So the new school year is about to begin — but instead of new pencils and folders, many readers are contemplating questions like “Where do I get extra-long twin sheet sets anyway?” and “The textbooks cost how much?” In other words, they’re heading off to college.
I thought it would be fun to take a look at the college experience from the perspective of several different genres, with a mixture of books published as YA and crossover titles you might have missed from the adult shelves.
The snow in the mountains was melting, and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history … It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforeseen events. We hadn’t intended to hide the body where it could be found.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
How did the narrator (a Classics student named Richard Papen) and his friends come to the point of getting away with murder? His longing to attend to a quaint New England college, to be accepted into the elite fraternity of Classics majors studying under the charismatic professor Julian Morrow, was the beginning of a slippery slope. You’ll want to keep turning the pages to see how far Richard can fall while remaining a wry and witty storyteller to the end.
“Jenny,” observed Clive, “your family has made more than its share of sacrifices for the public good … Your late brother saved how many lives when the seawall broke? How does it feel, going off to college without him?”
Her eyes found the prompt again. Emphasize the consonants, her mother always said. Jenny expelled each word. “I … am … proud to remember, Clive, that Jordi left his estate to the Manhattan restoration fund.”
The pollmeter rose cheerfully. Everyone liked a hero. Jordi, who’d lost his life saving others. And Jenny, the twin who lived.
The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski
Jennifer Ramos Kennedy (yes, she’s related to those Kennedys) has spent her life in the public eye — in a world where screens are everywhere and people can send texts directly from their brains. Global warming has flooded the coasts, alien bacteria are the world’s most threatening invasive species, people (including Jenny herself) are routinely genetically engineered, and Jenny’s college choice is located in a frontier space habitat attached to earth by a cord of living bacteria. But some things, like the anxiety of leaving home, and the pain of trying to move on after loss, are basically the same.
Part of the fun of science fiction, in my opinion, is being plunked down in the middle of a new world (or a new version of our world) and trying to figure out what’s going on; the speculative technology and hard science terms come thick and fast in this one, so be prepared. At the same time, Slonczewski never loses sight of the human story of a girl trying to figure out who she is, now that she’s on her own.
“Almost there,” Grandpa said.
Pressing her nose against the car window, Lily frowned at the strip malls, gas stations, and industrial parks as they rolled by. “Really?” she said. She’d expected to see something a lot more picturesque than Wal-Marts and Home Depots en route to her dream school — at least a stately forest or a field with a few photogenic cows. And she should hear trumpets playing, plus a massive choir announcing in verse the approach of her destiny.
Maybe she’d built up this moment a bit too much.
Enchanted Ivy by Sarah Beth Durst
Lily has wanted to go to Princeton, her grandfather’s alma mater, as long as she can remember, and now she’s finally getting to go with him on his reunion weekend. She’s hoping to see the campus and maybe take a break from caring for her artistic, mentally ill mother. But her grandfather has something else in mind: an introduction to the exclusive Vineyard Club and their mysterious test. If she succeeds, she’s admitted to Princeton and the Club. But when the library bookshelves start to move and the campus gargoyles start talking to her, Lily might be in for much more than she bargained for.
This book is pure wish fulfillment, which makes it a great choice for escape reading during the college application process!
This is a point of view that may not be popular with parents or high school guidance counselors, but not everyone has to go to college right away to fulfill their dreams or succeed in life. Not everyone has to go at all. My next recommendation is in the spirit of honoring lifelong, independent learners, whether they find themselves in institutions of higher education or not.
Old School YA
She didn’t expect it to be easy. She knew that nobody had done what she planned to do, start her own boatyard from nothing. At least, nobody she knew in Crisfield, or Annapolis, or the points between had done it. Boatyards were inherited, father to son, or bought out. Nobody just started one. But nobody had done a lot of what she’d done in her life, like getting her family down to Crisfield when they were all just kids, or even dropping out of college when she’d been offered a scholarship to continue. Just because nobody had done something didn’t mean that Dicey couldn’t.
Seventeen Against the Dealer by Cynthia Voigt
Dicey Tillerman is feeling pretty good — her siblings are doing well after some difficult times, she has a wonderful, supportive boyfriend, and she knows what she wants to do with her life: build boats. Her grit, hard work, and entrepreneurial spirit are on display during the grueling year she spends getting her business off the ground. But will that be enough for her to succeed in the face of betrayal and unexpected crises?
Although Seventeen Against the Dealer can stand on its own somewhat, my recommendation of this book is really a stealth recommendation for a whole series. If you weren’t raised on ’80s and ’90s YA and haven’t had a chance to encounter Voigt’s Tillerman family novels, you should definitely give them a try — start with Homecoming and go from there.
Just writing about this book is making me want to track down the whole series and everything else Cynthia Voigt has ever written. I’ll see you all later — I’ve got a re-read to plan.
— Erin Bush, currently reading The Exceptionals by Erin Cashman, and planning to start something else by Cynthia Voigt pretty soon
* Even though the title’s been endlessly borrowed and parodied by people like me, the original poem by Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Blackbird,” is amazing.
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