“To Kill a Mockingbird,” seen here in the film version starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, was just one of a plethora of classic American books that many read in high school. From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” to John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” these books take us straight back to our high school English and American literature classes and to nostalgic memories of those books forever sitting in our backpacks.
September 6 is National Read A Book Day. We’ve compiled a list of 21 classic books that you probably had to read in high school with research from BuzzFeed, Publisher’s Weekly, Time Entertainment, the American Library Association and BannedBooksWeek.org.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960)
Author: Harper Lee
Location: Maycomb, Alabama
Plot: Intelligent, kind and upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch is basically the greatest father ever to his children Jem and Scout. He’s also busy with the most important trial in Maycomb’s history being the defense lawyer in a case involving an African-American named Tom Robinson accused of raping a white woman.
Then, there’s the Finches’ neighbor Boo Radley, and that’s another story within itself.
Themes: Coming-of-age, racism, social equality
“The Great Gatsby” (1925)
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Location: East Hampton, New York (Long Island)
Plot: It’s the “Roaring Twenties” and Midwesterner and narrator Nick Carraway attends one of the lavish Hamptons parties of neighbor Jay Gatsby in his equally lavish mansion. Thus begins Nick’s adventures in Fitzgerald’s classic novel, which includes the tragic romance between Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan and Gatsby and the tension that follows with Daisy’s husband Tom.
Not all that glitters is gold and the “Roaring Twenties” wasn’t all about decadent parties, fast cars and mansions.
Themes: The American Dream, the upper class
“Of Mice and Men” (1937)
Author: John Steinbeck
Location: Central California
Plot: It’s the Great Depression, and a pair of migrant workers, George and Lennie, journey through the California farms and find work at a new farm owned by “the Boss.”
Dreams of land ownership fade away and matters get worse when a freak accident happens between Lennie and the wife of the Boss’ son, Curley.
Themes: The American Dream, friendship
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885)
Author: Mark Twain
Location: Various, including Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois
Plot: Protagonist Huckleberry Finn becomes best friends with a slave named Jim and the pair travel down the Mississippi River together as Finn grows up along the way and Jim seeks his freedom.
Plus, Tom Sawyer, Finn’s other best friend and the main character in Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” appears in the novel.
Themes: Coming-of-age, racism, moral education
The book is one of the most-controversial books of all time and is still deemed controversial today on the grounds of language and racial insensitivity.
”The Catcher in the Rye” (1951)
Author: J.D. Salinger
Location: New York City
Plot: Directly about the relatable adventures of being a teenager and the fears of adulthood, Salinger’s famous novel will forever be a required book in high school.
Protagonist Holden Caulfield, 16, isn’t the greatest student ever (he was kicked out of four private schools), but he learns his lessons and grows up during his adventures in the city, and he absolutely loves his 10-year-old sister Phoebe.
Themes: Coming-of-age, alienation
The book has been banned in the past for obscenity, profanity, language and sexual references.
”Lord of the Flies” (1955)
Author: William Golding
Location: A deserted tropical island
Plot: A bunch of British schoolboys living on their own after their plane crashes on a deserted tropical island create their own society led by protagonist Ralph and including choir leader Jack, shy Simon and the intellectual Piggy.
Like schoolboys playing games, chaos ensues among the group and the ultimate battle for survival happens.
Themes: Loss of innocence, loss of civilization
The book has garnered controversy in the past because of violence and language.
”The Scarlet Letter” (1850)
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Plot: It’s 1642, and beautiful protagonist Hester Prynne is forced to wear a scarlet cloth “A” on her chest to symbolize her committing of adultery.
The real question is, who is the father of her little girl, Pearl, and thus the real truth comes out as the novel unfolds.
Themes: Guilt, forgiveness, society, good and evil
Author: William Shakespeare
Plot: It’s the 11th century, and the not-so-virtuous title character is battling for the Scottish throne with his fellow lord Banquo thanks to a series of prophecies by a trio of witches. Macbeth proves that he isn’t the greatest king of Scotland ever and is better fighting on the battlefield than sitting on the throne.
Themes: Power and ambition, tyranny
”Hamlet” (late 1500s-early 1600s)
Author: William Shakespeare
Plot: Another high school classic from Shakespeare with quite possibly the worst family drama to ever appear in any high school required reading. The title character, who is the Prince of Denmark, has revenge on his mind as he seeks to avenge the murder of his father, King Hamlet, by his uncle and the king’s brother Claudius.
To make things worse, Claudius is now sitting on the throne and is married to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, the queen of Denmark.
Themes: Uncertainty, revenge, power and ambition, death
”Fahrenheit 451” (1953)
Author: Ray Bradbury
Location: An American city in the future
Plot: It’s the future, and books are outlawed, which sounds like the worst possible thing to ever happen. Protagonist Guy Montag is a special fireman who starts fires instead of stops them and is ordered to burn any book that he comes across.
Montag becomes slowly dissatisfied with his job of burning books and the routine society that he lives in, and he yearns to rebuild civilization.
Themes: Censorship, ignorance, freedom
Author: George Orwell
Location: London, Airstrip One in Oceania
Plot: Protagonist Winston Smith lives in a tyrannical society amidst the ruins of a former England and is tired of the oppression and rules of the Party, which rules and controls everything in Oceania.
He hates his job with the Ministry of Truth, dreams of rebellion against the dictator and the leader of the Party, Big Brother, and falls in love with a dark-haired beauty named Julia.
Themes: Tyranny, power and control, technology
The book was found controversial in Jackson County, Florida, for being pro-Communist and for sexual content.
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Locations: Illum, New York; Germany
Plot: The protagonist, a World War II soldier and optometry student named Billy Pilgrim, journeys throughout different periods of his life without any indication of why he keeps time-traveling.
The novel features the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, that took place in February 1945.
Themes: War, time-travel, sight
“Animal Farm” (1945)
Author: George Orwell
Locations: England and Russia
Plot: In the ultimate battle of man versus beast, a group of animals on Manor Farm seek rebellion and revolt against the farmers and other humans.
Led by an aging boar named Old Major, the animals strive to create a world where they can act like men and have their own society, but there aren’t any humans in sight.
”Brave New World” (1932)
Author: Aldous Huxley
Location: London in the future and New Mexico
Plot: Protagonist Bernard Marx feels out of place in the society that he lives in, called the World State. The World State, with its five castes and orthodox values, doesn’t sit well with Marx.
He visits the other side, the Savage Reservation, which is the exact opposite of the World State, meets a man named John and tries to shake things up from that point on.
Themes: Technology, power and control, consumerism
The book has been banned in the past for sexual content, negative activity and language.
Author: Joseph Heller
Location: Pianosa and Rome, Italy
Plot: It’s World War II in Italy, and Captain John Yossarian is stationed there with the rest of his U.S. Air Force squadron.
Yossarian struggles between fighting for his country and his personal reasons for being there and slowly becomes disillusioned with the war.
Themes: Power, loss of religion, war
”Death of a Salesman” (1949)
Author: Arthur Miller
Location: Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York; Boston
Plot: The play takes place in the late 1940s, and Willy Loman, a salesman stuck in the past, daydreams of a better life, including ones for his sons Biff and Happy.
Biff and Happy want to buy a ranch out West, but Willy wants Biff to become a businessman just like him.
Themes: The American Dream, betrayal, the past
”Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Location: Southern and central Florida
Plot: Hurston’s novel is told in flashback by the protagonist, a beautiful African-American woman named Janie Crawford, to her best friend Pheoby upon returning to Eatonville, Florida.
Crawford’s life from her youth to adulthood was full of adventures, relationships and lessons learned.
Themes: Racism, love and relationships, power, religion
”A Farewell to Arms” (1939)
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Locations: Italy and Switzerland
Plot: It’s the First World War in Europe, and American ambulance driver Lt. Frederic Henry falls in love with English nurse Catherine Barkley. Through Henry’s illnesses and knee surgery and constant traveling, he and Barkley form a loving relationship amidst the terrors of the war.
Themes: War, love and relationships
”Heart of Darkness” (1899)
Author: Joseph Conrad
Locations: Central Africa
Plot: The protagonist, Charles Marlow, who is a sailor and captain of a Belgian riverboat company that trades ivory, goes on adventures on the Congo River to meet up with a man named Kurtz.
He sees the dichotomy between the civilized life that he’s used to and the unpleasant life and treatment of the native savages along the river.
”The Crucible” (1953)
Author: Arthur Miller
Location: Salem, Mass.
Plot: Based on the infamous Salem Witch Trials that took place in the late 1600s, a series of events culminates in tragedy involving various aspects, such as a possible witch and the reverend’s niece named Abigail Williams, a farmer named John Proctor and rampant rumors of witchcraft that rock the town.
Themes: Reputation, evil, paranoia
”The Odyssey” (700-600 B.C.)
Location: Troy; modern-day Italy; Ithaca, Greece
Plot: The epic poem that we absolutely had to read in high school was about the Greek hero Odysseus and his 10-year journey back to his kingdom Ithaca after the end of the Trojan war and the fall of Troy.
From battling Polyphemus the cyclops and his father and Greek god of the sea Poseidon to being tempted by the gorgeous Sirens to fighting the sea monster Scylla, Odysseus does all he can, including get help from the mighty gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus, to return back home to his wife Penelope and son, Prince Telemachus.
Themes: Intelligence, perseverance, fighting temptation