Whatever happened to the school story?

This week my MA course is asking the question: ‘Whatever happened to the school story?’

The purpose of this is to examine how popular books such as those written by Enid Blyton (Malory Towers, St Clare’s) and Elinor Brent-Dyer (Chalet School) have evolved and whether the genre has declined or changed by modern children’s authors. The books we considered were The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp,  Malarkey by Keith Gray, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling and school series by authors such as Enid Blyton.

Image courtesy of firstnews.co.uk

The heyday of school stories

Many people of my age or older will remember (fondly or not) Enid Blyton’s popular school series: Malory Towers and St Clare’s. You probably would have preferred one over the other (for me, it was Malory Towers, for Holly – St Clare’s). The structure was pretty formulaic – the main character(s) are generally good sorts, but have the odd compulsory fault or two (eg Daryl Rivers’ bad temper, and the twins Isobel’s and Pat’s initial aloofness). While at boarding school, they become chums with similar girls, have midnight feasts, play jokes on unsuspecting French teachers, and try to take a boastful or overly posh peer down a peg or two. There are occasionally mini-dramas, but nothing too appalling or unsettling. Vanity and laziness are criticized, and academic persistence and sportiness are applauded. Even though these girls are from families with some wealth, they are not overly rich, and those who come from very wealthy backgrounds are often portrayed negatively (especially if they are only children). There is a great emphasis on not getting above oneself – modesty is encouraged, though occasionally the girls become rather condemnatory and self-righteous which to modern audiences might seem either humorous or irritating.

So what happened to this particular brand of storytelling?

Even in the early part of the twentieth century, the percentage of children attending boarding schools was pretty low. The fact that these stories didn’t represent the reality of most children in the country might have had an effect on this genre becoming less popular, but it’s debatable since children nowadays still get a lot from these books, and not only are they from a different educational background, they are also very different to the children of 60+ years ago.

So let’s look at the authors. Apparently, those who might have gone or did go to boarding schools a few decades ago (at least) probably didn’t have that great a time as the gals at St Clare’s and Malory Towers. Instead they might have preferred to write about different experiences and not romanticize a situation that held little fun or comfort for them.

And perhaps it’s just the way the literary ball rolls. Trends, and all that. Books, like television programmes, have become ‘grittier’ and more concerned with portraying social conditions and societal issues such as gender, race, sexuality. This has resulted in the sort of books that we looked at this week.

Nitty gritty

I am going to show my age and reading preferences here when I state that I really don’t like school stories nowadays. I reviewed The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler last June in advance of this module (you can read it here).

image courtesy of Wikimedia.org

The book won the Carnegie Medal and is lauded for challenging gender stereotyping through its main protagonists (I can’t say too much as the very last page is a massive ‘reveal’). But while it is perhaps more playful than other books in this genre I just didn’t feel it was a satisfying read. It sort of potters along in a series of trivial events and then ends. There is one element to the plot that hints at tension but even this is not incredibly nail-biting. There is not much sense of fun and most of the action takes place outside of the school which really begs the question: should this be considered a school story at all?

The next book was Malarkey by Keith Gray.

image courtesy of scottishbooktrust.com

This book is aimed more at teenagers, I would argue, rather than Blyton’s pre-teen books. The subject matter makes this an older read; newcomer John Malarkey is accused of a theft he didn’t commit within a few hours of starting at a new school. He is framed for the crime by a violent and frightening gang and the teachers seems disinterested in hearing his side of the story. The story focuses on the unpleasant realities of blackmail and bullying and is as far from playing an innocent trick on Mademoiselle as you can get.

I just don’t think you can compare this book to post-war boarding school tales. It reads rather like an episode of Eastenders – with drama and tension and shedloads of social commentary. I came away from this drained and depressed and thinking that comprehensive schools are horrible places for any child to be in (and I went to a pretty rough one myself – things have obviously become far worse since the 1980s). There is a place for gritty realism, and perhaps a teenage audience would enjoy the frenetic pace of this book but this can’t be compared in the same light as school stories intended for children in primary schools. Unless you want to traumatise them beyond belief. I won’t be sharing this book with Holly any time soon.

Welcome back, old favourite

The nearest modern book that approaches the heyday of the school story is JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – and the rest of the series, come to that. It reverts to placing the action mostly in the school setting, rather than using school as a catalyst for events that unfurl away from its boundaries. The children are looked after by surrogate parents (wizards and witches) and have a fairly typical school experience (barring battles with Voldemort and his cronies). Not a lot of attention is paid to lessons as no one picks up a school story to read pupils’ reactions to particle physics (or in Harry Potter, a detailed description of the Dark Arts), but instead adventures, allegiances and rivalries form in the corridors of this magical kingdom and a sense of community and peer support permeates the pages (with a few exceptions of course). The cleverness of these books is that the early ones can be read and enjoyed by primary-school pupils while the later books are suitable for teens and adults. Rarely has a children’s book had such universal appeal.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.org

So, where does this fascination for the world of Hogwarts come from? Our course materials point out that adult readers might enjoy the books so much because they hark back to their childhood days spent reading, you guessed it, series like Malory Towers. These books don’t give two figs about realism and grittiness and social issues, although the snobbery about Muggles by wizardry families could be seen as having a parallel in social snobbery between the classes.

Critics who have examined the books have accused Rowling of failing to deal with modern concerns such as gender and sexual equality, demanding to know why there are no positive representations of homosexual relationships within the books and why she chose a male hero over a female equivalent. This, they say, is gender stereotyping: does she not believe a female could have overcome the wicked Voldemort? I posed this question to Holly whose eyes nearly rolled back into the recesses of her head. The name that immediately came from her mouth was ‘Hermione’. I suggested that if Rowling wanted to empower females she could have made Hermione the hero, and was she sexist for not doing so? ‘No,’ was the very firm reply. Without Hermione, Harry could not have achieved as much as he did. She was a great character. I pointed out that she needed rescuing by Harry and Ron from an ogre in the first book and she replied, ‘Well, like, wouldn’t you need help defeating an ogre if you were by yourself? Duh!’ (She’s getting into teen-speak at the moment.)

It is a valid question why Rowling didn’t use a girl instead of a boy for the  hero. It would have made a huge difference, as JK Rowling admitted in a webchat a little while back:

Denise— London: If Harry Potter was a girl, do you think his adventures would have been different?
J. K.  Rowling replies -> Yes, I do think they would be different. I imagined Harry as a boy from the start, so I’ve never thought about ‘Harriet Potter’, but I’m sure lots of things in the books would change, Ron for a start, he’d have to be Ronalda.

(courtesy of http://harrypotter.bloomsbury.com/author/interviews/individual2)

No one can say why Rowling chose a boy to play the heroic role in her series – and it sounds like the author herself just always ‘knew’ that he would be so. One could argue that perhaps she was affected by tradition, where the boy was the hero, or perhaps she wanted to write in the opposite gender to herself to avoid over-identification with the main character. I know writers who make this active decision.

It depends how you rate a book. As adults we adopt different criteria to children: Is the book worthy? Does it challenge stereotypes? Does it help children understand and accept diversity?

Children I think read for different reasons. They want to be challenged, entertained, kept on the edge of their seats. Plot is everything for a young child, and characterization can afford to be sparse. They want to know what happened next. And often characterization can be driven through a protagonist’s actions and speech. A page detailing the inner monologue of a pre-teen is not going to fascinate a pre-teen.

I think adults mediating the world of children’s literature need to tread carefully. It is important to enable children to become aware of issues, but we must also keep space for books that exist to delight, to entertain, to engage. Moral posturing will do nothing to raise awareness or create socially committed children. As seen in the massive success of Harry Potter, you don’t need the nitty gritty of realism to speak to millions of children.

What are your favourite school stories? Do you like books that have a moral message or that actively seek to portray diversity in modern society?



  1. It’s hard to explain why authors choose a specific gender as their main character. I always write male characters without a clear reason why, maybe I just prefer not to relate so much to the character where I might end up creating a mary sue, or I just like to paint out an ideal yet flawed male ‘crush’.

    Gender is one thing, but a story can go beyond gender. There’s so much you can put into a children’s novel, and I think gender should be the least of the ‘lessons’ taught. I’ve never judged a book for its characters’ genders, I judge a book from the character’s judgement… because at the end of the day, a child is not going to care if their hero is a girl or a boy, they just know the hero is a hero because he/she made the right decisions.


    • Thank you so much for your comments on this. I agree with you that there is more to a children’s book than gender. I guess lit critics like to look at these issues as they, arguably, help shape readers’ perceptions of life but I still find many of the claims or suggestions much too farfetched! And I also agree that children are captivated by a hero for their actions and sense of morality perhaps rather than whether they are male or female.
      Thank you!


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