I think one of the interesting things about canonized literature is the way public opinion about classic novels changes over time.
Certainly few people would have thought To Kill a Mockingbird would have become one of the most beloved, taught, and controversial texts in the history of American curriculum when it was first published.
However, over time, the reception and popularity of this title, and so many others, have waxed and waned alongside the values and preferences of society.
Beyond societal pressures, it can be difficult to get today’s modern teenager to engage with texts written 50-100+ years before they were born, but it’s also important (and fun!) to help them see that many of the same conflicts, themes, and character flaws present in the Classics are some of the same things we still endure today.
In this post, I will share with you 20 must-read Classic novels for high school students and some modern texts that pair well with some of these well-loved stories.
What Makes a Novel Classic
Defining what makes a novel a classic is difficult as the nature of that question is so subjective. Many books are great, but in order for it to be considered a true classic, it must achieve a status of enduring cultural relevance that most other books will never achieve. Some common ways of achieving this are by:
- Creating a main character that leaves a lasting impression: From Scout Finch to Elizabeth Bennett, classic books give us protagonists with multi-faceted personalities and strong opinions about the world in which they live. These characters often act as the lens through which we experience the conflicts and themes within the story.
- Universal themes: Classics withstand the test of time because of the profound message they offer about the human experience. Whether it’s themes about growing up and coming of age or race and social class struggles, the classics provide a universal truth about human nature that can be appreciated by many generations of readers.
- Re-readability: Classics challenge us to perform close reading and analysis. They’re the type of story that when re-read, something new and profound is discovered. This moves beyond just the entertainment value of re-reading a story to re-experience a beloved character or a plot twist, but instead challenges readers to find new meaning and depth with each reading.
Best Classic Novels
These classic novels (amongst soooo many others) have withstood the test of time.
The characters, conflicts, and themes in these are still relevant to the contemporary human experience and are still loved (and hated) by today’s high school readers.
Looking for some of the best classic novels for high school students?
Check out this list of classic novels that are sure to engage your readers:
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple is a story about coming of age experiences, domestic abuse, misogyny, race, and freedom. Teen readers feel deeply for the characters, especially protagonist, Celie, and connect with Walker’s more modern-sounding writing style.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gatsby remains the quintessence of the American Dream. Jay Gatsby’s misguided quest for money to buy happiness, climbing social ladders, and the dream of love remain highly relevant to teenagers today.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Readers of all ages continue to fall in love with the head-strong Elizabeth Bennet and the dapper Mr. Darcy, and our high school readers identify deeply with the feeling of breaking social molds to find one’s own way (especially when it comes to parental expectations). The universal themes, well-developed characters, and snappy dialogue make Austen’s novel one of the most loved romances and best-selling books of all-time.
- Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Holden Caufield’s angst continues to resonate with teen readers. Despite being written in 1951, a world that could not feel more different than the one in which modern readers live, the experiences of losing innocence, gaining experience, and feeling altogether too small in a big world continue to deeply influence readers .
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
While written in 1818, the themes of creation, technology, our responsibility to the technologies we create, and power in Shelley’s novel are still poignant today, especially as we begin to examine AI’s emerging presence in our life and the effect social media has on teen’s mental health and development.
- 1984 by George Orwell
This novel introduced us to the phrases, “thought police,” and “Big Brother,” both of which we still use to describe fears of government control and oversight today. This novel inspires discussion about Orwell’s prediction for the future. Was he right in his assumptions about what 1984 and modern society would be like, or is this merely a work of science fiction?
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This Pulitzer Prize award winner was also voted America’s Favorite Novel in a poll hosted by PBS. This novel is a staple on many of America’s high school’s curriculums and it endures because of the coming of age experience by Scout, the themes of race, class, and prejudice in America, and the discussions inspired by who has a voice and who doesn’t as the plot unfolds. High school students love Mockingbird because of the action-packed plot, the easy readability of Lee’s style, and of course the ever-memorable scene where Scout dresses up like a ham.
- The Odyssey by Homer
The Odyssey tells the story of a ten-year sea voyage of Odysseus, the story’s hero, as he returns to his home following the Trojan War. High school readers learn that modern tropes and narrative arcs used in contemporary stories come from The Odyssey including the hero’s journey and the conflict of man vs. fate.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
High school readers are drawn to the loneliness and difficulties young Jane Eyre experiences as an orphan and applaud her triumph over these challenges as she becomes the governess of Thornfield Hall. Readers continue to cheer for her as a romance blooms with Mr. Rochester until they are appalled to learn about the secrets looming deep within Thornfield Hall.
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter explores the Puritanical beliefs of Massachusetts in the 1600s. Hawthorne uses carefully crafted symbolism to explore themes of sin, guilt, truth, and shame in the backdrop of America’s earliest settlers. While high school students can struggle with Hawthorne’s style at first, they will root for Pryne and demand justice for her situation.
Best Novels 20th Century
Here are 20 classic novels that defined the 20th Century according to the Utica Public Library based on the novels’ ability to “encapsulate and reflect the mood, mindset, or feel of a decade; current, previous, or future.”
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- Native Son by Richard Wright
- Black Boy by Richard Wright
- 1984 by George Orwell
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Go Tell it on the MountainI by James Baldwin
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
- Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
- I Know why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
- American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Classic Novels to Read
Pairing more modern texts, especially YA Literature, with the classics can unlock a deeper learning experience for our high school readers.
If you’re looking for ways for your students to explore these enduring themes and characters with a more modern approach, check out these text pairings.
- Night by Elie Wiesel and Maus by Art Spiegelman
Night reveals the atrocities of the Holocaust from Elie Wiesel’s first-hand account. This classic pairs nicely with Maus, a graphic novel that explores the bonds between a father and his son during the Holocaust.
- 1984 by George Orwell and Feed by Matthew Tobin Anderson
This pairing challenges readers to think about themes of government oversight, consumerism, censorship, and the rapid modernization of contemporary society.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Both of these popular novels explore ideas about privilege, survival, and human nature.
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Speak by Laurie Anderson
Student readers will identify with the ostracizing of Melinda in Anderson’s Speak. Judgment, shame, and marginalization are feelings today’s teens are all too familiar with. Pairing these ideas with the experiences of Pryne, and the exploration of America’s foundation of Puritanical ideas and values would lead to rich discussion.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Teen readers love A Monster Calls for its accessibility, fantasy elements, plot, and struggles of the main character. The themes and tropes can easily be connected to Frankenstein for a richer reading experience.
I hope you’ve found this exploration of 20 of the best classical novels for high school students to be helpful! I’d love to hear from you! Have a perfect classic novel study that engages and delights your students year after year? Found the perfect text pairing for one of the darling classics? Let me know all about it in the comments below!
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