Amy Poeppel’s love of academia knows no bounds. Not only has she worked in the admissions department of a distinguished independent school, she’s also written a novel that takes readers inside the hilarious and dramatic world of admissions. Here, Poeppel gives readers the inside scoop on some of her favorite fictional schools. Check them out and then read Small Admissions to see how Poeppel’s own institution, Hudson Day School, matches up.
I’ve got a thing for schools; I always have. I married a professor just so I could always be part of a campus scene. There is something about the personality and culture of schools, both real and fictional, that draws people in. Whether it’s Hogwarts or someplace more obscure (like the all-girls school in Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor), it’s always entertaining to read about a school setting. Schools are like people, after all. In Small Admissions, I created Hudson Day School. What is its character? Buttoned-up and stodgy!
The Brewster settlement
Inside scoop: Lousy facilities! Nothing but a tiny, uninsulated shanty in South Dakota. Dress code? Lots of layers.
I’ll start with an oldie, but goodie, from my past. In this particular book in the Little House series, 15-year-old Laura takes a teaching position during the cold winter months at a settlement school, and it is hell—lonely, cold, and miserable. I loved the descriptions of the little schoolhouse with its coal-burning stove and of the five pupils, including the impertinent Clarence with his “saucy look.” Not the most disciplined students, but a very capable teacher!
Inside scoop: Sure, it has yoga studios and an indoor climbing wall, but the offices of the English Department are shamefully dilapidated and in desperate need of renovation!
This is a hilarious epistolary novel that follows Jason Fitger as he writes one letter of recommendation after the other for his students at Payne University in the Midwest. Julie Schumacher cleverly parodies the workings of department bureaucracy while revealing details of this grumpy professor’s professional and personal life. Just the sign-offs alone are enough make this book a favorite, as Fitger uses such phrases as, “With candor, regret, and a whiff of vengeance,” or “From the prow of the Titanic.” And his attempts to complete online recommendation forms are laugh-out-loud funny.
Inside scoop: Hard marble staircase, tremendous trees, and the lovely riverbank, all of which can be hazardous to your health.
I read A Separate Peace before I went to boarding school, and it prepared me well for the life I would live there. Not that my friends or I had any of the complicated intrigue that goes on at the fictional school Devon with Finny and Gene, but the descriptions of campus life and student rapport were very enticing to me. In this 1959 novel, John Knowles describes the grounds and buildings of the institution—and especially the “jouncing” of the tree limb—making the reader wonder not so much “what happened?” but “why?” The book helped me better understand the psychology of boys, their competitiveness, their occasional lack of impulse control, and their capacity for forgiveness.
Inside scoop: Can be very cliquey! Quite prestigious. Terrific for scholars of Ancient Greek. (Tough to get into the Classics tutorial, but once you’re in, you’re “in.”)
What can I say other than this is a must-read! The debut novel of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt, this tale of guilty conscience absolutely consumed me. Taking place at Hampden College in Vermont, the story describes the lives of a group of serious classics scholars who befriend the new kid from California, Richard Papen. From the line in the prologue that Bunny had “been dead for ten days before they found him,” the reader is brought directly into the drama. As with A Separate Peace, the reader knows some of what has happened, but the unraveling of the how and the why is immensely satisfying and chilling.
St. Gallway School
Inside Scoop: Jaw-dropping, gorgeous campus with “massive Tudor buildings slouched all over the lawn.” Something’s up with the Film Studies teacher.
I knew this book would be a favorite as soon as I saw the chapter titles, all of which are named after novels or plays (Othello, Sweet Bird of Youth, Moby Dick… ). This is a fabulous debut novel about brainy Blue and her charismatic friends the Bluebloods at St. Gallway, an elite school in North Carolina. There is drama and mystery in this beautifully written and compelling book; in describing the writing, the New York Times says Marisha Pessl’s prose “floats and runs as if by instinct, unpremeditated and unerring.”
Inside Scoop: Very posh! But stay clear of the Mariana Trench (aka school basement)
This is such an intriguing read by Jennifer Miller about the renowned prep school, Mariana Academy. We meet our heroine Iris Dupont, a smart girl who is struggling with the loss of a friend and is regularly conversing with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. Iris is an ambitious journalist in-the-making, and her interest in the school paper, The Devil’s Advocate, leads to the discovery of lies and a secret student society called Prisom’s Party. There is lots of intrigue and mystery to unfold in this gripping novel.
Amy Poeppel is a graduate of Wellesley College. She lives with her husband and three sons in New York City, where she worked in the admissions department of a prestigious independent school. She workshopped a theatrical version of Small Admissions at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit. She later expanded it into a novel.