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18 Meaningful Books Not On Your High School Reading List

For many high school students, reading simply isn’t a favorite activity. In fact, the American Psychological Association reveals that just 20 percent of teenagers read a book, magazine, or newspaper for pleasure each day. While today’s young people have plenty of activities competing for their time, part of the issue may be that students simply aren’t excited about their high school reading lists. 


Of course, there’s value in reading classic novels by celebrated authors of centuries past. However, research shows that students lose interest in reading when they lack the agency to choose their own books. If the characters and themes aren’t relevant to their daily lives, students may be more likely to put the book aside in favor of another activity. On the other hand, when students are exposed to books featuring diverse voices and subject matters, they may be more likely to develop a lifelong love of literature. Keep reading to learn about 18 meaningful books that may make you laugh, cry, or simply think about the world in a new way. 


Most Common Required Readings for High Schoolers


Whether you’re a teenager yourself or the parent of one, you’re probably familiar with the contents of the average high school reading list. Here are some of the titles most frequently assigned to high schoolers. Note that only a handful of the books are by women or writers of color.


  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck


If you’re taking AP Lit, check out our list of the 20 best AP Lit books and plays.


18 Books Every High Schooler Should Read 


If you’ve only ever read books from the school-assigned list, you might be missing out on an opportunity to expand your horizons. Not only does reading improve vocabulary and language skills, but it also promotes emotional intelligence. In fact, reading is known to promote understanding and help people empathize with others. With that in mind, here is a list of 18 meaningful books to consider adding to your personal reading list:


1. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 


Set in the Mexican countryside in the 1950s, Mexican Gothic tells the story of self-centered yet strong-willed party girl Noemí Taboada, who goes to visit a recently married cousin. Upon arriving at the family’s estate, though, Noemí discovers that her cousin is seriously ill and that her new family is hiding a dark secret. A supernatural gothic horror story, the novel deals with themes such as racism, sexism, and colonialism, among others. 


2. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han


Netflix has already adapted this novel and its sequel, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, into movies. A thoughtful love story, Han’s novel is also a coming of age tale about Lara Jean, who has a habit of writing letters to crushes that she never intends to send. When someone accidentally mails the letters, Lara Jean is forced to confront not only the boys she has feelings for, but also her fears and vulnerabilities. Themes include standing up for yourself and learning to live life free of others’ expectations, both of which are valuable concepts for anyone going off to college.


3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card


This Hugo and Nebula-award winning novel tells the story of Andrew “Ender” Wiggins, who is part of a government program to train child geniuses into soldiers to fight in an intergalactic war. Despite the seemingly outlandish sci-fi premise, the heartfelt novel features grounded themes like sibling rivalry, compassion, and the manipulation of children by adults who should know better. 


4. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi


A reimagining of the original novel, Stamped explores the history of racism in the United States. Compulsively readable and fast-paced, the nonfiction book goes a step further by showing readers how to discredit racist ideas when they hear them. As a bonus, the revised book was written so as to be more accessible to young readers. 


5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky


The titular wallflower, Charlie has never been very good at making friends. However, through the process of writing letters to an unnamed recipient, Charlie starts to come out of his shell even as he comes to terms with the dark events of his past. Although the novel has a trigger warning for serious themes such as mental illness and sexual abuse, it also features plenty of sweetness and levity for balance. 


6. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell


Rowell’s coming-of-age romance was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of 2013 and an NPR Best Book of 2013. Both a critical darling and an audience favorite, Eleanor & Park tells the story of two high school misfits who fall in love over ‘80s music and comic books. Themes include overcoming family trauma and dealing with racism and bullying. It’s also a story about the value of accepting not just others but also yourself. 


7. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai


Most of us know Malala Yousafzai as the young Pakistani woman who was shot in the head by Taliban forces. However, that doesn’t mean we truly know this young woman’s story. An activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala uses this memoir to tell her own tale. Along with being an inspiring story of survival, I Am Malala is a powerful book about the right to an education and the lengths a family will go to for a beloved child. 


8. Graceling by Kristin Cashore


From Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, it’s no secret that classic fantasy novels tend to center on male characters. An action-fantasy featuring a tough female lead, Graceling tells the story of Katsa, a young woman born with a special ability to fight. Although Katsa believes she was born to be a killer, over the course of the novel she discovers that her true “Grace” may be far more complex. The bestselling novel deals with themes like power, corruption, and feminism. 


9. The Secret History by Donna Tartt


A murder mystery and literary novel in one, The Secret History tells the story of a group of classics students at an elite New England college. In the novel’s first pages, the reader discovers that the students are going to murder a member of their group. Along with exploring the hows and whys behind the killing, the novel examines the dangers of choosing isolation and illusion over community and reality. 

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10. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell


An engaging sociology book, The Tipping Point explores the reasons that ideas, trends, and products reach a tipping point and take off, becoming “social epidemics.” Examples mentioned in the book include Hush Puppies shoes, New York crime rates, Sesame Street, and more. Gladwell explores the types of people behind these social epidemics, and how context and the content itself plays a role in these unprecedented trends.


11. The Martian by Andy Weir


This page-turner of a novel is a great choice for those who struggle with reading. A grounded science fiction tale, The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney, who becomes stranded on Mars following a dust storm that compels his crew to evacuate and leave him for dead. If he wants to survive and make it back home, Mark will have to call on his engineering skills, resourcefulness, and personal strength. 


12. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold


This family story starts with a dark premise: a teenage girl who was raped and murdered watches from Heaven as her loved ones come to terms with her loss. At once haunting and hopeful, The Lovely Bones deals with themes of love, acceptance, and strength. It’s also a story about a family coming together to support one another and move forward. 


13. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon


This Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery tells the story of a boy with autism who tries to solve a dog’s murder. At times, touching and humorous, the novel explores the challenges and strengths of someone who struggles with both communication and social interaction. Themes include trust and self-discovery.


14. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier


Adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940 and again by Netflix this year, Du Maurier’s Rebecca is a gothic romance about an unnamed narrator who falls in love with the mysterious widower Maxim DeWinter. Upon moving back to his English estate, the narrator quickly starts to feel inferior to her husband’s first wife, the titular Rebecca. As Rebecca’s legacy looms large, the narrator will have to call on her own mental and emotional reserves if she wants to remain the new Mrs. DeWinter.


15. When We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate


A piece of historical fiction, this novel explores the adoption scandal at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in the mid-20th century, where director Georgia Tann kidnapped children from low-income families and extorted hefty adoption fees from rich couples. The timeline of the book switches between present-day South Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee in 1939, following the story of a separated family and how the scandal continues to impact present-day generations.


16. Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan and Others


A series of graphic novels, Runaways features a group of teens bound together by the fact that their parents are members of an evil crime syndicate. Boasting a diverse group of characters of different races and genders, the series explores multiple themes, including sexuality, power, and whether children are responsible for their parents’ sins. 


17. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas


This best-selling novel features a story that feels ripped from the headlines. After a Black private school student witnesses the police shooting of her friend, she has to decide whether to risk speaking out in order to get justice. Themes featured in this work include police brutality, racism, poverty, and identity. 


18. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli


This sweet, heart-warming novel inspired both a film and a Hulu TV series. The story follows lovable high school student Simon as he conducts a secret online correspondence with a young mystery man. When a classmate learns the truth about his sexuality, Simon has to decide whether to come out to his friends and loved ones, all while navigating an exciting new romance. Along with being a meaningful coming-of-age story, this novel offers a positive exploration of both friendship and sexuality.


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Short Bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.