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These book recommendations are intended for high schoolers of all ages, but should contain nothing inappropriate for those high schoolers on the younger side. I have divided the books into three rough categories: literary classics, Catholic fiction, and just for fun. Concentrating on reading the great classics at an early age gives your teenager a solid foundation in and appreciation of the literary riches of western civilization. The books under Catholic fiction range from saint biographies to apologetics disguised as fiction. The books under “for fun” are exactly for that purpose!
Every girl needs to read Jane Austen! Pride and Prejudice and Emma offer an education in the weaknesses and follies of human nature, but also a tribute to people’s ability to change and grow. All of Austen’s books belong on a teenage girl’s bookshelf!
Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton is best known for his non-fiction such as Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, but he is also the author of many fanciful, delightful fictional works. The Complete Father Brown Stories, short mystery stories starring a humble Catholic priest, is a great introduction to the genius of Chesterton. Another loosely connected set of short stories, The Club of Queer Trades, offers thought-provoking ideas about work and leisure wrapped up in captivating stories. Chesterton was also a skilled poet, and his The Ballad of the White Horse and Lepanto are inspiring ballads with themes about Catholic heroes trusting in God in seemingly hopeless battles.
Of course, a familiarity with the major works of Charles Dickens is essential for a well rounded literary education. I recommend beginning with A Tale of Two Cities , both for its riveting historical fiction storyline and its enduring fame as one of Dicken’s greatest works. Likewise, A Christmas Carol is another perfect first Dickens story due to its relative brevity and famous plot. Over the course of the high school years, I also recommend encouraging your child to readOliver Twist , Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, and David Copperfield .
Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, wrote a plethora of entertaining works, but as an introduction, I recommend The Prince and the Pauper, the classic story of two boy swapping places and learning and growing through the adventures that ensue. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are classic works of American fiction, simply entertaining on the surface but containing poignant themes about human dignity, the value of each person, societal norms versus natural law, and slavery.
James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is just the best known of an entire series of loosely connected tales of pioneers struggling for survival in early America. The series begins with The Deerslayer and continues with The Pathfinder: Or The Inland Sea. These stories, written in the mid-nineteenth century by Cooper, are American classics.
Two Years Before The Mast is Richard Henry Dana’s gripping account of his voyages around Cape Horn, to California, and up and down the New England coast in the mid-nineteeneth century. This American classic showcases travel writing of the best caliber.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe is a fictional biography of a castaway who spent twenty eight years on an island. Written over 300 years ago, this adventure story is still relevent and captivating to young readers of today, particularly for the cell phone generation which has almost no concept of being alone.
Rudyard Kipling may be best known as the author of The Jungle Book . However, I highly recommend also reading Kim , the story of an Indian street boy, Captains Courageous, in which a spoiled rich boy learns character through life as a sailor, and The Complete Stalky and Co., which chronicles the escapades of an irrepressible trio of English private school boys.
The Boy Knight of Reims by Eloise Lownsberry is a captivating account of an apprentice goldsmith inthe Middle Ages growing up in the shadow of the great cathedral at Reims. Action and historical information blend together and the reader closes the book knowing a great deal about cathedrals, Joan of Arc, the 100 Year War, and goldsmithing.
Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel is a superb blending of a touching love story and the suspense of the French Revolution. This famous novel is always a favorite with high schoolers, especially since it is a shorter read than many classics!
Animal farm: A Fairy Story by George Orwell is a dystopian novel of lasting fame due to its on point satire about the rise of Communism.
Shane by Jack Schaefer is an American western classic about coming of age, manhood, and sacrifice.
Sir Walter Scott‘s Ivanhoe and Rob Roy have been ill represented in abridgments. Buy or borrow an unabridged version for your children, especially your sons, and let them be entranced by the chivalry of a different age, the grandeur of Scott’s language, and the noble themes of sacrifice and honor.
William Shakespeare. Get his The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Enough said.
But really, read Shakespeare aloud to your protesting teenagers if need be. Exposure to Shakespeare cannot fail to improve a high schooler’s writing and language.
Robert Louis Stevenson‘s classic which should be read for English literacy is, of course, Treasure Island. I also recommend The Black Arrow , a fascinating historical fiction novel about justice, revenge, and honor set during the War of the Roses.
I dare to count The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien as classics. Someday I will write an entire post on why this story of sacrifice and friendship, real love and twisted evil, should be read by every teenager.
Jules Verne‘s adventurous novels are as thoroughly enjoyable and readable for today’s high schoolers as they were for readers of the 1870’s when they were published. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may be his most famous, but also read Around the World in 80 Days, a fascinating globe trot by a most unlikely duo: a straight-buttoned Englishman and his free-thinking French servant. My favorite Jules Verne, though, is The Mysterious Island , a spin off of sorts to the more famous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which a group of Union prisoners of War escape their jailers in Richmond only to find themselves marooned on a very mysterious island.
The Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett is an American classic about faith and perseverance.
I realize Willa Cather is a well-regarded author, but I never can muster up much enthusiasm for her famous My Antonia. I much prefer Death Comes for the Archbishop , a slow, gentle story about the sacrificial life of a Catholic missionary priest in the southwest.
Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly is both simple and magnificent. Mr. Blue is a modern day Saint Francis of Assisi, rejecting a vast fortune for a life of self-giving, which makes him joyful. If you love G. K. Chesterton, you will adore this book.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s The Complete Sherlock Holmes stories are miniature masterpieces, enjoyable and enlightening. For the reader who enjoys mysteries, I also recommendThe Hound of the Baskervilles for an eerie, yet in the end logical mystery.
The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith has been so referenced in literature that reading it seems inevitable. A bit slow going, with a decidedly didactic tone, this story of a poor vicar and his family in the eighteenth century is more for literacy than enjoyment.
Both fiction and nonfiction from C. S. Lewis provide excellent reading material for high schoolers, but focusing on fiction here, I recommend his Space Trilogy, which begins with Out of the Silent Planet, which explores the question of intelligent life of non-human origin on another planet. Perelandra posits the interesting scenario of a second Genesis-style temptation on a new planet, but with the Eve figure receiving advice both from a devil and a human. The final book, That Hideous Strength , is a powerful apocalyptic-type novel. I also highly recommend The Screwtape Letters, a series of letters purporting to be from an experienced demon explaining how to tempt and destroy humans.
O. Henry is a master of the short story and the twist in the plot! The Best Short Stories of O. Henry is a collection of 38 of his most famous and best loved stories, but he wrote over 600 stories in total so if possible find a complete works at a used book store or library.
Gene Straton Porter‘s Freckles is a heart-warming story of a disabled boy overcoming the odds and making a success of himself by hard work and good character. Porter’s works are notable for their emphasis on natural beauty and themes of nature leading people to God. However, be warned that not all her books are appropriate for younger teen readers! In addition to Freckles, I can recommend Laddie, a charming story of family life and love as told by the youngest in a large midwestern farm family.
Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini is a swashbuckling tale about an unassuming Irish physician whom circumstances turn into a successful pirate in the Caribbean. This book raises fascinating questions about honor and duty in the face of injustice and adversity, while also being by turn exciting and downright hilarious.
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is the play on which the famous My Fair Lady was based. Inspired by a Greek myth, this is a story about what makes gentility, a love story, and a comedy, all at the same time.
Five travelers from diverse backgrounds die in a bridge collapse in Peru. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is a fascinating examination of their lives and the circumstances which placed them on the bridge together for the accident.
The Virginian by Owen Wister is my favorite western. Soft-spoken and mischievous, gallant and mostly good, the Virginian is a cowboy of the best sort. A thoroughly enjoyable look at cowboy life.
One of my favorite authors of all time is P. G. Wodehouse. He is inimitable in his mastery of the English language and ability to create a side-splittingly hilarious story. Even my very not-a-reader husband will read Wodehouse just for comedic relief after a tough work week!
Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster stories, such as The Code of the Woosters, starring Bertie Wooster, an independently wealthy, idle, charming, good-natured young gentleman, and his ever-stoic, stupendously intelligent valet, Jeeves.
Wodehouse also wrote a series set in the country at Blandings Castle. A Bounty of Blandings: Summer Lightning / Heavy Weather / Blandings Castle and several other loosely connected novels are my favorite Wodehouse books, full of wry humor, hilarious misunderstandings, and the society’s own water. The best in this series, and my favorite Wodehouse novel ever, is Leave It to Psmith!
Louis de Wohl wrote numerous captivating biographies of famous saints, such as Lay Siege to Heaven: A Novel About Saint Catherine of Siena and The Golden Thread: A Novel About St. Ignatius Loyola. Gripping and inspiring, these books focus on the struggles even saints face.
The Shadow of His Wings: The True Story of Fr. Gereon Goldmann, OFM is a captivating, true story of a young German seminarian who is conscripted into the Nazi army at the start of World War II. His determination not only to remain a faithful Catholic but to still become a priest is truly inspiring.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers is the real Maria Trapp‘s wonderful, funny account of her family’s amazing story. A touching and inspiring story of trust in God, hope amid hardship,and love for all things Catholic, this is one of my favorite biographies.
A Philadelphia Catholic in King Jamess Court by Martin de Porres Kennedy is Catholic apologetics wrapped up in a fictional story about an average, Catholic teenage boy forced to live in the Bible Belt with his passionately Protestant relatives. His relatives’ challenges to the Catholic faith have the unforeseen result of causing the boy to deepen and study his Catholic faith in a new way.
Lord of the World: A Novel by Robert Hugh Benson is a dystopian novel about the coming of the anti-Christ and a Catholic priest who resists him. Teenagers love dystopia these days (think of the general obsession with Hunger Games) so this novel from over a century ago should be popular again.
A Man for All Seasons: A Play in Two Acts by Robert Bolt is a play about the events leading up to the martyrdom of St. Thomas More. Fascinating and inspiring reading.
The Song at the Scaffold: A Novel by Gertrud von Le Fort follows the fate of sixteen carmelite sisters as they face martyrdom during the French Revolution. Will they persevere in faith and joy to the scaffold?
The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel is the captivating story of Bernadette, the visionary of Lourdes.
The Robe by Lloyd Douglas is a fascinating interweaving of the story of a Roman Centurion’s search for truth with the fate of a seamless robe Jesus wore. A classic conversion story sure to captivate the imagination of the reader.
Also check out my review of Taylor Marshall’s excellent Sword and Serpent Trilogy.
All Creatures Great and Small: The Warm and Joyful Memoirs of the Worlds Most Beloved Animal Doctor by James Herriot is the first of his many collection of anecdotes about his life as a vet in the English dales. James Herriot is a sheer delight to read. His insight into human nature is as deep as his understanding of animal nature. Funny or moving, all his stories are imbued with a love of God’s creation that is reminiscent of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Warning: There is a decent amount of “gentle” swearing in Herriot’s books. If this is not something you want your children reading, I recommend arming yourself with a black permanent marker and editing!
Penrod by Booth Tarkington is a series of side-bustingly funny anecdotes about young Penrod, the all American mischief maker from midwest USA at the turn of the twentieth century.
Between the Forest and the Hills by Ann Lawrence is a “historical fantasy” according to the author, blending Roman Britain’s history with Christian tradition and a generous measure of humor. A thoroughly enjoyable book which defies categories.
Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey is a side-splittingly funny account of life in a huge family as told by two of the oldest children.
My Heart Lies South The Story of my Mexican Marriage by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino is a true story of a young American who finds herself marrying a Mexican despite herself, and the sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving story of their journey to blend their different backgrounds and attitudes into a harmonious marriage.
Stephen Lawhead‘s In the Hall of the Dragon King is the first in his fantasy Dragon King series. Not great classics, but still an enjoyable coming of age fantasy story about courage, honor, and friendship. There are some interesting themes about Christianity versus paganism which you can direct your teenager to try to identify.
If your high schooler is over 16, check out Part 2 of my high school reading list!