I want to add that I've listed these books as for teens even though some could easily be read by a younger reader. However many of these have some issue within them, whether language, alcohol usage, racism etc. thus I've labeled for an older reader.
It's easy to list great books such as
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Catcher in the Rye
so I will try to focus on less well-known books.
The Book Thief
by Marcus Zusak
This story is narrated by Death. The story takes place in 1939 Nazi Germany. Liesel, a nine-year old girl, has lost her parents after they are taken to a concentration camp. Liesel begins to steal books. Her foster father teaches her to read and she ends up reading her stolen books to people through out the story, including a hidden man during the marches to Dachau. You won't be able to put this book down!
The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
The things they carried into war, photos, letters, string, each story, each item a different soldier's story of the Vietnam War.
A Separate Peace
by John Knowles
The dark side of adolescent. Set during WWII at an exclusive all-male boarding school in New England. I was assigned this book in High School, many still are. It is a true young-adult classic.
The Once and Future King
by T.H. White
Picking this book up seems to be an overwhelming task, it is a tome, but it is actually 4 books in 1. The first book begins with The Sword in the Stone. This is one of the best renderings of the Arthurian legends, a great fantasy read.
The Princess Bride
by William Goldman
I just picked this book back up to reread. It is that fun. I'll note that my copy has a very long new introduction of the filming of the movie of this book. If you've never read this before, or if handing it to a teen to read, you may want to encourage them to skip to the beginning of the book. Read the introduction later. It's long and rambling, and hilarious, but may be better on a rereading of the story.
That being said, this book is hysterical. It has some of the best quotes from a book EVER!
What is this book about? It tells you in the beginning:
by S. E. Hinton
This story, written by a teenage Hinton follows the coming-of-age of a group of "Greasers" from the wrong side of the track. It is heart wrenching. Most boys that I know that have read this (girls too) are very moved by this story. It is that compelling. That being said, it includes fighting and underage drinking and smoking (cigarettes). I read this aloud with my son when he was 14. He would still claim it as one of his favorite books. I had read many times as a teen, but had forgotten all the underage smoking and times of drinking. I had to try to explain the tobacco and alcohol usage to him within the context of the story. They also eat chocolate cake often for breakfast. In perspective the boys are on the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum, and most come from quite dysfunctional family lives.
by Orson Scott Card
I'm not the biggest Sci-Fi fan, but many in my life that would say it is their favorite genre. This book, even though often recommended for me to read was only picked up prior to my son reading it at school last year. WOW. This book is incredible. This is one of the best young adult novels I've ever read, across all genres.
My Family & Other Animals
by Gerald Durrell
One family tires of the cold, rainy English weather and decides to move to the Greek Island of Corfu.
Durrell, an English naturalist, writes this lovely and at time laugh-out-loud funny story with beautiful descriptions of the never ending parade of animals and eccentrics that come through their family home. It is reminiscent of a summer-time spent outside enjoying and reveling in nature. Durrel writes with such beauty. You will want to hop a plane to Greece...
Note: Gerald Durrell was one of the first to propose captive breeding. He coined the famous phrase "Extinction is forever".
A Study in Scarlet
by Arthur Conan Doyle
The first of the Sherlock Holmes stories. A fun place to start.
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
by John Steinbeck
Here's a fact: John Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors. There is something in his writing that deeply touches me. Everyone is familiar with his most famous works, but this book is much less well known. It should be noted that he died while writing this collection of his King Arthur stories. Even if you are not a great Arthurian Legend person, that is a great book of stories.
by John Steinbeck
Tortilla Flat is the poor section above Monterey, California, inhabited by the rough "paisanos". Steinbeck crafts this story in the vein of the Arthurian legends. Each man is a "knight" and Tortilla Flat is their "Camelot". This book is one of my all time favorites.
Gone With the Wind
by Margaret Mitchell
One of the greatest Civil War novels ever written. This is a giant book. It is completely engrossing. I remember the first time I read it , I was so consumed by it that I remember thinking "what would Scarlet think". This is an epic love story. I admit I also love the movie, and this book is more than the movie. A great read for the right kid.
Caveat: The racism is a bit overwhelming at times for people, I know this is often a deal breaker for readers. It is the deep south, and it is pre and post Civil War. I suspect that much of what is written is true to how it was.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by Thornton Wilder
Initially I was only familiar with Wilder for his play "Our Town". After reading this I've become even more interested with who he was and how he thought. This story is not a light summer read. It is deep and thought provoking. A simple event of a bridge collapsing killing several peasants witnessed by a Franciscan monk and his delving into each victim's life. It delves into to the deep issue of what is God's will and why bad things happen to people. It is life changing.
by Daphne Du Maurier
Eerie Manderley filled with the presence of the deceased Rebecca. The twists and turns continue until the end. A real classic billed as a love story, but really more a deeply suspenseful mystery.
Miss Marple Omnibus Vol. 1
by Agatha Christie
If you don't know by now, I love a good mystery and a visit to St. Mary Mead and time spent with Miss Jane Marple is the best of the best!
My all-time favorite series are the books about Betsy Ray written by Minnesota's own Maude Hart Lovelace. Betsy's story begins as a small child and can be read about in the first 5 books (which are great for a young reader and I should have added to that list!) but it's also possible to pop into her life as she begins High School. The books are now published with two books in one.
Heaven to Betsy and Betsy in Spite of Herself
9th and 10th grades
Betsy Was a Junior and Betsy and Joe
11th and 12th grades
Betsy and the Great World and Betsy's Wedding
The first book chronicles Betsy's tour of Europe, and continues with her wedding.
(We are currently finishing the last book in the series).
the first four books are now in one volume.
by Benedict and Nancy Freeman
An English teacher I work with recently loaned me this book after we discussed our mutual love of Maude Hart Lovelace's books. I had never read this, nor heard of it. It has an immense following like the Betsy-Tacy books.
This is the story of a young woman who heads north because she has pleurisy. She marries a Canadian Mounty and they live near the Hudson Bay. A true pioneer tale filled with adventure, wild animals, fires, Indians and illnesses all tempered with love.
by Charles Portis
An odd Western read which has twice been made into a movie. Mattie is a strong female teen character. She sets off into the wilderness to avenge her father's murder. Mattie Ross is a spitfire, filled with courage, and one of the most interesting young female characters I've ever read.