Weekend Review: Off to Class by Susan Hughes

Although the United Nations classifies education as a human right belonging to every child, around 100 million children around the world face barriers, sometimes seemingly insurmountable ones, that keep them from going to school. In her inspiring book, Off to Class: Incredible and Unusual Schools Around the World (Owlkids Books, 2011), Susan Hughes catalogues a number of creative and unconventional ways in which people have fought to ensure that our next generation has access to an education. Written for 9 to13-year-olds, the tone is positive, the design is bright and engaging, and featured are first-person narratives from other kids. This peek into the lives of those around the world who are fighting for a chance to learn seems to  be a valuable resource for American school-goers, who may grumble about the education that they take for granted.

The twenty-three featured schools are divided into three broad categories. The first showcases institutions that in some way directly interact with the environment. This includes those whose buildings are designed specifically for their location (to stay cool in the heat of the desert or navigating the monsoon season, as examples) as well as schools that incorporate a green mentality in their curriculum. The second highlights schools that reach out to populations of students (such as girls, those in rural areas, or those of low castes) who face very specific barriers to entry. Finally, we are introduced to flexible systems, such as portable schools or unchooling, that defy brick-and-mortar notions of how and where education should take place.

Each school receives a two-page spread that includes a short summary of the situation and the unique solution that was employed to give kids the needed access to education. Fact boxes share informational tidbits, first-person narratives, and maps help to provide context. The design is welcoming and effectively mirrors the excitement that is communicated by the text.

The most wonderful thing about these short profiles is the way in which they demonstrate how grassroots action that is initiated by individual communities is incredibly successful. Many of these schools are in developing nations; as a resident of the global north it's easy to believe that "help" lies in just exporting what has worked for us. What these stories show is that each situation and location carries its own unique set of challenges and only by treating them as such can we come up with solutions that are sensitive, useful, and sustainable. Not only is this a great way to introduce tweens to how other kids around the world access learning, it is also a text to inspire them to look at their own communities and to see what creative site-specific solutions to local problems they can come up with.

This review was first published on Blogcritics.
My review copy was provided courtesy of Owlkids Books.


  1. Thanks for the review. I'm working in a middle school library this fall working toward certification as a library media specialist and this is a book I'd like to recommend to the librarian who I'm working with. We're beginning a book group, and I think this might bring up some great discussion!