Aug 1 2012 12:00pm

Author Mary Jo Putney on the Joy of Boarding School Books

Dark Destiny by M. J. PutneyToday, we are thrilled to welcome author Mary Jo Putney back to Heroes and Heartbreakers. Previously, Mary Jo wrote about authors Lois McMasterBujold and Barbara Samuel; today, she dons her YA hat and talks about British boarding school books. Mary Jo’s newest release in her YA series, Dark Destiny, is out now. Welcome, Mary Jo!

Popular fiction always has fantasy elements woven in: Fantasies of power, adventure, justice, romance. Young adult books have those, along with fantasies of kids having power—of being detectives and saviors. Of having magical abilities. Of really being princesses or gypsies and totally unrelated to the dorky family one lives in.

And among those fantasies are boarding schools.  When I told my sister that I was excited to be writing a blog on boarding school books, she said,

“You never went to a boarding school.”

“No, but I thought it would be totally cool to go to one.  Didn’t you?”

“Oh, yeah!” 

 I rest my case. 

The boarding school book is mostly a British genre, since the nation has a long tradition of boarding schools—Winchester College has been educating boys in the same buildings for over six hundred years. There are books for boys and books for girls because the schools themselves were divided by gender. There are also adult boarding school books such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and R. F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days series.

The first boarding school book, The Governess, or The Little Female Academy, was published in 1749, the same year as the seminal English novel, Tom Jones.  Probably not coincidentally, The Governess was written by Sarah Fielding and Tom Jones was written by her brother, Henry Fielding. I wonder if they brainstormed together? The Governess is considered the first book in English to be written especially for children. 

Tom Brown’s SchooldaysBoarding school books are a wonderful fit for the YA genre because young adults are usually in school and learning life lessons. One of the most famous of boarding school books is Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Written by Thomas Hughes and published in 1857, the novel is based on Hughes’s experiences at Rugby School in the 1830s. The book triggered a boom in school stories which supported Victorian attitudes about friendship, honor, loyalty, and good sportsmanship.

I’ve never actually read Tom Brown’s Schooldays myself, but the book is noteworthy because it inspired the Flashman series by George McDonald Fraser, who thought Tom Brown was a prissy wimp. The only character he liked in the book was Thomas Hughes’ villain, the bullying Flashman, who tormented Tom and was eventually expelled for drunkenness. 

The Flashman of Fraser’s series is, in his own words, “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and oh, yes, a toady.” Through undeserved luck, he not only survives, but usually ends being acclaimed as a military hero. In other words, Flashman is the complete antithesis of the earnest, honorable protagonist of traditional school books. The series is not only terrific fun, but a great education in 19th century military history.

But I digress. Why is the appeal of boarding school books? I think it’s because the school is a microcosm of life with young people at the center of the stories.  The outside world isn’t particularly relevant. 

Within the walls of the school, the protagonist must establish him or herself, make mistakes and friends, deal with enemies, achieve successes, and probably break the rules, though generally for a good cause. The books are hero’s journeys, with the protagonists maturing as they face difficult tests and ultimately win decisive victories. 

The boarding school book is less popular today since coed public education is the norm in both Britain and the US. Even the private schools are usually for day students, without boarders. 

But the subgenre continues to flourish in YA paranormal novels because the school becomes a place for the fantasy to flourish. There are tons of YA boarding school series: schools for vampires, schools for vampire hunters. For shape shifters and demigods.  For mages and angels. In each case, the school setting is a pressure cooker for Things Happening. 

Harry Potter’s HogwartsJ. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is, of course, the Godzilla of modern fictional boarding schools. Set at Hogwarts’ school for wizards and witches, the seven book series follows the classic path with each volume covering a year in the life of Harry Potter as he discovers his abilities, his roots, and his dangerous, heroic destiny. 

As in most contemporary boarding school books, Hogwarts is coed, which adds romantic possibilities. In theory, the setting is the modern world, but you don’t see much of that. The real action takes place within Rowling’s magical world. In the end, the great showdown between good and evil inevitably takes place at Hogwarts, which has been the center of the series. Good triumphs, but at a high cost to the characters because YA novels often explore the dark side of life, including death and other losses.

Since I loved reading Greek and Roman mythology as a kid, I’m particularly fond of Rick Riordan’s The Olympians series, starring Perseus (Percy) Jackson.  At Camp Half-Blood, all the students have a parent who is a Greek god, which makes them demigods. When students like Percy and his friends go out into the world on quests, the world we know is very recognizable, with monsters appearing in places like the streets of New York or in the Hoover Dam. 

The five book Olympians series was an international hit and ended with a grand world saving battle at the foot of Mt. Olympus, which floats unseen above the Empire State Building.  But who wants to end a rousing good series? Riordan came up with a really brilliant twist: a parallel world of Roman demigods at Camp Jupiter. They are similar, but by no means identical, to the descendants of the Greek gods. In his new series, the Greek and Roman demigods intersect.  Can they refrain from fighting each other and work together to stop a great evil? 

The list of boarding school books is long. Even if the genre is no longer as popular, I think it will continue to flourish because it’s such a great fantasy: enter an exciting, dangerous world of independence where you must make your way among your peers—and where you may experience magic. Hard to resist!

Did you fantasize going to boarding school when you were a kid? Fun, wasn’t it? <G>


Mary Jo Putney’s Dark Mirror YA series, written as M. J. Putney, was envisioned as an anti-Hogwarts series. Instead of kids learning to use their magic, they live in as alternative Regency England where aristocrats despise magic and send gifted children are sent off to Lackland Academy to be cured of their nasty magical abilities. Naturally, that doesn’t happen! Dark Destiny, third in the Dark Mirror series, is a July release.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I did think it sounded cool to go to boarding school! I'm sure the reality would have been much different, but we always want what we can't have, right?

Not sure it was actually a boarding school, but I loved the setting of Stephanie Perkins's Anna and the French Kiss, which was an American school in Paris. I'm definitely a sucker for romances set in academies or boarding schools.
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
I was always terrified at the thought of boarding schools--probably due to Jane Eyre, as I think about it. But I did read Tom Brown's Schooldays, and some other in that genre, and loved them. Thanks for reminding me of those books!
Saundra Peck
3. sk1336
I would have loved a boarding school, but could never have sent my own children...they were too precious and I would have missed them too much. Besides, books prove that the kids at boarding schools are ALWAYS the victims of something bad or paranormal!!! How could I be a mama bear to that!!! LOL P.S. Welcome back Mary Jo!
4. ChelseaMueller
I admit, I'm with @MFrampton in that I was always terrified of attending boarding schools. However, I love reading about them. Part of the reason they work so well in YA is you eliminate the adult factor. There isn't a parent to run home to, making the teens are more likely to rely on themselves or their friends to solve problems, etc. It is a great device for heightening the new independence we experience during adolescence.
Keira Soleore
5. KeiraSoleore
Love this post, Mary Jo!! My love for boarding school books started around eight with Enid Blyton's St Clare's and Mallory Towers series. I adored the characters, the midnight feasts, the mischievous tricks, the drive for excellence--all of it! I wanted to go live there so much. So when I read the first Harry Potter I was immediately captivated. To me the books felt like a cross between Enid Blyton and Tolkein.
Mary Jo Putney
6. MJPutney
I agree that real boarding schools were probably grim places--there were regular student riots at places like Eton because the boys were so ill-treated.

But the FANTASY of it---the freedom from adults--is powerfu. *G* Keira, I agree--Harry Potter is Enid Blyton meets Tolkein. What's not to like???
Margaret Evans Porter
7. Margaret Evans Porter
I was a day student at my prep school...was glad I didn't board.

Sorry to see the Wikipedia list of boarding school books didn't list my cousin's: The White Devil, partly based on his experiences at Harrow School outside London, and all the Byronic lore associated with it. A great and chilling read!

Congrats on the latest release!
Margaret Evans Porter
8. Isabel C.
I went to boarding school, after growing up at the various schools where my parents worked, and it was great. More independence, more of a chance to define your own identity, and more exposure to all sorts of people.

It did instill a morbid fear of having too much stuff (ARGH I will have to move this at the end of the year) but hey. Wrote a YA novel under "Isabel Kunkle," actually, based partly on my boarding-school-student/faculty-brat experiences.

All of the prep schools I experienced were coed, though. We heard of some single-sex schools; we always felt sorry for those kids. (Well, and made fun of 'em, because we were teenagers.) ;)
Margaret Evans Porter
9. anthonydavis
These schools are believed by some to experience a more challenging
curriculum, making certain they challenge his or her pupils and keep
these occupied and participatory throughout the school day.
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