I bought this old children’s book at an antique mall last weekend and was thoroughly enchanted.

The Right Saint John’s by Christine Chaundler was first published in 1921 by Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press.

It’s a classic British school story. Jacqueline Brown goes away to boarding school for the first time, when her parents have to go abroad for her father’s health. She finds herself at Saint John’s, a lovely little boarding school that probably made every girl reading it at the time run to their parents and beg to go to school. This school is nice. Girls get their own rooms. They can bring their pets. The teachers don’t make them study very hard, and they don’t really have to do anything very much. Most of the girls are just marking time until they come out and marry well.

I had just read Bright Young People, about London during the Jazz Age of the 1920s — the girls in this book are the younger sisters of those hard-partying 20-somethings who drank themselves to death between the wars.

But things are changing at Saint John’s. For one thing, the new headmistress is determined to raise the standards of the school. All the girls are appalled, and so are some of the teachers. The headmistress knows she is facing a tough headwind, so she is ecstatic that Jacqueline is a new student there. Because Jacqueline, like Harry Potter after her, is no ordinary kid.

She’s smart and determined to do well in school. She’s not wealthy so she knows she will have to earn a living, and she’s quite matter-of-fact about it. She does well in sports and loves hockey (a girl after my daughter’s heart!). She participates in the high jump against the nemesis girls’ school, and she wins, getting the grudging admiration of the rival school. Since the headmistress has been raising the standards for the girls, the girls have all been cheating. Someone has stolen the answer books from the teacher’s cupboard. Jacqueline sets an example and makes them stop.

In short, she could probably have taken on Voldemort too, just by being plucky and no nonsense.

The crisis of the book is not well set up and not well resolved — as it turns out, Jacqueline was supposed to go to the “other” Saint John’s but got on the wrong train. Oops. But because she’s so plucky and well liked, her grumpy and disgruntled uncle, who’s footing the bill, decides to let her stay. Crisis resolved in no time at all. But the book is so good natured and instructional, I can’t say I minded.

I love these kinds of books. They are just so blatant about teaching children how to behave, and so cheerfully old-fashioned, it’s kind of awesome. Jacqueline is relentlessly good and so  very competent at what she does. And there are all sorts of nods to the classics — Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, etc. — in fact, Jacqueline even has to walk a plank just as Anne had to walk the ridgeline of the barn.

I know that this kind of book doesn’t work for girls nowadays. It isn’t particularly interesting, it’s episodic at best, and even Jacqueline’s uber-competence was making me roll my eyes (although I admire the author for just laying it on with a trowel). I wish the plot reversal had been better explored, and it was certainly resolved too easily.

But one thing this book doesn’t have is that modern heightened sense of a girl’s role which is somewhat narrower than we think. She doesn’t have to be sexy or have a boyfriend; the business of her life is specifically to be a good student, a jolly pal (in the vernacular of the book), good at sport (again, British!), and in short, a fairly asexual being. Contrast this with the overwrought romantic attachment that is portrayed in the YA book that shall not be named. Surely there is a middle ground somewhere. A girl’s sexuality should not be ignored, but there’s more to life than that particular aspect of a person’s life.

Granted, I’m surely being a curmudgeon about this, but I also think there’s room for all kinds of YA out there.

What do y’all think?



J. Kathleen Cheney · April 28, 2013 at 4:02 pm

I’ve never been a big reader of YA, but I do find the current ‘must have a boyfriend’ emphasis a little annoying…you know, the kind where it appears the only worry that the girl has in her life is ‘not having a date’.

I guess that’s one advantage of a ‘girls school’ story…you just don’t have the same level of pressure in that particular area.

Patrice Sarath · April 28, 2013 at 5:11 pm

And it’s not just “must have a boyfriend.” There’s the whole love triangle aspect. In the YA that will not be named in this post it is displayed in all its fevered glory.

And this is for girls who are characterized as smart, as heroes of their stories, as bright and inquisitive…I know the market is leading authors in that direction, but I wonder if girls are as interested.

And I also wonder if it’s the older YA readers that are driving this trend. It’s definitely a topic that has lots of ramifications.

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