Amanda Seyfried, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Lindsay Lohan in 'Mean Girls'/Image © Paramount Pictures
Ah, Fall. The turning leaves, the invigorating crispness in the air, the brand-new plastic folders for science, English, and math. For students of all ages, heading back into the classroom is equal parts anxiety, excitement, and nostalgia, a nervous cocktail made ten times stronger when trudging through the halls of an entirely new school, labeled the new kid. In honor of this annual ritual -- and in solidarity with anyone starting over somewhere -- we've chosen a handful of our favorite stories about students stepping into uncharted territory, with all its mysterious social geometry, pitfalls and pleasures.
R.J. Palacio's bestselling debut novel details the bittersweet experiences of Auggie, an otherwise typical boy with a facial disfigurement, as he enters public school for the first time as a fifth grader. The film rights have been optioned by the producers of "The Muppets" and "Warm Bodies" (which was based on the Isaac Marion novel), so a big-screen version may be on the way in the not-too-distant future.
"Blackboard Jungle" (1955)
Sometimes it's a teacher who has to brave foreign terrain. In this Oscar-nominated melodrama, based on the Evan Hunter novel, an Army vet turned English teacher starts a new job at an out-of-control inner-city school and tries to impose discipline. Variations on the theme play out in the slightly hysterical "The Principal" (1987) and the real-life-based "Lean on Me" (1989).
"Mean Girls" (2004)
Based on Rosalind Wiseman's 2002 nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes, this is one of the rare high school comedies with genuine bite and wit. Scripted by Tina Fey, the movie centers on teenaged Cady, who after growing up home-schooled in Africa explores the wildlife of an American high school for the first time, particularly the enticingly manipulative popular girls known as The Plastics.
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (1981)
School is a prominent feature throughout Beverly Cleary's long-running series, but this sixth book centers on Ramona's experiences after transferring to a new school for third grade at the same time that her father returns to finish his art degree. A film inspired by the Ramona books, "Ramona and Beezus," was released in 2010.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2007)
Jeff Kinney's super-popular series launches with protagonist Greg Heffley's introduction to middle school, an event that leads to humiliations at home and at school despite his unshakable belief in his own popularity. Three movies have been produced from the first four books in the series (Kinney's ninth hits shelves in November), and it continues to articulate the annoyances and slights of adolescence with silliness and accuracy.
"Rebel Without a Cause" (1955)
Knife fights, family dysfunction, and all manner of histrionics result when teenager Jim Stark starts at a new high school in Los Angeles. Hailed at the time by some as a realistic depiction of the new scourge of juvenile delinquency -- the film's title was taken from Robert M. Lindner's Rebel Without a Cause: The Story of a Criminal Psychopath -- its iconic status owes mainly to the performance, and untimely death, of star James Dean.
Kevin Bacon plays the outsider who lands in a Midwestern town deprived of music and dancing and proceeds to stir up his high school classmates and their parents with his unstoppable moves. Using dancing as a metaphor for the teenage years, with all of their emotional chaos and invincible joy, the film illustrates the war between those who deem unbridled personal expression a "spiritual corruption" and those who claim it as a "way of celebrating life."
Inspired by Jane Austen's Emma, this high school-set comedy follows the matchmaking efforts of a shallow but well-intentioned popular girl as she schools a new classmate on the status, dating, and fashion rules of their clique-y Beverly Hills scene. The film is funny and self-aware -- a key precursor to "Mean Girls" -- in its depiction of the motives and muddles of teenage girls.
A unique and charming allegory that champions art, individualism, sexuality, and expression as acts of freedom, this Gary Ross comedy is built around a supernatural plot that throws a pair of modern teenagers into a 1950s-set black-and-white TV show. As their less inhibited values bump up against the buttoned-up traditions of the G-rated town and high school, colors begin to burst forth in all their unbridled emotions and beautiful imperfections.
"Back to School" (1986)
No such list would be complete without a mention of this oh-so-eighties Rodney Dangerfield comedy about a middle-aged man who returns to college. Among its charms is a priceless cameo by Kurt Vonnegut, who ghostwrites a paper on the works of Kurt Vonnegut only to be dismissed by the grading professor as someone who knows nothing about the works of Kurt Vonnegut.
Honorable Mentions: "Cruel Intentions" (1999), "Fame" (1980), "High School Musical" (2006), "The Karate Kid" (1984), "Napoleon Dynamite" (2004)