The school year has already begun for most of you high school students out there, unless you’re one of the lucky ones, which means that you’re going to spend the next nine months reading a bunch of classics that you find super boring. As an English major and future English teacher, I should tell you how wonderful classics are and how much they enrich your life. And they do, but let’s be real, when you’re a teenager (or even an adult), they are boring as heck. So I’m here to help you all. For a lot of classics out there, there’s usually a contemporary book that is either a cool retelling or shares the similar themes that you can read alongside it that can either help you understand the school assigned literature better or maybe just help you become more interested in it.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
Now, I don’t know if you guys know this, but John Green is a huge fan of The Great Gatsby, and in his own books, especially in Turtles All the Way Down, he uses many of the same themes and techniques that F. Scott Fitzgerald utilized when he wrote Gatsby. In addition to being very Gatsby-esque, Green’s book is a beautiful story about struggling with mental illness and identity, which is something we commonly relate to in our teenage years. It also doesn’t hurt that the books bursts with characters so weird and quirky, it’s hard to believe they’re not real.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is bound to be a classic someday, but it does share similar themes to Catcher in the Rye. It deals with a lot of dark, even disturbing, themes that teenagers have to deal with today, even though it was written twenty years ago. We see this often in classics, where the main characters have to deal with the dark underbelly of their society and their culture. The main character, Charlie, is a hardcore introvert that all high school introverts can relate to, and throughout the book he struggles with the problem of participating. Does he remain a wallflower, always sitting on the sidelines and watching his friends have fun, or does he try to participate and have fun with his friends, even if it fails?
Hope and Other Punch Lines by Julie Buxbaum
This book doesn’t correspond to a particular classic, but it’s a contemporary book that deals with a lot of issues teenagers face today, particularly loss and trauma, in a profound and deep way, rich with beautiful characters. It’s a great read for any high school student struggling with loss or an identity crisis who simply can’t find meaning or an answer in the books they read in school.
The Selection by Kiera Cass
High school reading lists are overrun with dystopias, books that imagine future societies where terrible things, often apocalyptic things, have gone wrong. 1984, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale are the most popular, but there are scores more. I don’t know why it’s such a popular genre among classics, but I guess some things never change, because just a decade ago, dystopias became super popular again! There are lots of contemporary YA dystopias you could read alongside these classics, but my personal favorite is The Selection, which takes place in a future society where everyone is assigned a number, one through eight, and their lives—their job, who they can marry, etc.—depend on this number. It sounds grim, but this series actually centers around falling in love, love triangles, and a marriage competition! It’s The Hunger Games meets The Bachelor, in the best way, while still saying deep and troubling things about our current society and its future.
Ophelia by Lisa Klein
Another thing you read a lot of in high school is Shakespeare. For Shakespeare, I highly recommend movie adaptations. Trust me, they make understanding the play so much easier. In terms of books, though, Ophelia is excellent to read alongside any Shakespeare play, Hamlet in particular. This book is a retelling of Hamlet through the eyes of Ophelia, one of the supporting characters and Hamlet’s love interest. Ophelia is a fantastic character, both in this book and the original, and seeing the story through her eyes is so interesting and I think it makes Hamlet more interesting as well, because it forces you to consider that every character in a book has their own story, not just the main character.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Spetys
Many classics are set during World War II, especially historical fiction for young adults. Between Shades of Gray is my favorite because it looks at WWII from a completely different angle than we’re used to learning in class. Most WWII historical fiction takes place in Germany. However, this book transports us to Lithuania, where the main character Lina and her family are deported to Siberia and put in Stalin’s labor camps. When we learn about WWII, we usually focus on the Hitler and the Holocaust. This book explores similar acts of evil were happening in other places during the war, under other leaders, which is fascinating and heartbreaking to think about. It’s also interesting to see these horrors through the eyes of a teenager, a perspective that high schoolers can relate to and understand.
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Lots of classics take place in Victorian England, like Jane Eyre, Jane Austen’s novels, and so on, and in terms of YA with a Victorian England setting, A Great and Terrible Beauty is the best there is. Not only does it show a picture of life in a Victorian boarding school through the eyes of a sixteen year old girl and all the trials that go along with that, but it also brings a twist in the form of a dark and mysterious ancient magical order that the main characters are at first entranced by and attracted to, but later turns out to be a more malignant force than they could have imagined.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power
One of the books you’re guaranteed to read in ninth grade is Lord of the Flies. In this, all of you high schoolers are lucky, because only a month ago, a feminst retelling of this book just came out. This book is as brutal and horrifying as the original, yet the love and humanity of these girls sets it apart from the classic, and I have no doubt that you will come away from this book just as wrecked, but more hopeful, than you do after reading Lord of the Flies.