When teenagers are encouraged to read more, the recommendations are usually new and flashy.
Now, I enjoy the new and flashy books as much as anybody else. Don’t get me wrong – subscribing to book recommendation YouTube channels and keeping up with new releases is fun. But uncovering words written decades ago is another type of fun.
Popular classics aren’t old and stuffy. In fact, they are only popular classics because they’ve stayed relevant all these years.
The emotions that their heroes felt are still relatable – and the biggest reason teenagers read is to be able to relate to something.
If you’re looking to expand your reading taste to include classics, I’ve compiled the best classic books for teens. Read on to find the best classic books to add to your (or your teen’s) reading list.
The best classic books for teens to read and remember forever
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
In late 1800s Massachusetts, the four March sisters – gentle Meg, tomboyish Jo, quiet Beth, and practical Amy – rely on each other for companionship and support.
As they grow up in the midst of hardships, they work to overcome their little flaws and navigate their hearts.
Even though it stands in stark contrast with the more fast-paced nature of modern YA books, Little Women appeals to teenagers because it feels like home.
From unrequited love to the feeling that life has passed them by, the March sisters wrestle through every small teenage feeling – and you get to envision yourself in the characters, too.
For readers who did not grow up in the most loving households, the candlelit Christmases and airy summer mornings at the March house quite literally feel like home.
Read this book… in the armchair of your family’s living room on a rainy afternoon.
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Teens should read Anne of Green Gables because… Anne is proof that our biggest dreams and most overwhelming emotions have all been dreamt and felt before.
Set amidst acres of beautiful Canadian greenery, Anne of Green Gables follows Anne Shirley, an orphan who is taken in by the old Cuthbert siblings.
Anne copes with her insecurities and traumatic past by romanticizing her life. She finds herself through daydreams, and gets herself in and out of scrapes.
Anne of Green Gables is an immensely popular feel-good classic, and for good reason. A quintessential classic for middle schoolers, this book captures exactly what early teenagerhood feels like – and all the dreaming and high emotions that come with it.
Read this book… lying in soft grass on a yellow summer afternoon.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Teens should read The Diary of a Young Girl because… it’s a testament to the indomitable human spirit against evil.
The only nonfiction title on this list, The Diary of a Young Girl is the posthumously published diary of Anne Frank, who went into hiding from 1942 – 1944 in the German-occupied Netherlands.
Chances are, you had to read this book in history class and you know its tragic ending. But the required reading format does not do it justice.
Anne’s voice may just be the most uplifting narration I have ever read. Throughout her time in hiding, she never lost her idealism.
What makes this book so heartbreaking is Anne’s unwavering belief in the goodness of people – despite the end of her story at the hands of them.
Read this book: in warm pajamas, next to your bedroom lamp.
1984 by George Orwell
Teens should read 1984 because… it teaches us to appreciate our power as young people with ideas.
This is the only book on this list that I do not particularly like. In fact, I do not like George Orwell’s allegorical books because they represent humanity so well that they depress me. However, I still believe that every teenager needs to read 1984.
It’s set in Orwell’s prediction of what 1984 would be like. In this future, people’s lives are closely monitored by The Party, a dictatorial force that controls the citizens. Every word, action, and to an extent, thought, goes noticed.
The protagonist is Winston, a low-ranking Party member who secretly despises it. He slowly begins to work towards overthrowing the Party.
Even though this book is disturbing, it’s an important lesson on how easy it is to fall down the slope of surrendering your rights. Because the world will someday belong to us teenagers, this is a lesson best learned early.
Read this book… on a cloudy day before getting ready in the morning.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Teens should read Fahrenheit 451 because… it’s a testament to how important it is to never stop learning.
One of my first classic books, Fahrenheit 451 is almost as shocking and disturbing as 1984. It is set in a future where books are illegal and “firemen” are in charge of burning them up.
I think the synopsis is misleading, because it makes the story come across as a big advertisement to read more books. And while this is one of the lessons taught, the biggest one of all is the importance of individual thought.
The world of Fahrenheit 451 is full of people who consume lies eagerly and lack the awareness to understand the reality they live in.
Their senses are dulled by television programs, so they seem like they are only half alive – a more extreme version of what is happening with humanity’s increased exposure to technology.
Read this book… in between classes, highlighting meaningful quotes with markers.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Teens should read The Bell Jar because… it helps us feel less alone.
When I recommend this book, I always describe it as The Catcher in the Rye, but feminist and evolved. And it’s true.
This must-read book for teen girls follows Esther, a young woman who has everything. She’s an overachieving college student who has beauty, intelligence and talent. Everybody foresees, and expects, success in her future.
Unexpectedly, the story twists into her slow descent into insanity. The small irritants of life, and the larger knocks to her mental health, become too much to bear.
This book will resonate with any burnt-out overachiever. Esther realizes halfway through the book that she is just a prize pony – only good for winning scholarships and impressing teachers. She has no aspirations beyond the arena of people’s expectations.
Read this book… on a long drizzly car ride, with your head against the glass.
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Teens should read Peter Pan because… it’s a formal farewell to childhood.
A classic in every one of its genres, Peter Pan is about a girl named Wendy, who is whisked to Neverland with her younger brothers.
Amidst magic and lost boys, Wendy finds herself in the middle of an ages-long brawl between Peter Pan and Captain Hook. It’s up to her to save the group from defeat at the hands of pirates and free them from everlasting youth.
The land of Neverland itself is less memorable than the pure beauty that bursts through this book’s prose. Every page holds another quote to highlight. So much is said about the brilliance of childhood and the endurance of true love.
Even though this book is traditionally meant for children, I’ve found that Peter’s aversion to growing up resonates more with teenagers.
Read this book… in small bursts by your bedroom lamp each night
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Teens should read The Catcher in the Rye because… it teaches us that we are not the only ones who have felt like this.
The Catcher in the Rye is the young adult classic. People either love or hate it. And I loved it. In fact, The Catcher in the Rye is the book that inspired me to major in English.
It’s from the perspective of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield, the definition of an unreliable narrator. Holden is depressed, reactionary, and most importantly, disillusioned by the rest of the human race.
He is expelled from his private boarding school and spends the time until he has to go back home living by himself in the city. The book follows him as he observes and judges the people around him.
Read this book… lying in your bed, the summer before college.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak is one of the more modern classics for teens on this list. It’s about Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman whose life would never be the same after a crime at a party the summer before. Scared and disoriented, she called the police, who broke up the party.
Because nobody else knew why she called the police, her friends all assumed she was a “snitch” and turned their backs on her. Going into freshman year, she has no friends.
Laurie Halse Anderson is one of the best voices in YA fiction. Melinda’s inner voice is brilliant – she suppresses her anger, loneliness and fear, but we as readers feel it all.
Read this book… in one sitting in your room one Sunday afternoon.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Teens should read The Perks of Being a Wallflower because… it gives us hope for our own coming-of-age stories.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower was one of those books that I used to avoid because they were so immensely popular. But once I was peer pressured into checking it out, I was hooked. I read it in one day.
In this book, the main character Charlie navigates his freshman year of high school. Charlie is socially inept and introverted, but he is able to see people and situations for what they actually are.
As readers, we aren’t subject to melodramatic paragraphs describing his depression – he communicates his stubborn sadness through mere sentences.
Hard-hitting topics are carefully handled, and the story is rounded out by Charlie’s dynamic cast of friends. The end of this book will leave you feeling like if Charlie can end up being okay, you can be okay too.
Read this book… after school when you should be doing your homework.
For more of the best books for teens, you might also like reading…
- 10 best books that every teenage girl should read
- 12 best books for teen boys of all time
- 10 best YA books ever for readers of all ages
- 15 best books to read before you start college
- 20 of the best classic books to read in your lifetime (my must-read list)
- 20 of the best modern novels of the 21st century
If you adore books, need a bit of a boost, and would love some gentle comfort and guidance, check out The Sanctuary, a seven-day course from Tolstoy Therapy.