As a child, summer often looks like carefree days spent outside, soaking up the sun, riding bikes around the neighborhood, and cooling off with a run through the sprinkler, dotted by a trip or two to the library for summer reading. And the summer reading list books from your childhood that you gobbled up — whether it was for pure pleasure or for a class assignment — are likely seared into your summertime memories with just as much permanency as the feel of the gritty, sand-soaked sunscreen your mom made you re-apply every hour.
At the time, I completely thought my teachers were trying to ruin my summer by assigning lists filled with “old” titles whose synopses did nothing to pique my interest. But looking back, these literary masterpieces cemented the foundation of my appreciation for a wonderful story with colorful characters, vivid descriptions of timeless adventures, and overarching themes of growth during my youth.
More than just a jumping-off point for exploring literary analysis, these books created space to have important dialogues within middle school and high school classrooms where we were all learning about the world around us. If you’re ready for a blast from the past, take a look at the gems included on this list. You can get lost in these pages all over again, and you may even find something worth sharing with your own kids while you’re at it.
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1. ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston
The classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is hailed as a must-read on many high school summer reading lists, but the book is especially relevant in present-day America. Featuring a strong, Black female protagonist and set in the post-Emancipation era, the levels and layers of the narrative unfurl in ways that are truly thought-provoking.
2. ‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R. Tolkien
I practically kicked and screamed about having to read anything by J.R.R. Tolkien during the summer before my freshman year of high school. Not a fan of the popular Lord of the Rings movies that debuted shortly before receiving the assignment, I quickly found out that I actually did enjoy reading fantasy after all thanks to The Hobbit. (I still don’t love the movies. The books are much better.)
3. ‘The Once and Future King’ by T.H. White
If you have a penchant for summer reading list books filled with tales of truly mythical proportions, The Once and Future King by T.H. White likely stands out as a favorite among literary classics from your youth. The story of how the legendary King Arthur came to be is one for the ages.
4. ‘Our Town’ by Thornton Wilder
High school summer reading lists are where most people are first introduced to reading plays. Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town is the perfect introduction to the theater world through the touching story of childhood friends who grow into a married couple who deal with all of the trials and tribulations that adulthood has to offer, including tragic loss.
5. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee
Another especially relevant work for the present day, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill A Mockingbird explores the issue of race relations in Depression-era Alabama through the eyes of 10-year-old Scout as her attorney father defends a Black man in court. The gut-wrenching tale is absolutely unforgettable and sticks with the reader long after the final page is turned.
6. ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ By J.K. Rowling
The Harry Potter series may have been on your “unofficial” summer reading list as the books began rolling out almost yearly starting in the late ’90s, but you also could have had a progressive teacher assign the original novel for class. Re-reading the series to be reminded of all of the magic within those pages could absolutely be an adult summer reading goal.
7. ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I remember my first exposure to the drama and romance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby like it was yesterday. Yes, the 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio film inspired by the book is swoon-worthy, but nothing can compare to the thrill of turning the actual pages of this glitzy and glamorous, yet harrowing, read for the first time.
8. ‘Number The Stars’ by Lois Lowry
Reading about monumental historical events such as the Holocaust through the eyes of a child when you are a child yourself is an incredibly eye-opening experience. Although you also likely read The Diary of Anne Frank in school, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is a fictional work with a similar theme that has graced summer reading lists for years.
9. ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ by Madeleine L’Engle
A touching tale of bravery and resilience, A Wrinkle in Time has remained a mainstay on summer reading lists thanks to the work’s beautiful prose, relatable characters, and plot of mythical proportions. If your kids are fans of the 2018 Disney film inspired by the novel, it is high time they are introduced to this classic book.
10. “Bud, Not Buddy” by Christopher Paul Curtis
I remember reading the Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award-winning Bud, Not Buddy shortly after it was originally published. I had to put my name on a waitlist at the library because it seemed like every kid wanted to read it at the same time. Back then, I had no idea how incredibly important this courageous tale was as a literary work, but I loved it nonetheless.
11. ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The descriptions of the English moors where The Secret Garden takes place had the power to suck me right into the pages as a child. Not only does the tale of Mary exploring her uncle’s mysteriously creepy mansion and its grounds hook readers, but her journey of self-discovery is one for the ages.
12. ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger
The quintessential coming-of-age story to judge all other coming-of-age stories by, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is perfectly positioned to be read by high schoolers during the fleeting summers of exploration that seem to bleed almost seamlessly into adulthood. If the name Holden Caulfield doesn’t ring any nostalgic bells in your mind, it’s time to read this one again.
13. ‘1984’ by George Orwell
I vividly remember my eighth grade English teacher’s synopsis of the dystopian universe George Orwell created in the classic novel 1984 before we started reading it as a class. The descriptions of a then-futuristic society within these pages are equally as haunting now as an adult as they were as a child.
14. ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer
I’m sure I am not alone in saying that reading the epic works of Homer as a freshman in high school was incredibly intimidating. However, The Odyssey was the perfect introduction to writing in and reading prose, and continues to be for kids to this day (even if it was a struggle to get through back then).
15. “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls
This particular read stands out as an elementary school favorite that I have since re-read several times over the years. Where The Red Fern Grows offers a raw and emotional look at the connection between a boy and his dogs, showcasing the importance of the connection between kids and their pets that is incredibly touching.
16. ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott
I had an abridged kid-friendly version of Little Women as a young child that I absolutely adored. So, it was a no-brainer when it came time to choose a novel to read and report on the summer after sixth grade that the famed story would be at the top of my summer reading list that year.
17. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ by William Shakespeare
No list of summer reading books would be complete without including at least one play from Shakespeare. Although you likely read more, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a timeless Shakespearean tale that you may remember an English teacher assigning way back when. Although it is technically a comedy, conflict and mythical fairies abound in this classic work.
18. ‘Anne of Green Gables’ by L.M. Montgomery
I still have my childhood copy of Anne of Green Gables on a bookshelf in my living room. Although my own kids have not yet shown interest in this gorgeous coming-of-age tale, it will forever remain at the center of my love affair with great books and I hope one day they’ll love it as much as I do.
19. ‘Holes’ by Louis Sachar
When Holes debuted in 1998, I was in the fourth grade. I remember the riveting book about a group of teens at a correctional facility skyrocketing in popularity almost immediately. Even if your only exposure to this story was the on-screen adaptation starring Shia LaBeouf, the lessons gleaned likely stuck with you well into adulthood.
20. ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding
A gripping tale of survival, Lord Of The Flies by Willam Golding tells the absolutely unforgettable tale of a group of boys who crash land on an island and how they fight through adversity and division amongst themselves to persevere, unaware of whether or not they will make it.