I just want to pinch his cheeks.

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There are tons of fabulous, classic back-to-school picture books in the world, but my favorite of recent years is Lucy M. George and Merel Eyckerman’s Back to School Tortoise.

Rotund and baseball-capped Tortoise is so nervous about the first day of school!

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Kids can be mean, tortoises can be clumsy, times are tough. But this intrepid Tortoise is bucking up. He’s brave, he’s cheerful, he’s ready to learn, and so…!

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But there’s a twist ending to this little story… Tortoise is the teacher!

So it kind of bugs me when people talk about how adorable kids’ books are because I take myself too seriously, but come on. Look at this and tell me it isn’t the cutest damn thing you’ve ever seen in your life.

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I finally gave in and posted about Terry Pratchett. (Probably not for the last time.)

The faculty.

Unseen University isn’t like other schools. This could, I suppose, be said about most schools of magic, but Unseen University isn’t like other schools of magic, either. To start with, it’s located on the Discworld, which (as any Terry Pratchett fan can tell you) is a large flat planet that flies through the universe on the backs of four gigantic elephants, which, in turn, stand on the shell of an even more gigantic turtle. So, you know, as far as weirdness goes, that’s a start.

Also:

  • Due to a magical accident at some point in the distant past, the school’s Librarian is a large, hairy, and orange orangutan (not monkey, never monkey).
  • Other faculty members regularly featured include but are not limited to the Chair of Indefinite Studies, the Lecturer in Recent Runes, the Head of Inadvisably Applied Magic, and the Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography.
  • There are students, but the faculty generally doesn’t bother about them very much. More often than not, lectures are scheduled in rooms that don’t exist at all. Imparting knowledge is much less important than a good meal and a nice cigar in front of the fire.
  • It’s bigger on the inside. (Like the TARDIS!)
  • There’s a book chained in the basement.

I could obviously go on in this vein for a really very long time, but whenever I try to write about Terry Pratchett I just find myself wanting to endlessly quote passages from the books. I mean, why try to come up with my own words when his words already exist and they’re so much better? (On that note—I apologize in advance if I’ve accidentally swiped Pratchett wording anywhere in this post. Lines from Discworld novels have a way of embedding themselves in my subconscious.)

So instead, I’ll leave you with this: Unseen University both pays homage to, and mercilessly mocks, the magic schools of our imaginations. I can’t say I’d want to attend, but UU has appeared in more than fifteen books thus far, and I still haven’t had enough.

Also, Terry Pratchett is a genius and most everything he’s written is worth reading. And rereading.

Picking just one middle grade novel is the worst.

9781416971719If we’re going to talk about books about school, then we’re going to have to talk about middle-grade novels. (Middle-grade, for the non-kids-book people out there, are books for right around the eight- to twelve-year-old age bracket. Think Bridge to Terabithia or Walk Two Moons or whatever book you loved best in fifth grade.) And it’s, like, really really hard to pick just one middle-grade novel to represent all the wealth of awesome schoolish books out there. Ramona the Pest (or pretty much anything else) by Beverly Cleary. Frindle by Andrew Clements. Because of Mr. Terupt by Rod Buyea (not quite a classic, but oh, to have a teacher like Mr. Terupt!). And those are just a few of the realistic ones. There are a ton more that are about, I don’t know, wizards or something.

But the one school book that I really want to put in every single person’s hands is Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind.

Melody is a brilliant ten-year-old girl. She’s the most brilliant ten-year-old girl in her whole school—only nobody knows it but her. Because she has cerebral palsy, Melody can’t speak, write, or walk; she’s been in a wheelchair her whole life, and she spends every day at school in a special needs classroom, going over the alphabet over and over, unable to tell anyone what’s on her mind. But when she’s in fifth grade, everything changes at once. The school decides to integrate the special-needs kids into the mainstream classroom, so for the first time, Melody is surrounded by new ideas every day. And, best of all, she finally has a way to express those thoughts that have been bouncing around her head her whole life: she gets a MediTalker, a special computer that can speak for her. Now Melody has a voice—and, just like everyone else, she’s got to figure out how to make herself heard.

My favorite thing about this book is the fact that, ultimately, it’s just a story about a fifth-grade girl trying to find her place. Melody has a very serious physical disability, yes, but she also has a sharp mind and a desire to make friends and a competitive spirit and a talent for leadership. School is the central setting of her life, just like it is for so many fifth graders. But for Melody, her school’s choice to support her needs makes it possible for her to live outwardly as the person she’s always been on the inside.

I don’t miss being a teenager.

Skim_bookcoverSkim is written by Mariko Tamaki and drawn by Jillian Tamaki, the same cousin team who more recently collaborated on This One Summer, which Dana recommended a couple of months ago for our “Summer Reads” theme. Of course there are similarities, and I love both books, but Skim is a story of a different order: more intense, more mature, and much, much darker.

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It’s narrated by Kimberly Keiko Cameron (aka Skim), a Catholic school tenth grader whose diary over the course of the school year forms the backbone of the story. It’s a big year (as are all years when you’re that age, I suppose), and as Skim struggles to figure herself out, not to mention everyone else, she’s confronted with everything from sexuality to suicide.

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To say that Skim is a book about school is obviously a major oversimplification. But of the many wonderful young adult novels I’ve read that explore what high school is like for teenagers, this one is probably the most beautiful. And I’m not just talking about the gorgeous illustrations.

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The more time I spend with this book, the more I appreciate its delicate, woven construction and raw, searching depth. And though I do wish I’d known to read it when I was in 10th grade, it has a resonance that’s impossible to outgrow. We all need the occasional reminder that being sixteen is really, really hard.

The high-stakes game of college admissions

9780142003084So I went to this high school that was *very* focused on college. I spent a lot of time obsessing and a lot of time reading college guidebooks and how-to-write-the-greatest-college-essay-ever books and making lists of perfect colleges to apply to and…whatever, it was unhealthy. In any case, I am now a relatively well-adjusted adult, but I still have a tiny hangover obsession with how people apply to and get into super selective colleges. And the best book I’ve ever read on that topic is The Gatekeepers by former New York Times education reporter Jacques Steinberg.

During the 1999-2000 school year, Steinberg shadowed Ralph Figueroa, an admissions officer at Wesleyan University. In the fall, he travels all over his territory trying to convince as many students as possible to apply to Wesleyan for the class of 2004; in the winter, he reads their applications as quickly as possible and says no far more often than yes.

Ralph is a pretty interesting guy: the child of Mexican immigrants, he spent a lot if his youth trekking around southern California with his teacher mother and working with underserved students. And as an admissions officer, one of his major objectives is to bring as much diversity as possible to Wesleyan’s campus. The Gatekeepers follows six of that year’s applicants, including a star writer/white boy from Staten Island, a black Latina ballerina/academic superstar from Los Angeles, an almost perfect (except for one tiny pot brownie) student body president, and a spotty-on-paper Native American kid that Ralph desperately wants to bring to campus. Each of these kids has a unique story, and watching their college selection processes take shape—sometimes in their own words and sometimes from Ralph’s perspective—is fascinating.

One word of caution, though: don’t read this book if you’re in the process of applying to college. It will just make you obsess more. But otherwise, this is character-driven narrative nonfiction at its best. (Also, all the people are real and you can google them for a create-your-own-epilogue. But don’t, because that’s creepy.)

(Also, we’re linking to Nicola’s Books this month. It’s in Ann Arbor, MI, which is where, after much agony, I landed for college lo those many years ago.)

September 2014: School

It’s September now, and even for those of us whose lives no longer revolve around the academic year, it’s difficult not to associate this time of the year with, you know, school. So we figured, why fight it? There’s a wonderful array of great books of all kinds about schools of all kinds, and this month seemed like a pretty good moment to share some of our favorites with you.

(Again, we’ll refrain from posting about Harry Potter (because, you know) but seriously, talk about a wonderful back-to-school read. Just sayin’.)