10 Classic Novels for High School Literature Students
The list is of proposed reading material is seemingly endless and always up for discussion. The following books represent a handful of classics across a variety of genres that will introduce students to concepts that will test their critical thinking and analysis skills required by the Common Core standards.
1. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
When this book was first published in 1932, it gave readers a haunting look at the future. Huxley’s world of tomorrow would be populated by castes of people, ranging from Alphas to Epsilons, many of whom would be addicted to the feel-good drug “soma.” While students will not see a full representation of today’s society, they will see that Huxley was correct about a divide between the rich and educated and poor and uneducated, as well as the popularity of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications.
2. Complete Tales and Poems, Edgar Allen Poe
Poe’s writing gives students a deep insight into America’s first horror writer, who was giving readers the creeps long before Stephen King, Dean Koontz and their counterparts. His short stories and poems, while not in the novel category, are important works to be studied. Poe gives us an example of how our imaginations can run away into dark places, while also showing us how one writer planted the seed for an entire genre that continues to enjoy great popularity today.
3. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
This historical novel provides a realistic look at the war that divided our nation. It introduces the concepts of death, illness and slavery, alongside that of great passion. The character development throughout the book is legendary, as is the dialogue which truly reflects the language of the time. Other recurring themes of love, loss, resilience, and pride which are inherent to the human drama are also expertly portrayed by Mitchell.
4. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Written in 1954, this story can be easily understood by students within the context of the reality TV show, Survivor. Readers first meet the novel’s young boys as they become stranded upon an island. What first appears to be a fun and exciting adventure soon changes into an atmosphere of fear and danger, as the boys create their own hierarchy of power and revert to primitive behavior in order to meet their basic needs.
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
This classic read centers on the life and times of Huck Finn and his friend, Tom Sawyer. The novel is a sequel to Tom Sawyer, as a continuing story of the boys’ adventures on the Mississippi River. A series of plot twists leads Huck to fake his own death and escape to a small island, where he meets Jim, a runaway slave. The ongoing tale presents students with a look at racism, aristocracy, and poverty in the Old South.
6. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s story centers on the opulent wealth enjoyed by the upper class in the 1920’s. The plot reads like a soap opera, with engaging characters that have affairs, get into fights, and dance the night away. A car accident brings the story to a climax. Through their reading, students learn that wealth is not the answer to all of life’s problems and can instead lead to a shallow existence.
7. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
Kafka’s main character, Gregor, is a troubled young man in search of his identity away from his family. His sudden metamorphosis into a cockroach removes him from his daily life and hurtles him into an entirely unexpected existence. Being a giant bug, while freeing Gregor from responsibility, is worse than his previous experience. He feels more out of place than ever before. It’s a creatively unusual tale that resonates with those in their teenage years who are also struggling to find their way in the world.
8. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
The primary subject matter of adultery makes this novel a somewhat controversial read for young adults, although the storyline plays out in America every day. Hawthorne’s novel, which begins in mid-stream, dares to portray a single mother, a child born out of wedlock, a vengeful husband, and an adulterous minister. While we see the base instincts of all characters, only the mother, Hester, is labeled for her sins with an “A” that she will wear for the rest of her life.
9. The Stranger, Albert Camus
This story of The Stranger is told by the main character, a man named Meursault. We follow him from his mother’s funeral to prison cell where he is being held for murder. Throughout this journey, Meursault is often emotionless as he goes through the gestures of daily living. It is only when he comes to the conclusion that life has no purpose, does he express happiness. The piece is an excellent vehicle for discussing moral views of right and wrong, as well as the elusive understanding of the meaning of life.
10. Walden, Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau’s classic writings from his time in solitude, living in harmony with nature along Walden Pond, provide a deep dive into life and society during his time. He found, as many people still do today, that leaving the trappings of modern living behind is the only way to cleanse the soul in quiet reflection. The work is especially relevant to today’s students who are super connected to their devices and the immediacy of our 24/7 society. Thoreau understood the value of being unplugged 150 years before the term entered our vernacular.