Classic Books for Young Adults

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Too often, teenagers label classic novels as “boring,” “irrelevant,” and “too hard to read.” As a teacher, I loved proving those labels wrong. I can distinctly remember a student turn his nose at To Kill a Mockingbird when his class first started reading it, only to scream out “I KNOW WHO IT IS!!!” towards the end of the book.

Reading classic novels is great for challenging the reader to expand vocabulary, but it’s also a great exercise in cultural awareness and historical references. Novels help history come alive. Here is a list of several classic novels that would be great for teenagers to read. Some are widely used in classrooms, but others are just a ton of fun. Enjoy!

Classic novels for young adults from LibraryAdventure.com

Action and Adventure

A Tale of Two Cities: Charles Dickens could spin a great story. He wrote many of his novels as episodes for newspapers, so he mastered the cliff hanger, dropping some crazy plot twists to leave the audience begging for the next issue. However, using the backdrop of the bloody French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities is not only a story full of twists and turns, it’s about self-sacrifice, love, and duty, too.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: This novel is considered by many to be the great American novel. While Mark Twain takes his reader on a grand adventure with Huck and Jim along the mighty Mississippi River, he also makes a grander statement about human relationships and their complexities.

The Last of the Mohicans: The adventures of James Fenimore Cooper’s character Natty Bumppo, a skilled warrior and frontiersman, are some of the first truly American stories. Set during the French and Indian War, The Last of the Mohicans follows Bumppo as he accompanies an English army and helps to reunite two daughters with their father at Fort William Henry.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation: One of the earliest stories recorded in English, Beowulf is a classic epic about a hero’s triumphs as a young warrior and his reign as a king. The epic poem covers the scope of adventure and quest, but it also talks about what happens to the hero after the monster is defeated. This edition, translated by Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, gives the poem new life alongside the Old English version.

Mystery or Fantasy

Rebecca: Caught in a whirlwind romance and marriage, the new Mrs. de Winter faces daunting challenges. The return to Manderley changes her new husband, leaving her alone and unsure of her place. Worst of all, the new Mrs. de Winter cannot shake the memory of her husband’s dead first wife, Rebecca. Full of intrigue and mystery, suspense and passion, Rebecca is sure to please fans of all genres. 

Dandelion Wine: A series of short stories weaved into the perfection of one great summer, Ray Bradbury captures the joy of a 12-year-old boy, living in small town America in 1928. It’s poetic, adventurous, mysterious, and beautiful.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel explores humanity and its capacity for evil. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an early psychological thriller, and it continues to both please and frighten.

The Hound of the Baskervilles: I know teenagers are huge fans of the BBC’s Sherlock, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, so the novels that created the iconic Sherlock Holmes and his trusty Dr. Watson are sure to please. The Hound of the Baskervilles is the 3rd novel about Holmes and regarded as the best.

Frankenstein: Mary Shelley initially wrote this horror story as part of a friendly competition between her future husband (poet Percy Bysshe Shelley) and two close friends (another famous poet Lord Byron and writer John William Polidori). Frankenstein tells the life of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, a scientist, who decides to create life to disastrous results. This novel is one of the first examples of science fiction.

Heartwarming Romance

Little Women: Louisa May Alcott’s novel about 4 sisters living during the time of the Civil War is full of charm, romance, heart break, and teenage angst. If you’ve ever felt out of place, if you’ve wanted to leave home but feel rotten for even thinking about it, if you’ve ever fallen in love with someone who just wants to be friends, if you’ve ever lost someone dear to your heart, you will love this book.

The Complete Anne of Green Gables: This series is usually listed as a must for young girls, but the books later in the series follow Anne Shirley through her teenage years, into college, her first years of marriage, and beyond. If you’ve never read this classic series, it’s not just for little girls. Anyone would love sweet Anne at any time in her life.

These Happy Golden Years: This novel is part of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s famous Little House on the Prairie series, but I particularly loved this one as a teenager. In the book, Laura is a teenager herself (only 15), and she has her first teaching job. She experiences life away from her family and friends for the first time with new kinds of challenges. Laura misses home, but she soon has a ride home every weekend from a young farmer, Almanzo Wilder, and his beautiful brown Morgan horses.

Jane Eyre: Jane Eyre is a rare kind of coming-of-age story as well as (eventual) romance. The main character is not that pretty. She (annoyingly) sticks to her beliefs more than her man, and the book can be a bit wordy and a little “too good to be true” with its plot points. However, despite its weaknesses, Jane Eyre has a lot going for it.  The book features an intimidating house on a creepy English moor with plenty of mystery and supernatural elements along with several moments of swoon and passion.

Emma: Considered by many to be Jane Austen’s best novel, Emma tells of the life and times of young Emma Woodhouse, a self-proclaimed matchmaker for her social circle. Emma is a woman learning about how to be a good friend, how to see people outside of her own comfort zone, how to be genuine, and how to deal with love.

A Little Bit of Everything

To Kill a Mockingbird: Easily my favorite book of all time, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is worth all of the praise and hype it receives. It’s taught in almost every high school literature classroom and for good reason. It’s full of warmth, mystery, depth, hilarity, heartbreak, and joy. Bonus: Atticus Finch is one of the best and most noble characters ever written in literature.

What are other great classic books for young adults?

About Kelly Wiggains

Kelly Wiggains, a high school English teacher turned homeschool mom, likes to surround herself with good literature, beautiful things, and big ideas, and she wants her home to reflect those things, too. She blogs atkellywiggains.com, where she talks about everything From Literature to Living.

Comments

  1. So glad you included Dandelion Wine, a book that seems to get left off of many lists. It’s short story format seems especially appealing to young adults who have a tough time getting through longer books. I would include Watership Down on the list as well. :-)

    • UGH!!!! Smack my fingers, I used it’s instead of its in my comment! I know better! *Hangs head in shame*

    • Thank you for including Watership Down in the comments. I only wanted to recommend books I have read, and I never finished Watership. (I know! I know!) I just couldn’t get into it at the time. However, I have several friends urging me to try again.

  2. Dandelion Wine is one of my favorites – and one of the first “grown-up” titles I read as a teen that wasn’t an assignment for school. Did you know there is a sequel called Farewell, Summer? I bought it when it came out in 2006, but still haven’t read it because I’m afraid it won’t live up to the first book.

  3. I think teens would also enjoy I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and some of the seminal dystopian books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 (especially while the genre remains trendy).

    Happy A-Zing
    Laurel
    Laurel’s Leaves

  4. I would agree on 1984. I loved Lord of the Flies. The wife loved Watership Down. I will pass on Dandelion Wine to the kids. Thanks for the recommendations.

  5. Great list Kelly – am handing it to my teen as soon as he gets up! I had forgotten about Dandelion Wine, and love Bradbury, will have to dig that out again. My son also loved Martian Chronicles and Lord of the Flies – both still so relevant. (And he immediately saw the connection to several more contemporary post-apocalyptic YA novels! Yeah!)

  6. Jennifer Major says:

    Much to my dislike my twin daughters are required to read, “A Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. They attend a small Christian School hence my dislike. I’ve spoken to their teacher about replacing it with another “modern” piece and she said “if I find one better let me know.” Any suggestions? Please, please! I found BNW to be totally inappropriate for teenagers. Very disturbing.

    • I replied to your comment via email a few weeks ago, and I’m sorry to see that it never published. If your teacher wants a “modern piece” that carries the same dystopian themes as Brave New World, I would suggest 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 (I’m partial to Fahrenheit). Another one usually offered at the middle school level is The Giver by Lois Lowry.

  7. Lenore Riley says:

    I would include the Narnian series, and maybe Out of the Silent Planet – tho I found that a bit disturbing as a teenager! Lol.
    Bridge to Terebithia as a must!
    Picnic at Hanging Rock
    Seven Little Australians
    I can jump puddles
    The magic pudding
    The Power of One (or any Bryce Courtney)

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