My Top Ten Classic Novels for Teenage Girls

I used to mentor teenage girls.  I spent a lot of time with them, and sometimes part of that mentoring was teaching them interviewing skills.  During many of those practices, the girls would be asked, “What’s your favorite book?”

Some would answer, “A Tale of Two Cities, by Mark Twain.  The movie was really good.”

More likely they’d say, “Twilight.”

Yes, this is what I was dealing with, and sometimes I found it hard to keep my mouth shut at these asinine answers, especially given my propensity towards reading the classics.  However, I did manage not to laugh.  But today, I’d like to give a response.  Here’s what they should’ve been reading instead.  These are my top ten classic book picks for teenage girls.

my top ten photo

1. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde knows beauty and its pitfalls more than any other author.  The novel is pretty clear about the dangers of focusing on beauty over brains.  It doesn’t end prettily!

2. Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre is like Twilight, (or should I say Twilight is like it?), but it features a strong female protagonist who is alone in the world, yet able to stand her ground and on her own two feet.  Instructive, if you ask me.

3. Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen

I first read this in high school and I couldn’t get enough.  It’s a love story, but a complicated one.  It’s about marriage and relationships, but it’s also about judging and pride.  Most of the teenage girls I know have already read this one.  It’s fab.

4. Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier

Du Maurier skillfully weaves a suspenseful tale, but the novel really explores marriage and beauty.  The protagonist, never named, is constantly comparing herself to her husband’s previous wife, much to the detriment of their marriage.  She is not a beauty, but the lesson is that her husband loves her anyway, and even more than his first wife, because love isn’t about beauty, but kindness.  And there is a creepy element to this one too, which makes it an even better read.

5. Middlemarch (1874) by George Eliot

I know.  Who am I kidding?  No teenage girl will read this.  But they should.  Eliot touches on the same classic themes of marriage and love, but she does so with more skill than any of the above writers.  Eliot is a master of human nature and her novels shouldn’t be missed by anybody.

6. Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy

I guess my picks are following the themes of love, romance, and marriage, but isn’t that a big concern for teenage girls?  I think those issues are a big concern for everybody, which is why so much great literature touches on those themes.  Hardy’s depiction of a woman torn between two men and her past mistakes is instructive for any woman or man.  Tess’s guilt and Angel’s perfection teach us lessons of moderation and of forgiveness.  Nobody’s perfect.

7. Quicksand (1928) by Nella Larsen

This is an obscure novel by a little-known novelist from the Harlem Renaissance, but her work is priceless.  This novel explores a woman’s search for identity, as both a woman and an African American in a confusing time in history.  She’s educated, well traveled, but ultimately confused.  Her journey echoes the confusing search for identity all of us must face, usually in high school, but sometimes throughout our lives.

8. The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton

Wharton is one of the finest female American novelists.  Her work centers on high society and money, but the characters are relatable and flawed.  Lily Bart’s search for her place in the world, mostly confused by romance and possible marriages, will be familiar to any girl or woman.

9. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by Betty Smith

This novel is slow to start and may not deserve to be listed with some of the other “finer” literature, but it’s story has made it a classic.  It follows Irish-American Francie through her poverty-stricken childhood and teenage years.  She overcomes so much, and education, not marriage, is the key to her successful rise out of poverty.  It is one of my all-time favorite books!

10. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee

This is such an obvious choice, but that’s because of the serious issues it tackles, all from the perspective of a young girl, Scout.  She witnesses inequality, injustice, unrest, culture clashes, and bravery in the face of all of these things.  She’s motherless, but strong and smart and good.  She deals with difficult and adult problems before she probably should, but given my own youth and what I’ve seen some of the other girls in my life face, many of us have challenges that we probably wish we didn’t, even at young ages.  Nobody is immune from struggle, and when these struggles come, why not have a reliable friend in Scout who knows exactly what you’re going through and how to survive?

These are the ten novels I saw as worthy of reading for the young women I have known.  What novels would you recommend to teenage girls?  Or boys?

Click here to see My Top Ten Classic Novels for Teenage Boys.

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174 thoughts on “My Top Ten Classic Novels for Teenage Girls

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  1. Hello there. Although not a teenage girl, I do find your list for them quite a good one. I especially approve of your choices of The Picture of Dorian Gray and To Kill a Mockingbird, as they are some of my favourite novels.

    One I thought that should have gone on your list was Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a novel which I find has more realistic themes of that time and makes the love story within it greater for it.

    Great list though, and I may have to search out A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it sounds intriguing.

  2. Hmm I’ve read Dorian Grey and Pride and Prejudice, definitely putting the rest on the list! I have no idea what I’d recommend to teenage girls, but I think every teenage boy needs to read something by Austen.

  3. I did try to read ‘Middlemarch’ when I was 16, in the summer before I started AS levels, but I struggled and ran out of time so it went back to the library! I have a copy now and it is going to get read! Struggling to think of what I would recommend off the top of my head though…

    1. I almost wonder if Middlemarch is better when one is a little older. I read it last year for the first time (I’m in my early 30s) and loved it, but I’m not sure I would have liked it as a younger woman. It certainly isn’t easy reading!

  4. No Wuthering Heights? I remember studying it in school in a class where I was one of 5 boys and heavily outnumbered. It was pretty popular. Especially after the teacher made us listen to the Kate Bush song. My ear drums have never recovered.

      1. No thank you 🙂 hey follow me i need friends and i am new to blogging what advice can you give me?

        /vanessaherreragomez.wordpress.com

      1. Oh I loved it – but I’m totally into existentialism! It is a must read though, and it’s a pretty short book. Anna Karenina has been on my bedside table for a year because its 800+ pages seem like a pretty big commitment 🙂

  5. Hmm… Tess isn’t torn between two men really, is she? It’s not like she wants anything to do with Alec. I’m reading ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and maybe there’s more lesson there in vanity vs substance: in not falling for the flash and dash type boys/men but the quieter, steadfast ones who really have your interests at heart. (Love Oak)

    So torn up that you didn’t like North and South by Gaskell. To me, it’s a step up from P&P in substance, but with a more serious and passionate style. Gaskell tries to get us to consider what is really important in this world and how to treat our fellow man. It teaches self-determination, individual freedom of being, and moral responsibility to respect/care for all those around you. Small themes. Lol.

    Good list, though. It would be hard to pick ten. My daughter isn’t into romance at all yet. (14)

    1. I wouldn’t say that Tess is torn emotionally, although there are certainly emotions, but she is in the middle of them in a way that she didn’t necessarily choose. I wouldn’t want to be in her position. And yes, you’ve gotta love Gabriel Oak. Such a great book!

  6. Your comparison of Jane Eyre to Bella from Twilight surprised me. Most critics of the series are critics because Bella is considered by many to be a weak character, always waiting for her man to do something. I read a post a while back about strong female characters that a girl should know before she reads Twilight. I can’t find the exact list, but this post here is similar:

    http://mollymakesdo.blogspot.com/2013/01/great-girls-your-daughter-should-know.html

  7. SUCH a great list! I loved Rebecca…and Jane Eyre is a definite must. There are some similarities between Twilight and Jane Eyre…but I definitely would argue that Jane Eyre is a much stronger protagonist than Bella in Twilight. And I love George Elliot’s novels. Adam Bede is a favorite of mine! Thanks for sharing these! 🙂

    http://sometimesgracefully.com

  8. What a mouthwatering list of books – I love your list and you have a lot of my favorites on there. I have not read The Picture of Dorian Gray though (and now would like to), nor have I heard of Quicksand, so thank you for mentioning and recommending that.

    High school seems so long ago and so now I’m on a quest to re-read a lot of the classics that I don’t think I appreciated enough as a teenager. But I do remember being impacted by Herman Hesse’s work (Steppenwolf and Siddartha), Crime and Punishment, A Doll’s House…In addition to the books you listed I also loved Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter and many of the Shakespeare plays (comedies but also Othello, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet). I think it was the anguish and emotional turmoil of these books that I was gravitating toward as a teen. I would also like to re-read Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston and imagine that would be a good book for teen girls.

    As for boy recommendations I remember that my brother had loved A Catcher in the Rye, Hamlet, and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

    1. Just listing ten isn’t enough! I love what you’ve added to it. I want to read the Kingston book. It has been on my radar for quite a while now. Time to make it a priority!

  9. I think these books are important for boys to read, too — I’m not a fan of making distinctions between what girls and boys should read/might like. On a reading list for teenagers I’d add The House on Mango Street, Passing to accompany Quicksand (they’re often together in one edition anyway), As You Like It, Persepolis, Never Let Me Go, The Razor’s Edge, Ordinary People, and Ender’s Game.

    1. Great additions! I love The House on Mango Street (and Passing). When I looked over this list, besides the gender issue, I think there are race and class issues. Most of my picks are for white, upper class females. That bothers me, but it was fun picking them!

  10. A great list – I haven’t read all of them but I’d definitely recommend the ones I have read to a teenage girl audience. I’d add Wuthering Heights, Lolita, and The Handmaid’s Tale, though. (And I also loved Dracula and Frankenstein, but I suppose they’d be a fun read for both boys and girls!)

  11. An excellent list. I would add a couple – The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is a brilliant dystopian view of a world in which young women – and their fertility – are treated as commodities by old men. I also like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Huston, Charms for the Easy Life or Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbon, The Patron Saint of Liars by by Ann Patchett, and East of Eden by Steinbeck – acknowledging that the books by Kingsolver, Gibbon and Patchett are of dubious provenance as classics.
    For the very ambitious teenager, Anna Karenina by Tolstoy.

    1. Great list! Definitely, Anna Karenina would be for the teenager who also tackled Middlemarch. Your list reminds me that there are way to many great books to just pick ten.

  12. Some great picks. Unfortunately I haven’t read all of them, but there’s a few I should put onto my to read list. I’d suggest some more modern stories, as you’ve got the classics covered. As a teenager I remember reading the Harry Potter series (like pretty much anyone my age). What better role model than Hermione? Hunger Games, because Katniss really is awesome (and a good antidote to Twilight’s Bella.) I’m trying to think of anything I’ve read recently that might fit into what teenage girls might read, but I’m struggling. Maybe I should start dipping into young adult again.

  13. I read To Kill a Mockingbird as a teenager. I hated it. I read it again when I was given a copy for my 40th birthday. I loved it. Between the first read and the second I had lived. I now had the life experience to understand what the book was getting at.

    The Picture of Dorian Gray was a favourite from the first moment I read it. I adore Oscar Wilde. Even now the story of the Happy Prince reduces me to tears.

    1. Interesting! I didn’t read it as a child either, so I really don’t know what my reaction would be. And I’m with you on Dorian. I fell in love the moment I picked it up!

  14. What a great list! I have never heard of Quicksand or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but I will definitely be adding these to my to read list.

    I think Jane Eyre is a great place to start as an introduction to the classics. I would also add Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte to the list. She has to go through some tough times but she works hard and succeeds in creating a better life for herself and her mother. There is still love and romance, but she relies on her own education, intelligence and ability to persevere in order to create her own success – the romance is the icing on the cake.

  15. I do have to say, as a teenage girl (nearly 16) I do find reading classics very challenging and scarey. I attempted reading “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens. I had to read it slowly to understand the sentence structure. I could only get half way through. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to pick it up again.
    Maybe adding tips on how to understand and read classics would help the younger generation since slag is so heavily used in our (teenagers’) lives.
    I have added a lot of the books you listed on a reading list.

      1. Or enjoyed as a teenager; inspiring dreams to be a better a woman, a stronger woman-with convictions and experience. I supposed that’s why they’re called classics, they’re ageless.

  16. Great list. It is lengthy, but I loved The Portrait of a Lady. I think it is a good depiction of a woman growing up. It has a love story, and it isn’t a happy one. I think that’s why I liked the love plot. It was very realistic and did not sugar cat love, love at first sight, and marriage.

    -indiereadergirl0329
    indiewritergirl0329.wordpress.com

  17. Great post! I have read half of the books on your list (Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and To Kill a Mockingbird). I am a big fan of Jane Austen, ever since I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was nine….I know, I was a precocious child! But I genuinely loved reading – and still do – and throughout my teenage years I devoured many of the classics.

    When I studied for my A Levels (high school exams that English pupils take between the ages of 16 – 18), Thomas Hardy’s poetry was a set topic for English Literature. I loved his poems and went on a complete Thomas Hardy binge, reading nine of his novels one after the other. Tess of the d’Urbervilles breaks my heart every time I read it. Poor, poor Tess. There is a wonderful 2008 BBC mini-series of it which is very faithful to the book, starring Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne. I recommend it if you haven’t seen it. I love Hardy’s writing but most of his stories are so bleak! I think the only Hardy novel which is more depressing than Tess is Jude the Obscure. Certain scenes in that book hit me like a punch in the stomach.

    Okay, I had better stop writing before this comment turns into an essay! But just before I sign out, I would suggest Little Women as a must-have for a teen girl’s bookshelf.

    1. I agree with Little Women. I have a similar experience with Hardy, for a college class. I read it all in a few months and LOVED it. I love bleak depressing books, so Jude and Tess were meant for me. I think everybody should read ALL of Hardy’s work. I want to see the miniseries of Tess now. Eddie Redmayne? Okay! You don’t have to twist my arm. 😉

      1. Yes, I admit I have a penchant for bleak reads too. I don’t know why I find it so satisfying to read depressing, tragic novels!

        Oh I do hope you enjoy the miniseries! It is perfect and beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time. Let me know what you think if you watch it.

    2. cluny brown
      nobody’s girl
      the oz books
      ballet shoes
      through the looking glass
      willa cather
      any story by joanna russ
      the people by zenna henderson
      ann of green gables
      i never promised you a rose garden
      anna to the infinite power
      the world of henry orient
      a wrinkle in time
      she by h. rider haggard
      the chosen by h. potek
      the wizard of earthsea
      lost horizons
      gigi or anything else by colette
      chocky by john wyndam
      the mists of avalon

  18. That’s a good list although I really didn’t get on with Rebecca. The narrator kept drifting off into reverie when I just wanted her to get on with it! But the others I can definitely agree with.

    1. king solomon’s mines
      all quiet on the western front
      the catcher in the rye
      a separate peace
      lord of the flies
      tarzan
      catch 22
      from russia with love by ian fleming
      zorro
      the old man and the sea
      zorba the greek
      the longest night
      the guns of navarone
      anything by zane grey
      the illiad by homer
      the lord of the rings
      moby dick

  19. Always have loved “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. ” Found it on my stepmother’s bookshelf when I was visiting my dad one summer when I was about 15. Loved the main character’s survival skills, and found it a great escape somehow!

  20. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is definitely one of my all time favorites (I’ve read every book on this list except for the George Eliot one). I read ATGB for the first time when I was a freshman in high school. We were instructed to read a classic of our choice outside of class, the definition of “classic” being fairly loose, and to write a report on it. I asked our school librarian and she recommended it to me, and when I turned the report in my teacher was like “I’ve never heard of this book!” Which I thought was crazy.

    It’s a simple read and themes aren’t too difficult or complicated for a teenaged girl to really get into it. I love that the author aimed to show that education is a woman’s key to success, and that she IS capable of changing her situation, and that she absolutely doesn’t need a man to do it for her. It’s refreshing, since during the time period it was written (as with most classics) women must choose marriage in order to better their situation.

    Another I would add to the list: East of Eden by John Steinbeck. It doesn’t follow the love, marriage, romance, theme completely, but it is a great story on good and evil, and shows a unique family situation for the time period as well.

  21. Your list is very literary and historical. I love reading, but have never liked the Bronte’s, Austen etc of this world, although lots of my friends would disagree.

    As a teenager I’m sure I would have found the language offputting and the obsession with marriage irritating. I did enjoy To Kill a Mockinbird, despite reading it at school. I also was inspired by The Color Purple, there’s a strong female role model for you. But the one I discovered age 16, read more than once and leant to my long suffering friends was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenece.

  22. Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this list. As a teenage girl who has read most of the books on your list (I’m ready to head out to the library to grab those last few that I haven’t), I understand how annoying it is to talk to girls who don’t read. I love every book on your list that I have read, and so I’m looking forward to reading the ones that I haven’t.

  23. I’m a teen and like to read.. I was searching for other classics to read so I’m happy to stumble across your list:) I must say I have only read To Kill A Mockingbird yet (from this list, that is), but the Picture of Dorian Gray, Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre were already on my list of books to be read. I’m glad I can now add a few more to that list, thanks!

  24. Id highly recommend Riddle in the Sands, anything by John Buchan (39 steps), Ian Fleming definitly and cant forget about Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe and The Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo (my next summer read hopefully)
    Wilkie Collin’s “the haunted hotel”
    But my ultimate favourite books are Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

  25. Very interesting list and I totally agree with Jane Eyre which is one of my favourite novels. What about Madame Bovary by Flaubert and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy? They are long and challenging, but feature infamous, tragic heroines. Or for a much shorter work, The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark?

  26. well what about “Gone with the wind”? I’m a teenager and it’s one of my favorites! The main character Scarlet, even though arrogant and selfish, is a great role model as she is standing at her own feet and she is opposing to the stereotypes of the period.

  27. Reblogged this on Sam's astounding life and commented:
    Think that I still have a long time leading a teenage girl life, this is what I should probably do until it ends. Some I have already read before but jogging again through the pages wouldn’t hurt anybody. Owning the traditional page-based version would be even more wonderful if only Barnes and Noble launched in Hanoi ( which I guess won’t ever be possible, I mean, we have a book street already ). Definitely putting ” Going straightly to Barnes and Noble and brought home these 9 books ( I have The Picture of Dorian Gray already)” on the list of things I will do as soon as my feet are at Heathrow arrival exit .

      1. Oh I didn’t know that my thought on the list would appear here. If I knew that I was kind of commenting I would want to say thanks for the list, very nice and helpful 😀

  28. You know, these are great books, but in the real world of my library, the students would run screaming out the door. In the Young Adult book world, the girls are loving Sarah Dessen, L. Divine, Lauren Destafano, L A Meyer, PC Cast, Lauren Oliver, NiNi Simone, Maria V Snyder, Ellen Hopkins, Beatrice Sparks, Ally Condie, Libba Bray,… Although these books are not great works of literature; they do get girls hooked on books, and one day they might read something from your list of great books!

  29. This is such a great list. I’ve had the chance to teach several of these to a classroom of teenage girls, including Jane Eyre and To Kill a Mockingbird, and I agree that they both should be included on this list. My students truly enjoyed reading them. I would love to have the chance to teach A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, an all-time favorite of mine. It;s on my “bucket list” of novels I want to teach.

  30. Comparing Jane Eyre to Twilight is a dangerous game! I’m curious as to how you think they compare (I’ve read both mind you-Jane Eyre several times). I do think Jane is a far better example to teenage girls because she is a strong character with her own sense of self. What I found worrying about Twilight (and other friends of mine raised this topic too) is that the female protagonist is so overcome by Edward Cullen that he is all she has to live for. Yes it’s awfully romantic, but to be honest it made her a bit of a bore, unlike Jane! Enjoyed your list, I’ve read about half, am looking forward to getting my nose into Middlemarch at some point.

  31. This is a fab list! As a third year BA English student, I’m ashamed to admit that there are a few on this list that I still haven’t read. A couple novels which I think would be great for teenage girls are Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann. I’m actually writing my dissertation on Du Maurier’s Rebecca at the moment!

  32. I’ve heard that ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is a really popular and wonderful book. Could you please give me a short summary? I’d love to know what it’s about before I try it.

    Also, could you check out my list of books to read on my blog? I would love to see if you have read any of them, or if you have any new recommendations.

  33. Like your choices – very different from what I would have chosen (I’m 22 so not a teenager any more but I did read a lot. I was curious what someone would think would fit well into those years). My only nag is that I personally hated Tess with a passion and don’t know anyone who did like it! It might be one to revisit now I’m older, but I’d replace that one with Wuthering Heights if it were my choice.

  34. Great post! I love-love-love Tess of the D’Urbevilles, Middlemarch, and Pride & Prejudice. Definitely my favorites, as well (:

  35. Great post!! I do agree that young women should cultivate a love for reading, preferably the classics because there is so much about the human nature incorporated into nearly all of the books in the ‘classics’ category. I myself can attest to this, as I have gleaned much wisdom from reading these kind of books and I’m grateful that I developed the love (or addiction) for reading at an early age.

    TBH I also don’t really understand why a lot of teenage girls are fan-girling over Twilight, 50 shades, and other ‘popular’ books sold in the market. I don’t mean to sound like a snob intellectual but I do really think that these popular books don’t delve in much into human nature and they enforce images of fickle women and unrealistic storylines. Much has been said about these sort of debates on young people and pop books but I have a firm opinion that they will never match the classics in terms of depth.

    1. I agree. I think such books might be fun, but they don’t have depth and they can give us unrealistic hopes and ways of viewing the world. It is nice to hear that you’ve read the classics and love them!

  36. I have read about 4 of them and my English teacher raves about most of the others. I have to admit Pride & Prejudice was and still is my favourite book of all times, I must have read the book at lest 5 times. Also there is no one in my literature group who does not love Jane Eyre, I think all these books sound amazing and knot wait to read them all!

      1. I always do and thanks to my lit class I now have a book pile miles high and an even bigger list of books they all recommend 🙂

  37. As soon as you mentioned George Elliot’s Middlemarch I thought, then Tess of D’Urbervilles needs to be included too and then ah, you did! Great! I must say, my favourite Austin is ‘Persuasions’, which makes for good discussion. In South Africa, the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ equivalent would be ‘Shades’ by Marguerite Poland. If you can ever get your hands on it, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
    As you say, what are the chances that they’ll actually read it, right? Have taught high school English for eight years, the reading levels and interest are unfortunately dwindling.

  38. I too would recommend all these books for teenage girls and adults alike. I think they are a phenomenal reads. Most of them I read back in high school but I still occasionally will pick one up to re-read. Especially Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre!

  39. A great post! I think I will bookmark it and select at least one of these to read (or re-read) in the coming year—while keeping my niece and other young women I know in mind.

  40. About To Kill a Mockingbird book:

    I never read this book in school nor had I seen the film. What a great performance and novel. I had a feeling it would be great but I am throughly overwhelmed. This has got to be the best book I’ve ever listened to. The writing was above superb!

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