High school is a near-universal experience to which we can all relate. It’s also a complicated, messy time in life in which one grows from the end of childhood to the cusp of adulthood, so there’s a lot of feelings to unpack. The result is that hundreds of books have been written about high school…but these are the 50 most essential, the ones who really get it right and have something to say.
Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell
Rainbow Rowell’s first YA novel is set in Omaha, Nebraska, in the mid-1980s, where neither really fit in: Eleanor is a misfit redhead, and Park is half-Korean. Their romance blossoms over the pop culture they love, specifically comic books and mix tapes. Rowell adroitly addresses the deep psychological baggage both have, never dismissing it as mere “teenage” drama.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
So much of high school is about hanging out with friends: there’s a lot of time to kill, and maybe you don’t want to go home, so you just sort of drive around and do stuff. This is where Chbosky’s book shines—those quiet moments of sitting around and making profound connections with your friends. It’s about putting yourself out there, not to be popular, but to make just one or two friendships that will matter and last.
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Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Lewis
This is a book about the deep love between a boy and a girl…and it’s not a romance. Greg wants only to stay completely neutral in high school, and avoid anyone getting mad at him; he just wants to make films with his best friend, Earl. He’s forced to address reality, emotions, and his own hidden humanity when a childhood friend develops cancer, and he becomes her official companion in her haunting final days.
Drama, by Raina Telgemeier
It’s not the class discussions and classes about high school that socialize us, it’s the activities. Those clubs where kids are free to find their tribe, or tribes, and bounce around with little to no consequence or commitment? They’re where we find people like us at a time when we might feel awkward and alone. This is particularly true with drama club, a beacon to so many teens outside the mainstream who want to make art. Telgemeier’s graphic novel encapsulates all that, plus the nostalgic backstage feelings that bond kids and actors for life.
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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling
There are seven Harry Potter novels, of course, but this is the one packed with the most excruciatingly relatable teenage problems and growing pains. Harry, Ron, and Hermione start acting like moody adolescents and as they wade into the dating pool, and Harry and Ron realize for the first time that Hermione is a girl. And then there’s the Yule Ball. While Hermione goes with a Quidditch star, Harry and Ron can’t get the dates they want and end up sulking on the sidelines. It’s a whole new take on our favorite magical trio.
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
Who knows teens better than a teen knows teens? Amazingly, S.E. Hinton was just 19 years old when she wrote this sad, violent, humanity-steeped story about the roughneck gang-like Greasers and the preppy, jerky Socs they have to deal with at school. It feels intense and realistic, like a more richly imaginedWest Side Story set against the rural backdrop of small-town Oklaoma.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan
John Green and David Levithan joined forces on this, the alternating stories of two boys named Will Grayson. Eventually their stories merge, following a wild night starring the two Wills and one’s best friend, Tiny, who stages a musical about his own life and is dating the other Will Grayson, a shy kid struggling with his sexuality.
Carrie, by Stephen King
Stephen King brilliantly takes those feelings of being unsure about the insane, random, rapid changes our bodies go through in adolescence, and renders them terrifying. Carrie is about a young woman discovering her own self, trying to put parental control aside, and dealing with weird body stuff. She’s doused with blood by the end, of course, and a body count ensues, but hey, that’s just a metaphor for adolescence.
Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes
Plenty of artistic projects have given us a view of high school from the outsider’s perspective—perhaps because writers are often outsiders, and you write what you know. But Daniel Clowes’ sad, quiet, darkly hilarious Ghost World, and its main character Enid Coleslaw, offer a special kind of otherness: a sophisticated alienation. Enid is far wiser, funnier, and brutally critical of the world around her than her peers, and the reader can tell she’s been withering on the vine trapped in high school. Then she graduates into a world in which she’s still alienated, but even more anonymous.
Blankets, by Craig Thompson
A lot of high school kids have a super-religious phase, as spirituality offers a lot of answers—or at least comfort—in a very tumultuous time. Craig Thompson’s beautiful, heartbreaking graphic novel is about a devoutly religious teen’s difficulties in balancing his spiritual life with a budding long-distance romance, and his ever-increasing spiritual doubts.
DC Trip, by Sara Benincasa
The big “educational” overnight trip to Philadelphia, Colonial Williamsburg, or Washington, D.C., is a watershed moment on the level of prom to millions of high school kids each year. It gives them a chance to cut loose and feel free and independent for the first time without parental supervision; because, let’s be honest, the chaperones are merely ceremonial. Or, as is demonstrated in Benincasa’s hilarious look at a class trip to D.C., the teachers along for the ride are too busy sowing their wild oats, too.
Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver
A teenage girl keeps living the same day over and over—a seemingly typical day of high school drama and boredom, except that she dies at the end, and has to keep living the day over and over until she gets it “right,” from repairing familial relationships to making amends for the girl whose life she and her clique make miserable. It’s Groundhog Day with higher stakes, and, you know, terrifying.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness
While some kids in his seemingly normal high school are after a very important object of great power called the “Immortal Crux,” Mikey just wants to graduate, get with the girl he likes, and deal with his family’s problems. This book explores how a supernatural YA book might read if retold from the perspective of some random Hufflepuff.
The Pigman, by Paul Zindel
The Pigman is among the first ever “young adult” novels, in that it’s literature both about and for those in between people called teenagers. Themes that would come to define YA are present in The Pigman, too: teens questioning the grownup world, their values and struggle to create their own identity without killing their hearts. The action of the book concerns two high schoolers, John and Lorraine, who take turns reporting their experiences with a misunderstood old man named Mr. Pignati.
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Even more dreamy and sad than Sofia Coppola’s 2000 film adaptation, Eugenides’ first novel is brainy, beguiling, and mysterious. Set in tony Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in the 1970s, it’s the rare period piece that isn’t really about the period or at all nostalgic. It’s told from the point of view of several teenage boys trying to understand why their classmates, the five Lisbon sisters, all took their own lives.
All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven
So many YA novels are about escape, because being a teenager is about escaping: escaping high school, escaping the hometown, escaping family, escaping problems. In All the Bright Places, even Violent and Theodore’s not-so-cute meet-cute involves escape: It happens in the school bell tower, where both are poised to commit suicide. Instead, an unlikely and profound friendship/romance develops out of a need for human connection, both with each other and the world at large.
Boy Proof, by Cecil Castelluci
Victoria loves science fiction, particularly a movie called Terminal Earth. She models her life after the film’s protagonist, Egg, to the degree that she adopts the name. She’s also the kind of girl who wears a homemade cloak to school and doesn’t care that she’s going to get teased for it. She’s doing her own thing, and she doesn’t want to do it any other way. So much so that when a new boy moves to town who actually likes and understands Egg and where she’s coming from…she just might crack.
Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Robin Talley
Lies We Tell Ourselves is set in a just-segregated high school in 1959 Virginia, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. This remarkable, character-driven drama (and love story), set against a volatile historical backdrop, follows an African American honors student attending a previously all-white school, who’s assigned to work on a school project with the daughter of the town’s leading segregationist.
Avalon High, by Meg Cabot
Harry Potter inspired a whole mini-genre of books set in a high school for “special” kids: demigods, vampires, monsters. So whatever happened to good old-fashioned allegory? It’s alive and well in books like the Avalon High series. It’s set in a Maryland high school full of teen archetypes and stereotypes, except each character correlates to someone from the English legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, by Susin Nielsen
The diary format works so well for high school stories because it feels immediate, intimate, and authentic. That approach is needed for the gut-punch of Henry K. Larsen. It’s so many different books: a kid-at-a-new-school book, a survivor book, an issues book. Henry is forced to move and go to a new school after his brother is so mercilessly teased that he unleashes his anger and pain with a school shooting.
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
Being in high school is an almost constant conflict between seeking out the comfort of fitting in, and the difficulty of finding and being one’s true self. Robert Cormier’s classic novel is about that, but within the strict confines of a Catholic school. Jerry is a new student who refuses to fall in line with the school’s methods for keeping order, in which the entire student body is complicit. Jerry must exhibit bravery beyond his years to stand up to the mob.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli
Sixteen-year-old Simon is a closeted gay teenager happily disappearing into the theater department…until he leaves his email account open on a school computer, and wisecracking classmate Martin discovers a romantic thread of emails between Simon and a boy known only as “Blue.” Martin blackmails Simon into helping him get closer to a girl he likes, and Simon contemplates what coming out might mean.
Forever, by Judy Blume
Queen Judy, mistress of the middle-grade novel, was not a one-trick pony. She wrote respectful, realistic literature for kids of almost every age. Forever is one of her classics, dealing with the sensitive, agonizing subjects of young love…and sex. Katherine meets Michael, falls in love, and embarks on a sexual relationship with him, in a story that evokes all the excitement and tenderness of a budding relationship.
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
Green has a gift for writing about the teenage experience in incredibly relatable ways. Throughout his work, Green is most adept at describing the sparkling, tingly feelings of teenage crushes bordering on love. In this semi-autobiographical novel, a guy trades his regular life for one at boarding school. He finds the crackling existence he wanted, due in no small part to the enchanting but deeply troubled Alaska Young.
Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins
There are so many great romantic comedy movie tropes here, scaled down into high-school life. A high school senior named Anna is about to make things official with a nice guy, until she’s sent to boarding school in Paris. Things in Paris are, of course, marvelous, and she meets a delightful French boy named Etienne—only he’s taken. That’s just one of the many romantic entanglements in this fun and frothy take on high school heart-stuff.
Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison
High school life isn’t that much different for British kids, unless you count the grade names. Georgia leads a proudly messy life, as she and her best friend Jas spy on boys they like and try to compete with older, more provocative girls for attention and affection. A charming novel that captures the intensity of high school–era relationships, from those indelible best friend connections to “true love.”
Boy Meets Boy, by David Levithan
Levithan’s novel is about a time much like our own, only more progressive in terms of issues of sexual identity. It’s set in a small New Jersey town where homosexual, bisexual, and transgender teens have been completely normalized. This is the setup for a sweet, romantic connection between Paul, a high-school sophomore, and Noah, the handsome, green-eyed new kid in town who’s a little reluctant to fall in love since he last got burned.
Hey Nostradamus!, by Douglas Coupland
With modern classics like Generation X and Girlfriend in a Coma, Coupland has given voice to the disaffected and those going through the motions of a hollow modern existence. In Hey, Nostradamus, he writes about high school students who feel the same way, and the desperate measures they take to change things. The story is told in tandem by four disparate characters, including a secretly pregnant and married girl, on what will ultimately be the most tragic day of all of their lives.
Carry the Sky, by Kate Gray
A book about high school doesn’t have to be about the kids, you know. There are lots of teachers working in those classrooms, and to hear stories from their points of view is fascinating. Carry the Sky is about a fancy boarding school in 1983 Delaware, where physics teacher Jack and rowing coach Taylor work. The teachers are linked by personal tragedies, but must overcome or put their overwhelming grief to the side in order to help their ill-equipped students deal with the terrible things happening in their lives.
Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld
What is it about boarding schools that make them so interesting to those of us who didn’t attend them? Is it simply that they seem an exotic walled world, or are they a merely an esteemed-if-classist relic of the past somehow surviving into today? Set at an elite East Coast prep school, Prep follows Lee, a Midwestern scholarship student and audience surrogate who must navigate the intricate politics and social system of the old school and its old money, all the while pulling further and further away from her parents.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
Pessl’s debut is presented like a syllabus, each chapter title alluding to a classic work. The plot: deadpan genius Blue van Meer, the perennial new kid in town owing to her father’s peripatetic ways, has all the advanced knowledge and study skills necessary to succeed at a prestigious private school, but lacks the pro-level social skills necessary to launch herself socially. But when she catches the eye of a charismatic, beautiful teacher—one we learn, in the book’s earliest pages, will not survive—her life radically changes.
Moonhead and the Music Machine, by Andrew Rae
In this graphic novel‚ Joey Moonhead has an actual moon for a head; when he loses interest or attention, it floats away. As can be expected, Joey Moonhead is heavily teased, but he at least wins a friend in Ghost Boy, so named because he’s “invisible” at school, concealed under a white, ghostlike sheet. And if all goes well, Joey just might rock the talent show and win the school over by playing an awesome instrument of his own invention.
Acceptance, by Susan Coll
High school isn’t all cliques, romantic drama, and finding one’s true identity—it’s also about the stress and anticipation of what comes next. Acceptance is an amusing look at those high school kids who are already overachieving and burning out before they’ve even left home. Focusing on three juniors and their college admissions counselor, the book follows their trudge through SAT prep courses, AP classes, AP exams, college essay writing…
What Happened to Goodbye, by Sarah Dessen
Mclean Sweet is a teenager who wants to be somebody new, so she creates a new identity every time she has to move to a new town for her father’s work. As many do in high school, she has tried on a few different personas and goes all in each time, be her new style goth, peppy preppy, or student government go-getter. What Happened to Goodbye finds her moving to yet another new place and testing out her most risky personality choice yet: her real one.
Firecracker, by David Iserson
In this very funny novel by Iserson, a writer for New Girl and Saturday Night Live, entitled rich girl Astrid is a little too smart and conniving for her own good. She gets kicked out of school after being betrayed by somebody, and she’s determined to find out who did it, even with the newfound distractions of public school and a potential love interest.
A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
Knowles semi-fictionalized his experiences attending Exeter to create this classic, tragic coming-of-age tale about boys in a Northeastern boarding school during World War II. Narrator Gene is roommates with his good-hearted but ill-fated friend, Finny, of whom he is also supremely jealous. They take part in a tree-jumping club, which leads to Finny breaking his leg. Bad things continue to happen to Finny, for which Gene feels both guilt and, for the first time in his life, the emptiness of loss. Readers will grow up a little alongside Gene.
Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher
As a direct challenge to and comment on his school’s elite sports program, varsity jacket–coveting T.J. Jones puts together his own ragtag, super-inclusive swim team. Never mind that only one of them can even swim very well, and that they don’t actually have a swimming pool at their school. Like the characters themselves, Whale Talk has a lot of heart.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Fourteen-year-old Arnold Spirit, Jr., lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state. He’s witty and a gifted artist, but suffers from a stutter, a lisp, and, subsequently, a good deal of bullying, both physical and verbal. He decides to break out of his life as a target by using his smarts to gain entrance to a predominantly wealthy, white school off the reservation, which changes his life in more ways than anticipated.
Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
At a high school party the summer before her freshman year, Melinda is raped, calls the police, but runs away before telling them—or the other kids—why she made the call. From that point forth, Melinda is an outcast, a victim of the shocking cruelty her classmates are capable of. This book is a demonstration of how even high school politics can override decency and justice.
Every Day, by David Levithan
Each morning, a conscious being known only as A wakes up in a new body, and must live the life of whoever’s body it is. A abides by a policy of doing no harm, until they wake up in the body of a teenager named Justin, and instantly fall in love with Justin’s girlfriend, Rhiannon. A keeps switching bodies, of course, and plotting how they can somehow find themselves together with Rhiannon again. It’s a wildly imaginative, experimental novel about the transcendent power of love.
Election, by Tom Perrotta
This cutting satire of high-school archetypes, stereotypes, and politics centers on a student-body election. Running for office are Tracy Flick, driven overachiever, and Paul Warren, popular football hero persuaded by a teacher to run simply to stop Tracy Flick. Messing things up for everybody is Tammy, Paul’s rebellious, outspoken sister, who decides to run, too. Perrotta clearly cribbed from the zaniness of the 1992 Clinton-Bush-Perot presidential election.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han
This book has been presented and marketed as a romantic coming-of-age comic novel, but it’s actually a horror novel. It’s about a girl overcome by undying, all-encompassing crushes that feel like love. Lara Jean Song processes these feelings by writing long, intricate, intimate love letters to the objects of her affection, keeping them in a hatbox instead of sending them. So what’s so bad about that? Somebody takes the letters and mails them, leaving her to deal with the fallout.
Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli
Everyone remembers the “weird kid” in high school (or maybe they were the weird kid), the one who didn’t care about fitting in, like everyone else seemed to. What makes them so special, anyway? Are they faking it? Not Stargirl, as she chooses to call herself, at least for awhile. She’s a charming eccentric who’s already got it all figured out, and she likes the quirky clothes she wears, playing the ukulele for strangers, and carting around a pet rat. It’s when she starts worrying about what other people think that the trouble begins.
Literally, by Lucy Keating
Literally is a meta, mind-bending book about a practically-perfect-in-every-way girl named Annabelle whose life gets a little confusing when she finds out acclaimed YA author Lucy Keating—as in the author of Literally, the book we’re talking about right now—is writing a book centered on Annabelle. It would seem everything Annabelle knows about her life is wrong, as she’s merely the creation of an author, and may not quite have the free will she thinks she does in this novel that’s stranger than fiction.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give is both a literal look at the tough issues some teens face at an age when they should be sheltered from life and death concerns, and an exploration of being torn between powerful and opposite forces. Starr is 16 and lives in a rough neighborhood, but attends a private, predominantly white school far, far away in the suburbs. Her standing in both worlds is threatened after she witnesses a police officer shoot her childhood friend.
Lock & Key, by Sarah Dessen
Ruby feels awkward and out of place, but she has a right: she’s a fish-out-of-water several times over. After being abandoned by her mother, she’s sent to live with the rich sister she barely knows, and to navigate a new world. She must learn the fine art of self-reliance while also accepting help when it’s needed.
Dare Me, by Megan Abbott
Here’s a book that’s sympathetic to the cheerleaders and mean girls. Dare Me both humanizes and subverts the typical way cheerleaders are written in teen stories, in which they’re almost always the villains, ruling the school with fear and bullying. That seems to have worked just fine for varsity cheerleaders Addy and Beth in the past, until a new coach divides, conquers, and unites them again, even as the police get involved in some very bad, bad things.
Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher
A high school boy named Clay comes home one day to find a package on his porch filled his cassettes made by a girl named Hannah—an acquaintance and former crush object who recently took her own life. The tapes detail exactly how Hannah arrived at the decision to commit suicide. Clay comes to understand a girl he knew only on a superficial level much more deeply, albeit far too late.
Twisted, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Tyler was average in every way, and he was fine with it. Until he does something not-so-average: graffitis the school, gets busted, and has to spend the summer doing physical labor to pay his debt. By the fall, he’s buff and earning attention from girls for the first time. But, while Tyler seems to be becoming a man, he may not be quite ready.
Slave Day, by Rob Thomas
Before bringing series like Veronica Mars and iZombie to television, Thomas was a YA author. Slave Day is set in Texas’s Robert E. Lee High school, and centers on a very loaded school activity in which students and faculty auction themselves off as “slaves” to raise money for a dance. Things threaten to come to a head between those who are angered by the practice and those who insist it’s good clean fun.