I recently read a book that fits into several categories we’ve talked about before, plus one we haven’t talked about, but should!
The book is Charm and Strange, by Stephanie Kuehn.
- It’s a 2013 YA debut,
- the main character is a boy but it’s written by a woman,
- the cover is fairly dreadful,
- and it takes place in a boarding school.
I actually liked the book quite a bit, and I want to talk more about it, but I’m going to start with the last topic first. When I was reading it, I started thinking about YA books set in boarding schools, and that got me wondering exactly how many boarding schools there are in the US. If you just read YA literature, you would be under the impression that about a quarter to a third of high schools are boarding schools. (I made that up; I haven’t done a count of schools in YA books; it just feels like a lot to me.)
But here are the facts, according to the NCES‘s website:
- In the fall of 2010, there were 14,859,651 students in 9-12 public schools
- In the fall of 2010, there were 1,309,000 students in 9-12 private schools
- There were 24,651 public secondary schools and
- 8,040 private secondary schools.
As far I can tell, the NCES doesn’t keep numbers on boarding schools. However, there is a helpful website called Boarding School Review that states that there are 322 college-prep and junior boarding schools in the US and Canada. Now, some of those schools take grades 6-12, some 7-12, a few even take younger students. I started to go through their list and count how many students these schools had, but it proved to be tricky, because many of the schools have day students as well as boarders. (For instance, they list Archbishop Riordan in San Francisco, which has a handful–they say 10%, but I think it’s lower than that–of boarders among their 400 students.) But just as a very rough estimate, based on the numbers I saw, I don’t think there are more than 65,000 boarders in the US. Maybe less.
So about 8-10% of high school students go to private high schools (up to 15% in the northeast; fewer in the west), and less than half of one percent are boarders.
So any way you look at it, boarding school students are seriously over-represented in YA literature.
Now, I totally get why that is. One of the challenges of YA fiction is to put young people in situations where they can learn, grow, figure things out, and a great way to do that is to remove as many adults as possible from the scene. Boarding school is a great way to do that. Plus, I think that just because boarding school is an anomaly rather than the norm, it has a certain mysterious appeal to young people.
Anyway, to the book: I have to admit that I spent the first thirty pages or so trying to figure out the title. Because, you know, I never actually took physics, and even if I had, it would have been before they taught about quarks, and even though I know (roughly) what they are now, I had forgotten that they come in “flavors”: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. But fortunately, on page 35, Kuehn reminded me of this fact, and of the fact that quarks “contain particles of matter and antimatter, and where the two touch exists this constant stream of creation and annihilation.”
So that’s kind of the theme of this book, which is about Win, who is now in boarding school in Vermont, but who was once a ten-year-old tennis phenom known as Drew. The story goes back and forth in time between the two. We know that Win is angry and damaged, and not in touch with his family, and we know that Drew had his issues, but at least had an intact family, so clearly something is wrong. Kuehn does a good job of building up the tension; at one point I thought the story was leading one place, but it went in a very different direction.
In some ways, the book reminded me of A.S. King’s Reality Boy–showing the damage that can be done by toxic and/or detached parents, but also the resilience of teenagers. It’s part psychological thriller, part coming-of-age story, a bit of a mystery, a story about family and friendship.
I think this is a really strong debut novel, and I hope the Morris committee is talking about it. It’s not perfect, but it’s thoughtful and different and Kuehn is definitely an author I want to read more of.