The languid days of summer are over, and, with it, the long break from school. While Enid Blyton’s school stories — the Malory Towers, St Clare’s and Whyteleafe (The Naughtiest Girl) series, among others — have led generations of young readers to aspire for midnight feasts and games of lacrosse, there’s a whole bunch of Indian books that are set in schools closer to our reality.
If you want your school stories to be a mix of adventure and delight in the good old Blyton tradition, look no further than Payal Kapadia’s Horrid High series (Puffin Books, 2014, 2016, appropriate for: 10+). Happy High could really be the shining advertisement for a residential school for well-rounded children, except that it really is Horrid High, a place to dump orphans and gifted, unloved children. When Ferg Gottin gets admitted there, he really has no clue how he can survive the general horridness of the place, but then he makes new friends and together they thwart the Principal’s evil plan to spread horridness far and wide.
One of the highlights in the life of a primary schooler is the tuck box, known to harried mothers as “the tiffin”. The thought of providing nutritious, tasty meals-in-a-box five days a week is enough to produce an attack of the nerves in many lesser parents, but unlike them, Sumi has an ace up her sleeves in Shabnam Minwalla’s Lucky Girl (2016, Duckbill, appropriate for: 5+). Her mom is a cookbook writer, so how difficult can her life be, right? Turns out, very. Sumi’s mother’s preoccupation with projects and themes mean that her tiffin box is a dead giveaway to her mom’s current preoccupation. Things come to a head when she undertakes a project to utlise peels and discards for something edible and exciting. Suddenly, all Sumi has in her tiffin box are stuff she wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. Funny and full of yummy (as well as yucky) grub, this is a book that will appeal to a young readership whose favourite part of school recesses.
Often, our romantic vision of school as a place of learning and companionship fails to match up to the reality. What happens to those who don’t get the flawless grades? Or those who are trying to overcome personal shortcomings before they can tackle academic excellence? In eight short stories in School Stories (2012, Mc Graw Hill India, appropriate for: 8+), Paro Anand deals with the seamier side of school life — the pressure to conform, the anxiety of the bullied, the inability to fit into a new environment — and comes up with heartwarming tales. Gita is desperate to perform in her school play, but how can she, if she cannot overcome her stammer? Stodgy Vikrant is the butt of class pranks, but how does he get over his classmates’ insensitivity? Brimming with empathy and good humour, this is a window into a different facet of school life that surfaces less in stories and more in newspaper articles.
The RTE Act, 2009, has tried to level the playing field for the economically disadvantaged when it comes to accessing private schooling, but there’s many a slip between the cup and the mouth. In Mathangi Subramanian’s Dear Mrs Naidu (2015, Young Zubaan, appropriate for: 10+), 12-year-old Sarojini, a student at a government school in Bengaluru, struggles to find a seat at the posh Greenhill School, where her best friend and former neighbour Amir has moved to. Sarojini’s Amma cannot afford the donation the private school asks, so what is Sarojini to do? She chronicles her tribulations in the form of letters to the dead freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu, whom she idolises. In this history-meets-information novel, Subramanian spins an earnest narrative of the struggles of the underprivileged to achieve quality education.
As Kamala Das had pointed out in her poem, Punishment in School, there’s no place like school to mark out differences, warts and all. In Zainab Sulaiman’s Simply Nanju (2016, Duckbill Books, appropriate for 10+), Nanjegowda, 11, suffers from a congenital spinal defect that hampers his awareness of when to use the washroom. But, in his school of outliers that has differently abled children from low-income groups, that is par for the course. After all, if there’s a trait they share, it is their instinct to survive against all odds. Sulaiman, a former special educator, highlights the relegation of the differently abled to the margins, but the onus of inclusion, she says, lies as much with the individual as with the state. Gentle, humorous and empathetic, this slim volume is a moving exploration of diversity and the need to embrace it.