Dipping into the canon of Canby Hall


At a certain point, we all have moods of nostalgia. Sometimes it’s due to reaching a certain birthday, a class reunion is looming on the calendar, or a certain song comes on the radio. Sometimes it’s mining the past for something that was never there. Nostalgia can also be a form of painless time travel to revisit old favorites. I have fits of nostalgia when I have a bad day or when I long to return to certain comforts from my past. The problem, though, is that returning to that point often renders the long-remembered fantasy into a poor, sad imitation.

I recently read a post on the AV Club’s site that referred to this nostalgia for childhood books and toys. The post by Genevieve Koski specifically looks at the adolescent book series Sweet Valley High. She talks about how popular the series was and how they don’t necessarily hold up to the test of time. Her article inspired me to go back to my own childhood favorite, The Girls of Canby Hall. The series was published in the mid-to-late-eighties and contained 33 books, plus two “super editions.” The books are set at Canby Hall, a fictional girls’ boarding school in Greenleaf, Massachusetts, near Boston. The first half of the series chronicles the adventures of roommates and best friends Dana, Faith, and Shelley from their first day of sophomore year through graduation day in seventeen books. Books 18-33 follow Jane, Toby, and Andy, who also happen to be roommates in Room 407 in the later years.

Like any young-adult series, boyfriends, friendships, self-esteem, families, and the related struggles are all dealt with here. The series, set at a girls’ boarding school, presents the best of adolescence by keeping boyfriends in the background. Instead, the friendships take center stage. To my rural New Mexico dwelling adolescent self, boarding school in Massachusetts seemed idyllic. Set in a small town big enough for a pizza place, ice cream parlor, and a movie theater, it looked like fun and the girls always had enough money to go off to Pizza Pete’s on the weekends. How exciting does it seem to have no parents or annoying siblings nearby, but only a phone call or school break away? Dorm mothers and head mistresses were peripherally present, but never interrupted the real action or plot of the books. Despite being mostly on their own, the girls were pretty tame, only sneaking out after hours to help a friend in distress (see Roommates, book #1) or for fun pranks (see Graduation Day, book #17).

For the most part, the characters developed over the series were complex and felt like real people, although occasionally they slipped into one-dimensional archetypes. Since the series was ghostwritten, there were some annoying inconsistencies, but nothing major in terms of character traits or chronology. Each of the girls had at least one passion or talent and pursued it throughout the books: Faith’s photography, Shelley’s acting, Dana’s writing, Jane’s poetry, Toby’s horseback riding, and Andy’s ballet. They had big fights and disagreements, but the friendships survived and became stronger. Discord provided life lessons and growth. There were endless descriptions of the beautiful campus and vivid details of crew neck sweaters and corduroy jeans (it was 80s prep school after all!).

I read them in sixth grade through the early part of high school, but returned to them about seven years ago. I had just moved to Longmont in 2004 and had found the Used Book Emporium one beautiful September Saturday afternoon. I browsed the shelves, found a few books, and while standing in line, I discovered the discount rack of the children’s section. I scooped up seven or eight of the Canby Hall books priced at 50 cents each. It started the obsession. I curled up with those books that weekend and was pleased to find I still enjoyed reading them and they seemed to hold up pretty well, at least to my 30s eyes. Although, shouldn’t I be reading Tolstoy by now? I’m sure a 13-year-old today would roll her eyes at references to dorm pay phones, no computers, and the endless sweater descriptions. It took me about a year and a half to collect the complete series, and the hunt became part of the fun. I found a few at used book stores, a couple at the local library’s used book sale, and then used eBay to scrounge the rest of the series, often buying lots of three or four books to complete the set.

I will admit to curling up with one or more from the series again and again when I’m between books, need something to fall asleep to, and when I need a dose of comfort, the book equivalent of mashed potatoes and gravy. As an educator, I was pleased to see the values of independence, pursuing one’s dream, developing one’s interests and talents, and staying true to one’s friends really shined in those books without it becoming too preachy. My favorites are Roommates (#1) (shows the realistic introduction of three characters first getting to know one another), Here Come the Boys (#13) (three boys join Canby Hall in an experiment for going co-ed, giving the girls new friends and partners in high jinks), Graduation Day (#17) (highlights the last few weeks of school as the girls face their futures with expected excitement and trepidation), Friends Times Three (#20) (Jane, Andy and Toby all become closer while helping out Andy’s family during a school break), Something Old, Something New (a Super Edition) (roommates, both old and new, come together for house mother Allison’s wedding), and Six Roommates and a Baby (#33) (Allison has twins and all the roommates are back together as godmothers), the last and final book in the series.

As the weather gets cooler and I reach for my sweaters, I’ll be sure to reach for a few nostalgic moments with the Girls of Canby Hall. Because, like those sweaters that provide warmth on a chilly day, the Girls of Canby Hall provide a sweet taste of book comfort food.

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