Smart Summer Reading Recommendations for High School Students
The age-old question of what to do this summer has a million answers. Get a competitive internship. Buckle down in subjects you like. Go and get a summer job. But have you thought about what you’re going to read yet?
I can hear the groans already, but it’s smart to start thinking about it now for a couple reasons. Reading may not feel like a break, especially for those of you who hate the pastime, and you may already have required assignments. Hear me out. There’s plenty of fun, adult reading that won’t be a slog to get through. If you hate reading, reading a good book is often the cure.
Summer is also a great time to keep your brain active and engaged, and step up your critical thinking skills simultaneously. You’ll be able to slow down and really process what you’ve read, which you might not get to do in school. That’s the type of reading you’ll need to cultivate for college. For those with learning disorders, it’ll give you the chance to practice concentration and retention in a non-pressure environment.
Plus, voluntary summer reading will get your parents off your back, because you’re doing something productive! When colleges ask, you can include it among the list of things you did to make yourself stronger—some of them even ask you to list recent books you read. A good novel can be the subject of a college essay or a standardized test essay.
This is not an exhaustive list of books, just a few surprising, less well-known, or older works that might pique your interest (I assume you’ve heard of 1984 and The Great Gatsby already). I selected a few that have movie adaptations you might be familiar with, as understanding the gist will help you dive into the source material. If none of them excite you, there’s an easy fix: just search the most popular books by a particular category on Amazon.
If You Like… Science Fiction
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke and its sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two
Clarke’s 2001 was written while Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same name was being developed. If you watched the movie and loved it (or even more relevant, if you hated it) the book has more explanation and insight into, you know, what actually happened. Both novels are an innovative take on the meaning of life, on our world and others, with lots of space adventure thrown in for good measure.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick (inspiration for the original Blade Runner movie)
The original movie modifies the story quite a bit, but the core themes are the same: in a bleak but beautiful future, Rick Deckard hunts down humanoid androids called replicants and must grapple with his identity and the future of mankind. The Blade Runner book sequels, by K.W. Jeter, are no longer considered canon with the new movie, but they’re still a joyride in the same dystopian universe.
Anything by Michael Crichton
You might want to start with the classics: think Sphere and Jurassic Park (most of his novels are quick reads, so it’s not a huge commitment). But then take a look at some of his lesser-known novels like The Andromeda Strain. Imagine: a deadly alien virus breaks loose in a small town, killing everyone but two people. The virus is mutating constantly, and scientists must unlock its secrets before it kills them…and everyone else on Earth.
The Martian by Andy Weir
If you liked the movie adaptation starring Matt Damon and/or you’ve got a yen for interplanetary travel, you’ll love this book. Space travel to Mars is now possible, but it’s still deadly. When Mark Watney gets stranded on the desolate Red Planet, he must figure out how to keep himself alive for years before he’s rescued—if he’s rescued at all.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This book is unlike any conventional narrative: the Earth gets destroyed in the very first chapter. The space shenanigans are wacky, terrible, and hilarious all at once, and the human, robot, and alien characters are unforgettable. In this case, you’ll want to skip the movie altogether (it’s a bit all over the place) and the TV series. Read the book, and you’ll see why it’s so fun but so hard to represent on screen.
If You Like… YA Fiction
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and its sequel, A Wind in the Door
With the new movie adaptation, this one’s a killer choice. Technically it’s categorized as science fantasy, but there’s so much more to love. The main character, Meg, is unbelievably awkward (relatable!) and suffering more than just your average teen angst. Without any adults to help her, she becomes the hero of universes and her family. L’Engle made a character so fresh and beloved, the book became a whole series.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Is this book easy to get through? Absolutely. Is it an easy book? Not at all. This sparse novel gives no characters names, making their isolation and paranoia more universal as they explore a strange environment called Area X that’s slowly mutating them and their habitat. What they see inside, and what happens to them, is both gorgeous and terrifying.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
This one’s probably the most academic of the bunch. Trust me, though, it’s a terrifying and compelling read. The dystopic vision, published in 1932, predicts some scarily accurate consequences of modernization, technology, and popular culture. It rings as true today as it did when it was written.
World War Z by Max Brooks
It’s an oral history of a zombie apocalypse. And it is so good. Those who survived the outbreak of the living dead recount how it happened, with painstaking precision and thoughtfulness by Brooks. It reads like a work of nonfiction, with every memory more terrifying and brutal than the last.
If You Like… Mystery & Drama
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (pseudonym for J.K. Rowling)
Did you like the Harry Potter series? Rowling tackles an adult mystery novel (the first in a series) with her protagonist Cormoran Strike, a character as colorful and fascinating as any in the wizarding world. She does tackle more adult themes, and there’s some salty language, but she’s still got her trademark storytelling to keep you breathlessly guessing until the last page.
The Night Manager by John le Carré
Anything by spy novel extraordinaire le Carré is compelling, but this one’s an extra morally grey look at the illegal arms trade. The young main character, Jonathan Pine, goes undercover to catch the brilliant, danger arms dealer Richard Roper. A surprisingly romantic subplot helps makes this novel stand out—and it’s yet another book on this list with a TV adaptation.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Ursula Todd lives a thoroughly unconventional life. Rather, she has unconventional lives: every time she dies, she’s reborn again, reliving major moments and getting the chance to remake history. The narrative structure is bizarre and striking, so it’s a particularly intriguing read.
The Shining by Stephen King
You’ll have to like horror to take this one on, but it’s worth it. The novel’s different enough from the Stanley Kubrick movie to be surprising as you read, and if you haven’t watched the movie, even better. Jack Torrance and his young family move into a hotel and must make it through the desolate Colorado winter as caretakers. But the hotel has other, terrifying, supernatural plans.
There Are So Many Books Out There For You
This is the metaphorical tip of the iceberg of entertaining literature that’ll keep you busy over the summer. Whatever interests you will have plenty of content you can buy or borrow at the library. You can read how-tos (Chrissy Teigen has an amazing cookbook called Cravings), historical nonfiction (Try Devil in the White City), or humor (George Carlin’s autobiography, Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and Bo Burnham’s book of poetry are good places to start). Just pick a passion, and go for it.
Need more help on what to do this summer? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academics, choosing courses, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and much more!