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9 Fantastic Prep School Novels

Posted: 05/22/2012 9:36 am

As a teenager, I attended what's known in affluent power circles as a "progressive" prep school: a place where students call teachers by their first names; where you can sprawl out on the (carpeted) floors during lunch because there isn't a cafeteria; and where, if you come to school in your bra, people will roll their eyes, but nobody will make you put on a shirt.

I always boasted about attending a school where creativity and independent thought were encouraged, but I was secretly obsessed with the other kind--those preparatory schools of Dead Poets' Society fame where tradition always trumps change and where the geeky, intellectual outsiders are locked in epic struggle with the athletic, popular, and cruel. Of course, it's always more complicated than this. In my own prep school novel, The Year of the Gadfly, the school's social underclass has its own hierarchy and exhibits its own treachery and desire for power.

I've now read 26 school novels and counting. My favorites depict adolescence at its most obsessive and raw. The young protagonists are often gravely misguided, but they struggle with a singular passion we don't often feel as adults. The following nine books were influences for The Year of the Gadfly [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.00] and are some of my favorites.

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
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This book truly is "the Moby Dick" of the prep school genre, as the Washington Post commented. The narrative covers the intricacies of teen drug abuse, eating disorders, pedophilia, bullying, alternate universes, and above all, unadulterated teenage love. And don't let the white whale comparison deter you from cracking this baby open. Almost everything in these 661 pages will keep you entertained. Significantly more so than fifty gazillion uses for ambergris. At the very least, read it for the hilarious dialogue between 14-year-old boys.
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