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American Literature for High School


We don’t have to wait for college to start expanding our children’s minds–we’re homeschoolers!

Great literature should not only be a large part of your child’s high school years, it can even walk him through history. Which helps with teaching that stuff.

Connecting stories to lessons is my favorite. Creating a lit curriculum that coincides with my boys’ history lessons is easy and helps them visualize the things they’re learning about.

It also gives us plenty of opportunities to discuss important matters throughout history and how they affect where we are today.

American literature for high school

High school is the time when you can up the game. You don’t have to worry so much about tender sensibilities–in fact, this may be the time that you want to prepare your kids for things they’ll encounter as adults. So you can throw in some lit that once upon a time you felt wasn’t appropriate.

Great literature often covers, or at least includes, difficult topics. I would venture to say that many books have become classics because they spoke well about subject matter that creates feelings of discomfort for us in one way or the other.

Great lit should make you think–it should enrage you (whether you agree or disagree with the author’s opinion), enlighten you, or at least engage you in thinking more deeply about the state of the world.

There’s a reason high school teachers and college professors have students write essays about what they’re reading. Those essays further immerse the student in the thought processes the author is trying to provoke.

When you couple that process with history lessons, the result is stellar.

20th Century American literature

You can walk your high schooler through 20th century America with some incredible stories.  I’m going to lay it out for you, because I’m cool like that.

1900s-The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

The early part of the 20th century was rife with dangerous working conditions and terribly long hours in the factories popping up during the Industrial Revolution. Sinclair’s expose of the meat-packing industry through fiction was the first novel to lead directly to national legislation. It led to what we now know as the Food and Drug Administration. I mean, how cool would it be to be Upton Sinclair?

1910s-Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Wharton’s novel is a stark look at relationships and culture in the early 20th century. The title character falls in love with his wife’s cousin and the consequences are pretty terrible. Wharton’s signature character development is brilliant.

1920s-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

There is no better look at the extravagance and luster of the 1920s than Gatsby, and it’s brilliant for studying character development and symbolism. I love Gatsby. I could read it once a month and be happy. If you live under a rock, it’s about a young man who moves in next door to Jay Gatsby, who happens to be in love with a married woman and is doing everything in his power to win her back. It’s also another hard look at the consequences of relationships.

Early 1930s-To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

One of my all-time favorite books, Mockingbird is a wonderful description of childhood in the 1930s, and a harsh look at race and class differences of the time.


The Grapes of Wrath is a brilliant book about World War I for teaching history with literature

Late 1930s-The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Just… this book is incredible. The boys and I read it while studying the Great Depression, and there is no better depiction of the dust bowl and the migration of so many farmers to California to find work. Steinbeck was a master, and his understanding of the human condition is seriously mind-blowing. We really loved the chapters that were like mini-essays on themes like farmers being kicked off their land by corporations. They enrich the story in a way I can’t even put into words.

1940s-Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s story about an American soldier is a crazy, sci-fi look at the second World War, with time-travel and aliens and all the fixings. Which gives you a great lead into discussing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and dissociation. Slaughterhouse-Five is where the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, and other prisoners of war are housed in Dresden. During the 3-day bombing of Dresden, the German soldiers hide with their prisoners in a cellar of the slaughterhouse and so they survive. But listen, there’s no real way to describe this book. Just trust me and read it.

1940s-The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The quintessential teen angst novel, Catcher follows Holden Caulfield as he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for 3 days. This book is told from such a profound adolescent perspective that it can be hard to watch as adults. We cringe and want to cover our eyes. So yeah, kids dig the raw honesty, which is what made the novel so famous.

1950s -Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Though not set in the 1950s, my favorite Bradbury novel (which is saying something, because I crush on his work big time) is a fictional look at how television reduces knowledge to factoids and destroys interest in reading. It has become the poster child for anti-censorship. is named after the temperature at which paper burns.

1960s-Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks (as Anonymous)

This brilliant look at the 1960s teen drug scene still begs the question of whether it’s fiction or really the journal of a girl who slipped into drug use. The authentic and raw voice will help your kids see the dangers of drugs and the mindsets to avoid and provide plenty of opportunity for those talks you might not be sure how to approach.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton made the list of Cool Book Gifts for Teen Readers

1960s-The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

For me, the amazing thing about Hinton’s novel is the insight she infuses in her writing about rival gangs in the 1960s. Because she wrote it when she was 16, and that just rocks my socks off. I remember learning about Hinton in high school and wishing I could be that freaking cool. This is a true immersion into 1960s high school, and you can’t beat that with a stick. Plus, it really is an incredible story. I have an Activities for Learning for this novel to help you teach it.

1970s-The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

If you’re looking for a book to give your child a lot (a LOT) to think about, this is the one. Not only does it provide a peek into 70s culture, it is a short, beautifully written work that touches on super sensitive topics like suicide, adolescence, and uniformity. It also is a bleak look at how suicide affects more than just one person–it influences an entire world forever.

1980s-1984 by George Orwell

This one will not be what your kiddo is expecting, which makes it fantabulous. Though it’s set in a futuristic 1984, it is perfect for starting those thoughts and conversations about privacy and big government. Because this stuff is scary. And every kid who has ever seen the internet should read it.

1980s-Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

One of my favorite-ist stories in the world, Fried Green Tomatoes is both a nod to 80s culture and a close look at how different it was from the 1920s. Yeah yeah.

1990s-The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

This coming-of-age story, set in early 90s Pittsburgh, tackles all the things that millenium babies have to deal with–sexuality, shyness, drug use, suicide, mental health, death… you name it, it’s in there. It’s also brilliantly written and chock full of pop culture.


1990s-Brothers and Sisters by Bebe Moore Campbell

Set against the aftermath of the Rodney King beating in early 90s Los Angeles, this is a novel that examines what it means to be a woman, what it means to be an African-American, and where loyalty comes into play between the two. It’s genius and thought-provoking and all the things. In today’s political climate, it should almost be required reading.

There is nothing but great literature on this list.  Reading these books will give your child some background with which to become the change. And every teenager wants to be the change.

Tell them I said to rock it.

Looking for more literature ideas? Check out:

An Outdoor Book Tasting is a fun way to get kids interested in books and reading!

How to Hold an Outdoor Book Tasting


There are many benefits to a literature-based homeschool beyond creating lifelong readers. Find out why you should teach your kids with literature.

10 Benefits of a Literature-Based Homeschool

The very best tools for your homeschool that will get you started and keep you going all year with a literature-based curriculum

The Best Homeschool Tools for a Literature-Based Curriculum

10 Days of Taking Literature Outside


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KT Brison

KT Brison is a former children’s librarian and educator who gave all that up for the most important job in her life—homeschooling her boys.Though she loves the outdoors and rambling around her farm, she can usually be found with her nose in a book. Any book. As long as it has words.
KT Brison
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About KT Brison

KT Brison is a former children’s librarian and educator who gave all that up for the most important job in her life—homeschooling her boys. Though she loves the outdoors and rambling around her farm, she can usually be found with her nose in a book. Any book. As long as it has words.
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One Comment

  1. What a great list! My son is only 9, but reads on a college level so I’m always looking for books that will stretch him but not be too inappropiate. I’ve told him a little bit about Great Gatsby and the unique color usuage by Fitzgerald and he can’t wait to read it. I had totally forgot about Ethan Frome, and (I hate to say it) had no idea Fried Green Tomatoes was a book, so I’ll have to keep those in mind in the future for him!

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