite militarized school where teachers look the other way and even encourage violence, because the whole point of the school is the train children to be genocidal killers. Fun! Or not. Honestly, the only thing in Battle School that sounds remotely tolerable are the zero gravity war games, because the rest of the time you never know when someone is going to jump you in the bathroom or just be super homophobic and awful.
1. The School for Good (Evers) and the School for Evil (Nevers) from The School for Good and Evil by Somani Chainani
Not only do these twin schools steal children from their homes—not cool—but the schools don’t allow the students to be fully realized characters. After being kidnapped, the children are placed in a school to be fairy tale heroes or villains. There is no room for ambiguity or a spectrum of morality: students are either destined to be good or destined to be bad. The books do upend the tropes a bit by placing a misanthropic and ugly—yes, the book goes on and on about how ugly she is which is really frustrating—student in the School for Good while beautiful Sophia is destined to become a villain. Again, while traditional fairy tale tropes get reversed at the end, the strict binary focus of the schools’ sounds like a drip.
Now on to the best:
5. Armedius Academy from The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
Set in an alternate United States where the greatest heroes wield chalk and geometry against the creatures called “Wild Chalkings,” this school would give me the chance to work on my math and drawing skills. I am not really very good at either of those subjects, but the imaginative world where the greatest threat is two-dimensional beings sounds thrilling! Though, you do have to be a quick draw and be able to solve a mystery to be able to survive.
4. Wyverley College from Sabriel by Garth Nix
Though the school doesn’t get a lot of details in the book, Wyverley College is the location for the big battle against the Dead at the end of the story. Students there learn all the usual subjects: mathematics, reading, history, fighting for those who are inclined, and of course magic. Sabriel clearly makes close friends here eventually naming her daughter after a friend and sending her to Wyverley when she is old enough. Like the students of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, the college girls are ready for when the big baddie Kerrigor makes his attack on the school. They are noble and brave, and I would have loved to attend school there, especially to befriend Sabriel or her family members.
3. Gotham Academy from Gotham Academy by Brendan Fletcher and Becky Cloonan
Okay, so I’ve only read the first trade paperback, but this school is checking all the boxes for me: adorable uniforms, mysterious happenings that need investigating, and the character Maps. Okay, Maps is really all the boxes I need checked. Her complete self-assuredness and love of all things potentially dorky is everything I wanted to be brave enough to be when I was younger. Hell, I wish that I was as confident and sure of myself now. Maps forever! A creepy, falling-apart school with the chance of a Batman sighting makes this academy even more enticing.
2. Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality from Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series
A school where you not only learn how to serve tea and the steps of the most fashionable dance of the season, but you also learn the secrets of spycraft and assassination? I would like to enroll immediately; I’ll have my corset shipped to the dirigible at once! Yes, the school is hosted on dirigible in an alternate universe steampunk England with werewolf teachers and a steam powered dog robot named Bumbersnoot. Really, it sounds like a most smashing time.
1. Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
For many of my generation and on, this is the crème de la crème of all boarding schools. Seriously, it has everything: adventure, mystery, magic classes, ghosts, secret passageways, mythological creatures, you name it. And if it’s not there and you need it, well, the Room of Requirement will probably make it for you. I didn’t read Harry Potter until after college, but that doesn’t diminish the magic of Hogwarts for me. If you are able to read Harry Potter and not want to go to Hogwarts even a little, you’re missing the point of the books. All of the good and bad things about school and growing up can be found at Hogwarts, from the isolation and the awkwardness to the really amazing part of becoming the person you were meant to be. It’s all there. Just tell me you aren’t waiting for an owl to bring you that thick, creamy paper with your acceptance!
Any great, fictional boarding schools that I missed? Are you ready to turn in your drab every day clothes for the blazer and skirt of a magical academy? Or did you actually go to a boarding school, and it’s miserable in real life? I truly hope not, but if so, at least these wonderful schools may distract you.