A few months back I posted My Top Ten Classic Novels for Teenage Girls. It has become my second most-viewed post ever, just behind Seven Annoying Things People Say To Pianists, which also created a lot of conversation.
I felt somewhat bad about making this list for girls. I hate to gender stereotype and I hate saying that there are books for girls that don’t apply to boys. That’s nonsense. However, I made the list because girls are what I know. I’m female, I have two daughters, and I spend a lot of time worrying about how to make life better for the female sex through my research. I’ve also spent quite a lot of time with teenage girls as a mentor.
All of this has led me to think that I should make a list of my top ten classic novels for teenage boys, so here it is. Although, girls should read these too, just as boys should read my top ten classic novels for girls.
The Power of One (1989) by Bryce Courtenay
I read this about ten years ago and couldn’t put it down. Not only does it illuminate the trials and tribulations of a boy’s rites of passage, but it helped me to understand more about South Africa’s history and just how complex racial issues can be. I also recently watched Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) that helped me to understand even more about the country and the amazing growth it has had in such a short amount of time. This book has boxing in it!
The Green Years (1944) by A. J. Cronin
I found this book serendipitously at my local library. I was browsing the shelves and decided to just grab a book that looked interesting without knowing anything about it. The Green Years was the result of this venture, and to this day, it is one of my favorites. It is about an orphaned boy and his generous great-grandfather in Scotland. Although that sounds heartwarming, it has its share of conflict and difficulty for the characters. There is also some comedy involved. I recommend this highly for everybody.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain
This is a must-read. You can’t be a child (or an adult) and not be acquainted with Huckleberry, Tom, and Jim. This book attempts to make sense of the darkest time in American history through the adventures of children.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde
I recommended this for girls, and I will recommend it to boys. This novel is pretty clear about the dangers of selfishness and vanity. And it’s a great read!
An American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser
This suggestion is equivalent in its ridiculousness to my suggestion that all girls read Middlemarch by George Eliot. An American Tragedy is a large book, some 900 pages, and is written in the dry naturalist style of Dreiser. Yet it has such an important message about what it means to be a boy and how that boy navigates growing up, entering the workforce, and establishing relationships with the opposite sex. Clyde gets in trouble, big trouble because of his pride and selfishness. It could be instructive for those who have the time and energy to tackle it.
Beowulf (750 AD)
This is an Old English epic poem set in Scandinavia, and it is usually required reading in late high school or college. It is about warriors and a man-eating beast. What boy wouldn’t like it? I suggest the Seamus Heaney translation.
The Old Man and the Sea (1952) by Ernest Hemingway
I love Hemingway; well, I’m fascinated by him and his novels. While not everybody appreciates his work, I think this novella is his most accessible and allegorical. It is about human struggle and the inevitable smallness of man compared to the elements. It is also about not giving up.
The Kite Runner (2003) by Khaled Hosseini
I think the books I’m recommending have a theme of boyhood and struggle, but isn’t that what life is about? We all struggle and make mistakes. Hosseini explores this from an Afghani perspective. It is about friendship and enemies. And yes, it’s contemporary, but it is bound to be a classic someday.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934) by James Hilton
This is a short and a sentimental book about Mr. Chipping and his long career as a teacher at a British boy’s public boarding school. It is about social change and saying goodbye.
The Caine Mutiny (1952) by Herman Wouk
Wouk is an author that seems to have been largely forgotten, but his books are a lot of fun. The Caine Mutiny is about very serious business and is set on the high seas. It is bound to capture a young reader’s imagination while exploring some of the ethical difficulties of hierarchy and power. Also, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
There are dozens more that would be appropriate and that I would love to recommend. I tried to pick books that were age appropriate, exciting, and contained some sort of lesson. If you know a teenage boy who might like to read any of these, click on the link titles to purchase them.
Which books would you recommend to a teenage boy?
I love the picture of Dorian gray. I think everyone should read it sometime in their life. 🙂
Yes! Everybody should read that one.
I love this list of books and took down a few titles for my son and I to read. I agree with your selection of The Kite Runner. It was a fantastic novel! I recommend the Maze Runner series by James Dashner. My son was entralled with this trilogy, begging me to by the next book when he was finished with one! He is thirteen.
I haven’t heard of the Maze Runner series. Thanks for making me aware of it. I love that so many of you with actual teenage boys have joined the conversation! I really had no idea what I was doing in creating this list. I don’t know my audience very well! 🙂
Well, that was a wonderful post! Thank you for it!
These are some really interesting, thoughtful suggestions! I’d also add in Homer’s Odyssey – it has so much adventure, mystery, but also heart, and what it means to be a man. I’ve just finished reading the Simon Armitage adaptation, which is written as a playscript, and it’s both beautiful and accessible (which can be quite rare in ‘classics’!)
I haven’t read that adaptation, but I can see how it would be a great book for teenage boys. Thanks for adding that on to the list!
As a mother of a soon-to-be teenage boy, I very much appreciate your putting together this list! I’ve read some of them but I will need to check out some others. I agree there must be a lot of good books out there…some that come to mind for me are The Catcher in the Rye (I know people have different opinions about it but I personally liked it a lot), A Fort of Nine Towers (beautiful memoir of a boy growing up in Afghanistan (covers the period from age 9-early 20s), and Drown by Junot Diaz. I’d probably recommend The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Diaz as well though I haven’t yet read it. He writes about the grittier side of growing up male within a very machismo culture, and what it’s like to negotiate your own definition and identity of manhood/selfhood when you grow up poor, non-white, marginalized, and in a culture that promotes sexism and cheating on women. I find his voice compelling.
Oooh, that Diaz book sounds really good. I also wanted to include Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire, but it is nonfiction. It sounds like Diaz has done with fiction what Eire did with his memoir. I like The Catcher in the Rye too. It has been so long since I read that one. I should probably revisit it!
Stranger in a Strange Land was great for me. In my teen years I felt the need to understand my new surroundings. Black Like Me and Malcolm X were huge.
Those all sound great! I haven’t read any of them – yet. Two of them are on my bookshelf waiting for me to open them. Thanks for the encouragement.
Conhippy. Seriously important books to me as a teen girl. Just re-read “black like me” and was amazed it isn’t on more lists
I still need to read that one! Thanks for reminding me to get it off my shelf!
I read that after reading Malcolm X. Wanted the perspective.
Picture of Dorian Gray and Goodbye, Mr. Chips are both on my TBR list.
I hope you like them!
I would have to think about this one. Cecilia’s choices seem to be good. I’m not sure I would pick the same books that you did. Some of the same books, maybe.
I know. There are so many! I could create a completely different list and be happy calling it “my top ten.” I hate lists for that reason. Something great is always excluded!
I thought Catcher in the Rye was a good suggestion (from Cecilia) and they would probably like The Old Man and the Sea, but just trying to think of a list is mind-boggling. Then I started thinking about adventure nonfiction for boys. But they probably don’t need any encouragement to read that sort of thing! I was sort of a tomboy, and some of my favorite “boyish” reading at that time were some old Hardy Boys books I found down in the basement of the people I babysat for. (Of course, not exactly literature.) They let me borrow them one at a time until I read them all. What about Life of Pi? Of course, I haven’t read it yet!
Life of Pi was on the list, but I cut it because I had too many! That is an awesome one.
Emily, I like your choices, having read a couple. Huck Finn is a mandatory read, as it sneaks up on young folks with its message as it does with Huck. That may be Twain’s genius. I would add “To Kill a Mockingbird” as it shows that courage need not be using your fists or a weapon. It shows that it exists in doing the right thing and defending those who cannot in the face of adversity.
I would also add “The Right Stuff” as it shows striving for excellence and knowing your craft allows you to “push the envelope.” The play “A Raisin in the Sun” is another for the classic line – “it is easy to love someone when they are doing great; they need your love when they are at their worst.” It also shows the lead character came into “his manhood” later in life and what it looked like when he did. Again, great choices. BTG
I love these additions. To Kill a Mockingbird was on my girls’ list, and I really should’ve included it for boys too. It is a book for everybody! I haven’t read The Right Stuff, but I’ve heard a lot about it. I guess it needs to make its way to the top of my TBR pile. 🙂
Any conversation about literature with the teenage boys I’ve known inevitably turns to “The Lord of the Rings.” My three sons also all loved “Les Miserables.”
Ah! Those are the perfect books for boys. (I hated them…) 🙂
Great choices, particularly An American Tragedy….
Thanks. I really love that book!
Glad to see ‘the picture of dorian grey’ on there, Oscar Wilde absolutely is one of my favourite writers. Some books I would suggest: The Great Gatsby, On The Road, The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve got them all, especially Kerouac has influenced my own fiction writing. I loved his flow-of-mind style, his psychedelic descriptions and what I like to call his romantic realism
Kerouac! I didn’t even think of him. Good call. And yes on the others too.
I’m one of those (few) people who hates Catcher in the Rye (sorry Cecilia!), but I think Ordinary People is good one with many of the same things. I’d put Lord of the Rings and Dune on my list, too. 🙂 Nice call on Beowulf!
And by things I meant themes.
Dune! They would love that one.
Good list. I would like to add the Life of Pi, if I may.
Yes, you may. I love that book! It is one of the few I’ve read three times.
So I am a teenage girl who has been reading your blog from last year. Your post inspired me to pick up The Picture of Dorian Gray. I love the novel! I have been reading it for three times and looking into other works by Oscar Wilde as well. His wit and writing make me thrilled. In my AP English class, I choose this novel as my independent reading and just had a discussion with my teacher last week.
For me, I would say any teenage boy should read The Great Gatsby!
You just made my day! I love that my list for teen girls was a success with Dorian Gray. Such a great book. And yes, Gatsby! How could I have forgotten that one!?!?! 🙂
This is a pretty good list. As others have mentioned I would add A Catcher in the Rye, but it is hard to know what else. I’m tempted to say Crime and Punishment – it is dark and violent, but it is also about a young man who sees morality in black and white terms and suffers the consequences before feeling very protective of his younger sister. But it’s hard to see a teenage boy getting through it. The Lord of the Flies is a favourite for boys. Maybe All Quiet on the Western Front would save a few boys from having their passions and patriotism taken advantage of by being sent of to war. If we were talking about younger boys, I had some great children’s versions of classics when I was a boy. Adventure stories of boys and men against the elements and other dangers like The Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe, Oliver Twist, Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island were my favourites.
Yes to all of these! I had thought about Treasure Island and Lord of the Flies. There are so many great books. It is limiting to just pick ten. Thanks for adding these titles!
I think Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy is fantastic for teenage boys. The first one is called ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go.’ I love that title and wish that I’d thought of it. So Jealous 🙂
I just read another Ness book and didn’t like it, but I suspect he would be better at writing for teenage boys than for my demographic based on what I read. Thanks for letting me know about his other work!
This is a great list! As everyone has already said, there are just so many good ones- it would be hard to narrow it down. I particularly love Huck Finn for boys and girls. I loved that book when I was in school! I also loved Lost in the Barons by Farley Mowat, so I would suggest that one, too. I was just thinking that I should re-read it (in honour of Mowat’s recent death).
I haven’t read Mowat. I will put that one on my list!
I have just finished (last night) reading The Maze Runner by James Dashner and I think it would be fantastic for young boys!
I have been told that Half Bad by Sally Green is fantastic too 🙂
Also Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is great and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card! I think Harry Potter is an obvious suggestion, the Hunger Games would likely appeal to young men also. Definitely Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 🙂 The Call of the Wild would be good too.
I always recommend young boys give Terry Pratchett a go, his style of writing appeals to many, particularly men. I know guys that wouldn’t read a fantasy book if you paid them that like Terry Pratchett’s books.
The Inheritance cycle by Christopher Paolini is also FANTASTIC.
I am going to stop now 🙂
I love these! I had totally forgotten about Ender’s Game, but that would certainly appeal to this age group. I need to try some of these myself. Thanks!
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Good to know, thanks Emily J.
This is an awesome list of classics! I’m definitely recommending these to my brother–who by the way, never wants to read!
Well, I hope these help. They might just make him want to read even less, ha ha. 🙂
Just recently read Power of One and loved it. (There is a post somewhere on my blog.) One that I would add is Perks of Being a Wallflower, because it is current and deals with themes that younger people can relate to. Cheers!
Yeah, The Power of One is a pretty great book. I’m glad you enjoyed it!
An excellent roundup! Though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve only read two of them—Huck Finn and Kite Runner. Time to get reading! If I were to add a book to this list, it would be “Black Swan Green” by David Mitchell.
I haven’t read that one! Looks like I need to check it out. 🙂
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Why do you read?
1. For information and ideas
2. For knowledge
3. For entertainment
4. or ?
Another great post, Emily. I loved ‘The Kite Runner’. A little moment of synchronicity: Just this morning I read something in our Canberra newspaper about ‘Beowulf’ translations – a comparison between Tolkien and Heaney. I have added the link. Don’t worry if you don’t have time to look at it. http://www.canberratimes.com.au/entertainment/books/jrr-tolkien-waving-his-wand-at-beowulf-20140521-zrgr3.html .
I will certainly take a look! Thanks for sharing it with me. 🙂
I think Lord of the Flies by Golding belongs on the list, too. It is a book about building (or denying) opportunities for compassion and collaboration in the face of terrible challenges. When I read it, I always reflect upon what truly makes a society what it is. It also poignantly relates the story of young boys who have no adult guidance who must develop their own moral compasses, which in some cases, do not exist. The great irony is that they wait for adults to save them, and yet adults’ behavior and civilization have created the very situation from which they need to be rescued. As the mom of boys, I see my sons and their friends navigating such choices, albeit with not such savage results. I also love The Giver by Lois Lowry for the middle school set. Both novels examine the theme of creating one’s own identity and moral path, despite those in authority who would supress them.
How about The Scarlet Pimpernel or The Count of Monte Cristo?
As for what is already on the list, I teach Beowulf, and there are some strong lessons about honor and loyalty, as well as being a larger than life story. The Kite Runner disturbs some of my high school seniors because of the betrayal of one friend by another – I’ve found that it makes boys in particular very angry – and there is one scene involving rape via sodomy, but what engagement among my high school readers! Not one remains unmoved. As an aside, after reading it, I was reminded of how fortunate I am to be literate. This is not something that everyone can take for granted!
I agree! Golding’s book almost made it on my list, but I didn’t have room. I’m not sure high schoolers would appreciate Monte Cristo, but hey, it’s a good one too. And yes, The Kite Runner is disturbing, but I like that sort of book. I think we learn more from those books that make us angry or cause us to think about injustice. It was fun to read how your students reacted to that one. 🙂
I would have included Ryder Haggard / RL Stevenson / Rudyard Kipling / Arthur Conan Doyle somewhere in the list if i could….. thats just my choice.
I agree. Those are great authors. I had a hard time not including Conan Doyle!
A great list over there ,like others I have jotted down them to my to be read list. Personally I think Fountainhead by Ayn Rand can also make it up there,individualism it might wanna spread but it definitely shows what a man can do when faced against odds and how it is necessary not to given when faced by hardships, which I think every teenager trying to establish his/her own self should be acquitted with.
Thanks for the comment.
Great Idea for a post.
I appreciate your choices and your rationale.
If I were to compose a list, I would include
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Waterland by Graham Swift–perhaps less accessible for a teen, but a brilliant piece of literature that could teach a lot about how history is not dead and all our actions have consequences
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving–Understanding life’s plan or even coming to grips with it is pretty hard sometimes–accepting that could also be difficult.
Of course my opinion is a bit skewed. I was reading “hard” books at quite a young age and felt undaunted by a challenge.
I will continue to think about this one.
I love A Prayer for Owen Meany! Great choice. Let me know if you think of more. 🙂
Hi Emily J.
There are some very excellent books and some fantastic comments about what other books readers like. I wonder, did we get to the nub of what teenagers are looking for? Super heroes and other specialist genres are well catered for. However, what about books teens can really equate to?
Teens who get into trouble and must use their wits and training to break away? I wrote three books of fiction adventure in an effort to try and lure teens into reading and spending more time in the wilds.
My books, Only The Brave Dare, Canyon and A Rite Of Passage meet the grandma test – the language and descriptions are fine for all ages. However, it is the fun, adventure and intrigue which make the difference. In Only The Brave Dare, Scott Morrow and his friends swim out to an old, deserted submarine that had been wrecked off the coast. When they reach the boat they found it has a series of packages of drugs dumped overnight by a Russian trawler. A group of other Russians find the boys, retrieve their drugs and lock the teens up in an old convict jail with a lighthouse built on top. Scott escapes and turns the lighthouse into a weapon against the Russians.
In Canyon, Scott and friends train to go canyoning in the wilds. The day finally arrives and within hours the weather turns nasty and threatens to trap the teens. One of the boys has a massive accident which leaves his life in the balance as some of the boys race to get help. Fate plays a double hand as to who gets to be rescued.
The third book, A Rite Of Passage sees two stories running side by side. Two groups of motorcycle gangs vie to extort protection money from a city night strip. They eventually decide to have an all-out shoot-out to solve the issue. Scott and his friends start dating girls and decide to scuba dive and picnic at the place where the shoot-out occurs. The girls become trapped in a burning building and it’s up to the boys to try and save them while a gun duel erupts around them.
The Count if Monte Cristo is a good one for boys.