50 classics from (almost) everyone's high school reading list
Some might dread their high school reading assignments, but literature can teach students about everything from history to Greek mythology. It also can inspire strong emotions.
Research shows that reading fiction can even encourage empathy. While more curriculums should include modern, diverse writers like Amy Tan and Malala Yousafzai, certain classics—like John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath" and Sandra Cisneros’s "The House on Mango Street"—endure. George Orwell’s "1984," a novel published in 1949 about a dystopian future where the government controls the truth, even surged to the Amazon best-sellers list in 2017, shortly after Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to President Donald Trump, described falsehoods as "alternative facts."
Sometimes parents, teachers and school-board officials disagree on what kids should or shouldn’t read in high school. In 2018, "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" were dropped in a Minnesota school district because they contain a racial slur. Kurt Vonnegut’s "Slaughterhouse-Five," a book about an American soldier doomed to repeat history, has been controversial for decades. In 2011, a Missouri High School pulled it from library shelves after complaints it was anti-American.
Certain books deserve a first, second, or maybe even a third read. Using data from Goodreads, Stacker compiled a list of 50 timeless books, plays, and epic poems commonly found on high school reading lists. A total of 1,002 voters picked the most essential reading required for students. The final ranking takes into account how many times each book was voted on and how highly voters ranked them.
Click through to see which classics made the list.
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#50. Their Eyes Were Watching God
- Author: Zora Neale Hurston
- Score: 3,540
- Average rating: 3.90/5, based on 232,956 ratings
A coming-of-age tome set in early 1900s Florida, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" tackles a multitude of issues: racism, sexism, segregation, poverty, and gender roles. Initially overlooked upon its release, Hurston's best-known work is now considered a modern-American masterpiece, thanks to its rediscovery by black studies programs in the 1970s.
#49. A Raisin in the Sun
- Author: Lorraine Hansberry
- Score: 3,550
- Average rating: 3.76/5, based on 59,314 ratings
The story follows the Youngers, a working-class black family living on the South Side of Chicago who move to an all-white neighborhood during a time of desegregation. In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry became the first black playwright to get a play produced on Broadway. The title of the play comes from "Dream Deferred," a poem by Langston Hughes.
#48. Moby-Dick; or, the Whale
- Author: Herman Melville
- Score: 3,750
- Average rating: 3.49/5, based on 445,669 ratings
Herman Melville uses the narrative of a sailor, Ishmael. He is on board with Captain Ahab who is trying to exact revenge against Moby Dick, the white whale that bit off his leg at the knee. For those who didn’t study the tale in high school—or couldn’t make it through the 135 chapters—critics say it really is worth a read. Some refer to it as the American Bible, better approached after becoming an adult and not as a student in high school.
#47. The Pearl
- Author: John Steinbeck
- Score: 3,821
- Average rating: 3.45/5, based on 171,505 ratings
John Steinbeck’s "The Pearl" tells the story of Kino, a poor diver who is trying to support his family by gathering pearls from gulf beds. He is only barely scraping by until he happens upon a giant pearl. Kino thinks this discovery will finally provide him with the financial comfort and security he has been seeking, but it ultimately brings disaster. The story addresses the reader’s relationship to nature, the human need for connection, and the consequences of resisting injustice.
#46. The Importance of Being Earnest
- Author: Oscar Wilde
- Score: 3,825
- Average rating: 4.17/5, based on 277,734 ratings
This comedic play by Oscar Wilde takes a satiric look at Victorian social values while following two men—Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff—as they tell lies to bring some excitement to their lives. "The Importance of Being Earnest" was Wilde’s final play, and some consider it his masterpiece.
#45. The Red Badge of Courage
- Author: Stephen Crane
- Score: 3,838
- Average rating: 3.23/5, based on 82,944 ratings
In "The Red Badge of Courage," Henry Fleming enlists in the Union Army, enticed by visions of glory. When the reality of war and battle set in, Fleming retreats in fear. In the end, he faces his cowardice and rises to leadership. This American war novel was published in 1895 and is so authentic that it’s easy to believe the author—who was born after the Civil War ended—was himself a veteran.
#44. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes
- Author: Edith Hamilton
- Score: 3,902
- Average rating: 3.99/5, based on 40,876 ratings
Author Edith Hamilton takes the reader on a journey through Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology with tales of the Olympus and Norse gods in Valhalla and the Trojan War in Odysseus. For high school students, it can serve as an important introduction to classic mythology that can help them better understand the themes behind other works like "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." Hamilton's book is considered the standard by which all other books on mythology are measured.
#43. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
- Author: Maya Angelou
- Score: 3,971
- Average rating: 4.22/5, based on 351,852 ratings
Maya Angelou, who was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was 8, writes about her experience with sexual assault and racism while growing up in the Jim Crow South in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The autobiography, which Angelou wrote at the urging of her friend and fellow writer James Baldwin, was one of the first written by a black woman to reach a wide general audience.
#42. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- Author: Mark Twain
- Score: 4,073
- Average rating: 3.91/5, based on 686,551 ratings
"The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" takes place in the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, during the 1840s. Tom Sawyer and his friend Huck Finn witness a murder by Injun Joe. After the boys stay silent, the wrong man is accused of the crime. When they flee, the whole town presumes them dead and the boys end up attending their own funerals. Mark Twain’s portrayal of Sawyer and Finn challenge the idyllic American view of childhood, instead showing children as fallible human beings with imperfections like anyone else.
- Author: Kurt Vonnegut
- Score: 4,357
- Average rating: 4.07/5, based on 1,025,939 ratings
In "Slaughterhouse-Five," Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of Billy Pilgrim—based on a real American soldier—who is unstuck in time.” He travels throughout the timeline of his life in a nonlinear fashion, forced to relive certain moments. He is first pulled out after he is drafted and is captured in Germany during World War II. The book, which explores how humankind repeats history, has been banned or challenged in classrooms throughout the United States. It even landed in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 in Board of Education v. Pico, and the court held that banning the book violated the First Amendment.
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