Freshmen, the latest young adult novel from co-writers Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison, follows two freshmen through the ups and downs of their first year at college. To celebrate the book’s publication, Ellen and Ivison put together a list of their personal favorite campus novels. Whether you’re college-bound yourself or you want the campus experience without any of the homework, you’re sure to find your perfect university experience on this list.
As soon as we finished our first book, A Totally Awkward Love Story, we knew that we wanted to write a campus novel. Awkward Love Story is set in that fun, strange, and occasionally massively stressful summer between finishing high school and starting college. As we were writing it, we kept remembering things that happened to us during our own time at the University of York in the UK.
Our new novel, Freshmen—told from the alternating perspectives of a boy and a girl during their first semester—is crammed with plenty of funny and (more often) highly embarrassing stuff that really, genuinely happened to us. But there are also lots of stories from our friends, too, and things we’d heard about on campus or have read about since. We left college in 2005, so while we were writing the book last summer, we went back up to York and snuck into our alma mater to see how things had changed. It was quite comforting to see that university life was still fairly similar to how it was twelve years ago: The kitchens smelled horrific, and the bars were full of people sitting around eating chips and not doing a huge amount of work. The only major difference seemed to be the addition of Snapchat, which, to be perfectly honest, we still don’t fully understand.
We read tons of university novels while researching and writing Freshmen, and there are so many great, campus-set books out there. These are our absolute favorites.
A funny and moving young adult book about fan fiction, this novel is interesting for its—initially—quite negative portrayal of the college experience. The protagonist, Cath, suffers from severe social anxiety, which is clearly not helped by being thrust into a strange new place surrounded by drunk and rowdy peers. Plus, she has to share a room (as Brits, we still can’t believe they make students in America do that). Cath eventually comes around, though. This is a novel about all sorts of different firsts, from leaving home to first love.
This is a book we kept coming back to again and again while writing Freshmen. Despite being set in the mid-80s, it still feels so real and relevant—you meet the exact same characters we met when we were at college, from posh, abrasive public schoolboys to shower-phobic gap year travelers to socially awkward trivia nerds. It’s brilliantly written and massively funny. Plus, it contains multiple Kate Bush references, which is always a bonus as Kate Bush is the greatest.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Although the novel spans more than 20 years, some of the most memorable scenes take place at Oxford University, where Charles Ryder meets the “magically beautiful” Sebastian Flyte and his circle of glamorous and debauched friends. Waugh invented the Oxford of literary imagination that tourists hunt for today, but Brideshead explores much more than manicured lawns and medieval panelled dormitories where dilettantes talk to teddy bears. It is about growing up, desire, faith, and loss in a tumultuous and dark world.
This brilliant British YA novella is a realistic look at how going to university can affect your relationships at home. It’s set during the Christmas holidays after the first year of college, when the girls from Bourne’s Spinster Club series are reunited in their hometown. Always funny, real, and completely relatable, it captures the utter joy that being 18 can be—as well as the utter mess.
The backdrop for the main action of this modern classic is University College Dublin in the 1950s. The book is filled with warmth: from the female friendships to the romances to the portrayal of Dublin, it draws you into an intricately woven world. But Binchy also explores the realities of coming of age in mid-century Ireland. Faith, duty, class, and attitudes toward sex are all tackled with realism and courage and create a vivid picture of becoming a woman in a pivotal time of change.
OK, admittedly, this one technically has no place on this list as it’s not set at a university. However, it is definitely the ultimate year-off novel. It’s a good one to bring to college with you as one of its major themes—the idea of reinventing yourself after high school—is something many of our characters in Freshmen are obsessed with.
Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison met at the end of high school and quickly became sweethearts. Though they broke up in college, they remain best friends. Lucy is a librarian at a girls’ school in central London, where she gets most of her inspiration. Tom is a journalist and has written for Time Out, Vice, ESPN, Glamour, and many other publications. Their first book, A Totally Awkward Love Story, was partially inspired by their own high school relationship, with Tom writing Sam’s chapters and Lucy writing Hannah’s. Freshmen is their second novel together.