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9 Fascinating Books with Academic Settings Perfect for Fall

by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)

I've been thinking a lot lately about school settings - we're in the midst of another transition as our family settles in here in Madrid, and my daughters are getting ready for school here. (In case you missed it, our family is surprised but pleased to be back in Madrid as my life partner, who is a professor, serves as the faculty sponsor for the study abroad program here.)

I also find that my own internal clock still gears up for the start of the school year even though I've been out of the classroom for a couple of years. In light of that reading mood, I've been brainstorming books that are perfect for those of us wanting to read about academic settings as we look toward fall and settle into a new school year. Most of these are young adult novels, but there's also middle grade and adult mixed into the list, so I noted the level and genre for each recommendation.

What are you reading this fall? Any books with academic settings? Let us know over on social media!

Carlos Hernandez's Sal and Gabi Break the Universe ( | - Middle Grade Fantasy/ Sci-Fi

This fascinating book has some major surprises (connected parallel universes being one example that becomes apparent in the opening scene!) and some very fun moments along with some poignant scenes amid developing friendships. The story centers on Sal, a middle school student who is going to an art school for the first time.

After losing his mom earlier in his life, Sal has struggled to stay in the present without strange things happening to him, and almost immediately after arriving at the art school where he very much wants to be, he runs into trouble with a school bully and then with the school's student leader. Despite these setbacks, Sal, who is such a lovable character, finds his way into hearts at the school and makes some amazing and unexpected friendships.

Check out my full review of this one here.

Tiffany D. Jackson's The Weight of Blood ( | - YA Horror

Jen and I discussed this brilliant book as our October book club pick last year, and it is perfect for both the spooky season and for the beginning of school. I do not read many horror novels but am so glad I dove into this fresh retelling of Stephen King's Carrie. Check out our discussion here.

Maddie is a complex protagonist with amazing, frightening powers she is only beginning to recognize and understand as the novel begins. With nuanced, powerful commentary on class, race, social structures, and systemic oppression, this phenomenal book digs into many issues with complexity and sophistication that leaves the reader with a lot to consider.

This is a powerhouse novel that made me want to read the rest of Jackson's impressive backlist.

Maureen Johnson's Truly Devious ( | - Young Adult Mystery

I've talked about this series before (and Jen has shared about it, too!), but I had to include it on this list because the secluded boarding school setting is perfect for this post. The original trilogy is propulsive, and readers will not be disappointed by the way that mysteries (both those in the present and those from the past) reveal themselves amid the academic environment.

Young sleuth Stevie Bell is a fascinating protagonist, and her companions round out a fun cast of characters. This novel moves between the present timeline and the timeline of an unsolved mystery of the 1930s, both of which keep readers on their toes and turning pages.

Check out Jen's review of the Truly Devious series here.

Nina LaCour's We Are Okay ( | - Young Adult Realistic Fiction

We read this one for our July Unabridged buddy read this summer, and I'm so glad I read it. Oh my goodness, I found this powerful story about the depths of despair and the way that we need each other to be deeply resonant. The isolated dorm setting that protagonist Marin faces in this novel shows the way environment can further exacerbate people's situations.

Facing the holidays alone is quickly becoming insurmountable for Marin as the story unfolds, but waiting for a visit from her former best friend, Mabel, whom she hasn't talked to since she fled California the summer before college started, also feels unbearable.

This is a book about grief and loneliness and the ways that we can find a way forward even amid the hardest circumstances. This can be a hard read; some members of our buddy read chat found it very difficult because of both the subject matter and tone. However, despite some desperate times that Marin faces, it's ultimately a book about how things can improve no matter how bad it seems in the moment.

Tahereh Mafi's A Very Large Expanse of Sea ( | - YA Realistic Fiction

I loved this powerful story in which protagonist Shirin reveals what things are like for her as a Muslim teenager wearing a hijab in a US high school. One year has passed since the 9/11 attacks that drastically shifted many people's attitudes toward Muslims and brought on cruelty, stereotyping, and even violence, some of which Shirin experiences far too frequently.

Shirin gets by every day at her high school by building up and maintaining walls that protect her from the world around her, but at the beginning of the novel, she finds that an unlikely pairing for a class project is forcing her to reconsider those walls. Her partner Ocean seems to want to get to know her, and she finds she has been practicing isolation for so long that letting someone in proves to be difficult.

I loved the way that Mafi shows Shirin's complexity and her resilience while also showing the difficulties of her situation. (This was another great buddy read pick! If you are interested in reading along for buddy reads, be sure to check out what we're reading each month by following us on Instagram.)

Rebecca Makkai's I Have Some Questions for You ( | - Mystery

This novel centers on Bodie Kane, a film professor and podcaster who explores true crime, as she returns to her own boarding school to teach a course. As Bodie returns to Granby, she finds herself confronting a past she had spent much of her adult life avoiding.

The book focuses on two timelines, the present where Bodie is a teacher, and the past where Bodie as a student experienced the murder of Thalia Keith, a student who had been Bodie's roommate at the time of her murder. There is so much going on in this novel - questioning the credibility of our memories, the role of groups in establishing what the "truth" is, the inequity of the justice system, degrees of wrongdoing, and so much more. It's one that has really stayed with me after reading it.

I shared some thoughts about this one in episode 255 when we recommended books we couldn't stop reading. Listen in to hear more about why I recommend it so highly.

Sara Novic's True Biz ( | - Young Adult Realistic Fiction

Jen recommended this one to me in Episode 249 when we shared our recommendations for each other, and I was thrilled to love it as much as she thought I would! (We'll share our thoughts about those recommendations in an upcoming episode this month, but spoiler alert... I adored this one!)

This novel focuses on the students at River Valley School for the Deaf. River Valley is a boarding school for many of the students, and it is the perfect setting for a richly woven story about equity and access and about who decides what to support and why that can be problematic.

Novic tells the story through several perspectives including those of the headmistress February (a coda who, in addition to her increasingly challenging school responsibilities, continues to care for her elderly deaf mother and who lives in campus housing with her wife Mel), a new student Charlie (who has a poorly functioning cochlear implant and who never got to learn sign language until coming to the school as a teenager), and August (who was born deaf to a family of predominantly deaf people and who only uses sign language with no verbal speech). This complex and fascinating plot shows so much about equity and advocacy.

Michelle Quach's Not Here to Be Liked ( | - Young Adult Realistic Fiction

Eliza Quan is running to be editor-in-chief for the school newspaper, and although it is a position always held by boys, she feels sure she will win because of her leadership throughout her high school career with the paper. She also expects to run uncontested, so when another staff member, Len, throws himself into the running at the last minute, things get surprisingly heated.

In this brilliant book, Quach explores so many important social issues from a feminist perspective. Eliza and Len would be natural enemies, but Len is a complex character who often sees things from Eliza's perspective despite being on the other side of the conflict. Eliza is a nuanced protagonist with her own complex and limited understandings of what it means to be a feminist and what it means to be a leader.

In addition to the central conflict of the story - Eliza's right to be editor-in-chief - Quach explores so many topics related to gender, identity, and relationships in a meaningful way that leaves the reader with new ideas and fresh perspectives. (This was another great buddy read picked by Jen!)

Sonora Reyes's The Lesbiana's Guide to Catholic School ( | - Young Adult Realistic Fiction

I loved this brilliant book focusing on Yamilet Flores, a Mexican American sixteen-year-old girl with a goal to help her younger brother stay out of trouble at the new Catholic school they're both attending. She's also determined to keep her own status as a lesbian secret, particularly after having been burned badly by her best friend prior to changing schools.

Yami loves her family and respects her mother with whom she and her brother live, but she fears that her mother would kick her out of the house if her sexual orientation were discovered. Because of this fear, Yami plots ways to save up enough money to stay off of the streets if that harsh reality comes to pass. She longs for more connection with her beloved father who was deported and cannot find a way back to the family, but that connection shifts quickly as the novel progresses.

Full of complex issues without easy answers, Reyes takes the reader from laugh-out-loud humor to tears and back again with Yami's journey. Be on the lookout for an upcoming episode where I'll share more about this amazing book! This one won several awards, so it's a great choice for that 2023 Unabridged Reading Challenge category if you need a rec!

(A note to our readers: click on the hashtags above to see our other blog posts with the same hashtag.)

Interested in what else we're reading? Check out our Featured Books page.

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