You’ve Got the Back-to-School Blues

I’ve got three school-themed books for you

Hi friends,

One of the things that most surprised me about adulthood is how that back-to-school feeling extends to grownups. Come September, the summer is over, and it’s time to focus.

This week, to recognize the start of another school year, I have four — very different — books all connected to schools in some way. If you (or your kids) are heading back to school, either as a student or a teacher, I hope it goes as smoothly as anything can these days.

I have one final reminder that Summer Reading Bingo cards are due THIS FRIDAY. You can submit here, and if you left your homework to the last minute, you can see the card here. Everyone who submits a card with five-in-a-row Bingo will be entered into a raffle for a $25 gift certificate to an independent bookstore.

Did you enjoy Summer Reading Bingo? Should we do something similar again? Let me know what you think!

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And, now, what to read if…

History was Always Your Favorite Class

The Great School Wars by Diane Ravitch

The subtitle of The Great School Wars is “A History of the New York City Public Schools,” but it would be just as accurate to say, “A History of New York City.” Ravitch, a noted education historian, uses the embittered political debates around the founding and development of NYC’s public schools as a way to tell the city’s story. The New York Times named it one of the ten best books about New York City — and the combination of research, writing and storytelling make it easy to see why.

While the book’s length might deter some (it clocks in at nearly 500 pages, including endnotes), it’s a fantastic, engaging read. And although it was initially published in 1974 (and has since been updated), it remains timely today as school boards nationwide debate mask mandates and the teaching of critical race theory. Ravitch demonstrates throughout her book that education policy was often set for reasons of the needs of politicians — not students.

If you binged the podcast “Nice White Parents” last year — and wished there were more episodes — this is your next read.

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You’re Ready to Have Your Mind Blown

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Whenever I recommend Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, I include a disclaimer: You have to give this book 130 pages or so before making your mind up about it. For the first third of the book, it appears Choi is doing one thing (honestly, as I read the beginning, I wondered why so many people with great taste kept telling me to read it), but then there is a twist that completely upends everything. It’s brilliant.

Trust Exercise follows David and Sarah, who attend a competitive performing arts high school in a suburb in the 1980s, and their charismatic theater teacher Mr. Kingsley. The book’s title is a play on the theater exercises Kingsley has his students perform — and the act of reading the book itself.

I hesitate to say more out of fear I’ll give something away. I should note this is one of those books people either love or hate. If you end up reading Trust Exercise — or already have — and feel an urgent need to discuss it with someone (that ending!), I’m always here.

You’re Ready for a Trip to the Teacher’s Lounge

Teach Me by Olivia Dade

When the heroine of Teach Me, history teacher Rose Owen, receives her class schedule for the new school year, she’s dismayed to learn a vindictive administrator gave her beloved world history classes to new hire Martin Krause. Rose vows to keep her distance from the interloper. That proves challenging, though — and not just because they share a classroom. Rose learns Martin is warm, caring and not the kind of man who is easy to ignore. Given that Teach Me is a romance, you can probably guess where it goes from there.

Dade excels at writing love stories about realistic-feeling adults trying to overcome their baggage and form a relationship. Teach Me is no exception. She writes sympathetically about Rose and Martin’s attempts to move on from previous relationships and to learn to trust one another.

While almost all contemporary romances are now branded as “romcoms” — whether they’re funny or not — Dade genuinely brings the laughter. Rose has a “rivalry” with the students on the softball team, and the couple plays Bingo at a staff meeting, guessing which jargony term the education consultant will use next. The book is also filled with delightful, well-drawn side characters, some of whom appear in sequels as main characters. If you’re looking for something warm and cozy to start the school year off with, this is your next read.

You’re Getting the Kids Ready For School Each Day

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan Higgins

I stumbled across We Don’t Eat Our Classmates in A Novel Idea, a great independent bookstore I visited while in Philly this past weekend, and immediately realized I had to make a last-minute addition to this week’s newsletter. The children’s book, by Ryan Higgins, author of my beloved Mother Bruce, is about Penelope Rex, a dinosaur starting school, who has to learn the hard lesson to not snack on her classmates. It’s a charming read that I think school-aged kids will really love.


I’m excited we have a guest rec this week! Elle Griffin is serializing her gothic novel, Obscurityon Substack. She just shared the first chapter, so it’s the perfect time to subscribe.

She recommends Mary Shelley’s classic Frankensteinwhich was written on a gothic estate somewhere in Switzerland as part of a dare to its inhabitants to write the best horror story.

Elle writes, “I have an obsession with classic novels, especially gothic ones, and even I haven’t read the book. That’s why I picked up a vintage copy from Etsy and plan to spend the fall holed up with a mug of mulled cider and the existential tale of one man’s attempt to play God.”

If you have a book recommendation to share, leave a comment or reply to this email.

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