The Blagger's Guide To: School books
See me after class: a new generation of school stories
Sunday 13 January 2013
Welcome back to school, boys and girls. If you're lucky, you'll have an English teacher who will set you up as a lover of reading for life. If you're unlucky, you're about to be put off some of the most exciting books ever written. And if you're really hating it, don't worry: you're not alone. Some of the best books for both children and adults are set in schools:
The classic school novel is Tom Brown's School Days by Thomas Hughes, which is set at Rugby School in the 19th century. It inspired an assembly of anarchic fiction set in posh schools: Charles Hamilton's Billy Bunter stories and books; James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr Chips, thought to be based on The Leys School in Cambridge, which the author attended; Ronald Searle's St Trinian's (based on St Mary's School for Girls, in Cambridge) and Molesworth, and Enid Blyton's Malory Towers. Nobody has ever pinned down a direct inspiration for Hogwarts, in JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, but the most popular suggestion appears to be George Heriot's School in Edinburgh.
Not all authors enjoy reading at school. For instance, Sally Gardner, who won the Costa Children's Book Award earlier this month for her fifth novel, Maggot Moon, was severely dyslexic and didn't read at all until she was 14. "My education was a write-off", she told The Independent. I couldn't do any of the exams. I was totally ignored, and I've never forgotten it." Her winning book is about Standish Treadwell, a 15-year-old boy who has, like her, been written off by his teachers. She hopes her winning this prize will be "an inspiration for anyone who dreams".
Another prolific author who was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child is the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, who is now the author of three novels and nine works of non-fiction, two of them about Stalin. His latest is the bestselling Jerusalem: The Biography (2011). His wife is the author Santa Montefiore, and her sister Tara Palmer-Tomkinson is herself the author of two novels and the 2007 book, The Naughty Girl's Guide to Life. Tara went to Hanford School and then Sherbourne School for Girls, but her educational school career was not the most illustrious. "I put laxatives in the coffee at staff meetings," she has revealed, "and I drew an enormous great penis on three lacrosse pitches thinking I was using tennis course whitener, but I'd got the wrong bottle — I actually used weed killer. Parts of it could still be there today, who knows?"
This month, Atom publishes the second in CJ Daugherty's series of Night School books, which are set at an elite private school called Cimmeria Academy. The school is based on the real life progressive school, Frensham Heights, in Surrey (alma mater to comedians Jack Dee and Rufus Hound, the rapper Coolio and the Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason), but Daugherty tells the Blagger that she also had other inspirations in mind: "Night School [the first book in the series] was inspired by a photo of Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson when they were teenagers in the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. Similar secret societies exist at private schools around the world, and it all made me wonder what those groups are really about. We assume they're purely social but what if there's more to it? The children of prime ministers, billionaires and kings can almost get away with anything. And if you were 16 and could get away with anything … what might you do?" Legacy (£6.99) was published on 3 January.
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