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Answer This: What's the One Book Every Teen Should Read?

Jonathan Goldberg

On the interwebs
December 16, 2013

Because illiteracy sucks. And great books are transformative. So, Teach For America is crowdsourcing an answer to this question: "What's the 1 book every teen should read?" The top title will go to 53 schools in NJ (plus, you can win a Kindle). It takes about 30 seconds, so visit and drop some wisdom!

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  • BHere

    The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
    My favorite book of all time.

    • Misha Vela

      yes! was just about to add this one. =)

  • Kitty Annecke

    The Princess Bride - by William Goldman

  • Richard Bond

    Alice Walker's Third Life of Grange Copeland. It still effects my view on life after 20 years since I read it the first time.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Hi Richard - really interesting choice (which admittedly I've not heard of). Please submit it at! That's where we're taking nominations through tomorrow.

  • Adrian Doidge

    I recommend Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. It has everything they want, and contains some great social political commentary.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Hi Adrian - thanks for the nomination! Please enter it here (it takes 10 seconds) so we can add it - We're taking nominations through tomorrow, so feel free to share.

      • Adrian Doidge

        Unfortunately I'm not an American resident, I'm Australian, so the system wont allow my suggestion. C'est la vie. I'm hoping the title makes your list though, it's a very good read.

        • Misha Vela

          definitely wish this had made the list. it's my number one from high school too.

  • SaraAA

    Another great book is Sold, by Patricia McCormick. This works with reluctant readers because it is in verse, and short. The story is delicately told, but it is about a Nepalese girl sold into slavery. Teens really relate to her story and it opens up their eyes to an unfamiliar world in a really approachable way. They will like to discuss it. The trick to getting teens to read is to find a book they can identify with. It could be the character, the setting, the words, or anything. I have seen this book work wonders with both girls and boys, though the girls gravitate to it more naturally. I don't know what schools the books are going to, but for kids who cannot relate to classics, this book works pretty well.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Hi Sara - Really thoughtful rec, thanks. I count 1 other nomination for Sold out of ~2500 so far. Please add your voice here: (It takes a few secs and where we're tallying thru tomorrow).

  • Slow Family Living

    If there was a need to only choose one, thank goodness there's not, I'd choose To Kill A Mockingbird for its narrative dive into the human experience on so many levels - parent / child, child/society, siblings, race/race, and so many more. So many thoughtful revelations in this book.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      You're in good company - but please enter on the site so your voice is heard! It takes a few secs and makes a big difference. We're tallying up the votes on Friday to see which has made the top 10.

  • pete.laberge

    I think trying to narrow it down to 1 book, is simplistic. How do you know what is best for any one randomly chosen human?

    Simply encourage them to read anything, because you do not know WHAT book might make the difference. And encourage them to go outside, to the park and read.

    And encourage real books. Something where they can use their eyes to read naturally, not in the glow of some screen. We all spend too much time there already. And a real book, also stimulates the ears, and the touch, and the smell.... (And this has memory value.) And encourage them to OWN BOOKS. That way, they can write notes in the margins, or the fore leaf, or at the back. Teach them to date those notes. Someday they will look back. Maybe, even, today... they may look forwards.

    E-readers and e-books are nice, but do you think they will last? No. Why? Because the machines are built to be ephemeral. As are the books. And the file formats. If anybody thinks they will still have their "e-thingie" as few as 5 years from now, think again. And what of 10 years? But a real book, can last decades, possibly centuries. You can pass them on to your friends, neighbors, kids. And you can sell them in a yard sale, to a stranger. Who just MIGHT become an acquaintance or a friend.....

  • Alyssa Harben

    Speak by Laurie Anderson was the book that changed my life in High School. Being with Melinda as she started high school, fell into depression, found art, and eventually learned to speak and not be scared anymore was what I needed. Not everyone goes through getting raped like she did, but everyone goes through something. I personally needed to know it was ok to feel things deeply, as long as coping was part of the process.

    • SaraAA

      That's one of my favorites, too.

  • jayashree.coutinho

    Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. And not just for teens.

  • leonardoArellanoV

    The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, The Metamorphisis By Franz Kafka,

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      In the original German? Just kidding. Nice picks - please just enter them at so we can include! They're actually underrepresented and could use your voice.

  • SaraAA

    The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie is a book that almost any teen can relate to, even though the exact experience is unique.
    For classroom reading, Wingshooters, by Nina Revoyr is like a modern day To Kill a Mockingbird.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Thank you Sara! I like both of these picks - original and really thoughtful. Please just visit and enter em there. That way we can include in the campaign.

  • Peggy Gillard

    The Outsiders by S.E.Hinton Written by a 15-16 year old.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      This is another great choice and a bit off the beaten path. Please just enter it at through Thursday so it's included in the count! (and maybe get a few others to nominate it too - it deserves to be heard)

  • hollyawalsh

    The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      That's the current #1 YA novel on First Book's site, I think. It's a great pick. Would love your voice heard, so please just enter it at if you haven't yet. Thanks!

  • Louise Le

    Our Town by Thornton Wilder

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Hey Louise - I think I was in an Our Town production in high school. So, am personally biased toward your pick. Just make sure to enter it at so it counts! We'd love to include it in the campaign.

  • Grace Morgan

    I've nominated Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. It's about a boy from a divorced family who is in a plane that crashes over the Canadian wilderness. It is about how he survives and how it changes him! Excellent book!

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      So cool, we'll check it out. Thanks for sharing!

  • Sofia Valiente

    Catcher in the Rye, because it teaches teens, that even if they are at the point in their lives were they have to make a decision that will impact them forever, it's okay to not know where they are going. And this book teaches that.

  • Joelle Osias

    I wrote a 500-page Life Bible for Teens and Young Adults, called How To Prepare Yourself For Life - 26 chapters, 26 subjects about crucial life decisions, from alcohol, drugs, picking friends and dates, to education, employment, marriage, religion/spirituality, sex, time management, values, etc. because our teens are lost. That is the book I recommend after the Bible itself. It brings up several fundamentals throughout: Get to know yourself, because it is the basis for all your decisions and life choices, and understand that your decisions cause ripples on the water. Not only can they affect you, sometimes for the rest of your life, but they often affect many people around you.

  • Abi Magalong

    Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"!!

    Not only is it set in New Jersey, it is absolutely RICH in culture (also set in the Dominican Republic). I'm Filipino myself, but I could easily relate to the book's ideas of love, family, culture, and corruption. There is no filter with Diaz; he speaks loudly on society and politics, and taught me so much about Spanish history and language... I think inner city school and minority kids would really appreciate it, and gain a lot from it.

    The only con may be that it is too racy for teenagers (sex, violence..), but it's raw, real, and fantastical all at the same time. It's about growing up but not necessarily fitting in... It teaches you to be comfortable in your own skin, and resilient no matter what trouble you get into for being so!

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Hey Abi - Awesome pick and totally reasonable! Yes, Diaz grew up in NJ, so doubly great for our audience. Please be sure to enter it at so we can include your voice! Thanks so much for sharing your personal perspective.

      • Abi Magalong

        Thanks, Jonathan; I just did :) Good luck to you!

  • stoney

    Diary of Anne Frank

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Hi Stoney - it's essential reading, made more by the passage of time. Thanks for sharing.


    "The art of Living" by Epictetus. It is a very quick read..only 113 pgs. Which will likely to be attractive to those with an literary aversion. It also functions as a manual on virtue, happiness and effectiveness! Trust me we all need this book...especially our teens.


  • Sanura Weathers

    "To Kill a MockingBird, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Maya Angelou's poem "And, Still I Rise", Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I A Woman?", Langston Huges' Poetry, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s unknown speeches, Toni Morrison's "Tar Baby", and August Wilson's plays.

  • tbaker

    The combination of the low number of authors of color and the limited number of science fiction books makes me want to add "Kindred" by Octavia Butler.... and maybe "The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz.

  • Ashley St. Thomas

    This is such a cool contest! I'm going with Slaughterhouse Five -- although I'm not sure if that'd be "appropriate" to teach in high school...? So many other good ideas below though -- especially A Separate Peace and Mockingbird.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Thanks!! So glad for your recommendations. I have a thumbed-through copy of Slaughterhouse Five that my mom gave me and I've been meaning to re-read. A good prompt.

  • ehpm98

    Hi, I'm a high school student from Fort Myers, FL. I really enjoyed your article and I completely agree; I love to read, but I am one of the very few in my grade. Recently, we read The Great Gatsby in my English class. So, my original thought was to nominate that book because of the cautionary warning and morals it released. However, I recalled that when I first read the book at age 13, I gave up on the book after chapter 3. It was just too wordy, so I decided that the best book for a teenager would need to capture and maintain their attention while still holding a fantastic message. Following that realization, I ruled out any of Dickens's works and the majority of classic literature. So I was now caught between Slaughterhouse-Five, the Lord of the Rings, and Because of Winn Dixie. I ruled out Because of Winn Dixie after realizing that it was really a children's book. Finally, I decided on the Lord of the Rings trilogy because it possessed a sense of adventure, multiple messages, and a classic, archetypal hero. The book conveyed that everyone has the capability for greatness, but that we are also all destined for separate things. Even with its length, I believe that the sense of adventure so many teenagers enjoy will pull the book through.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Holy cow. This is amazing. I really hope you entered it at More than that, this is among the most inspiring messages I've received. Such a testament to literature and to you. Thanks for sharing. Would love to connect offline.

  • carolineboussenot

    It really depends on the reading level of the student. While many of the suggested novels are excellent, many students would not be able to read them without the guidance found in a classroom. If we're thinking of developing a love of reading and an understanding of how literature relates to life, while addressing issues that many urban teens face today, then I would suggest: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.

  • Alexa Fleckenstein

    To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

  • lcdcobb

    Call of th Wild, by Jack London

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Glad you mentioned it - it has two measly nominations out of nearly 2500. Please add to the count at - that's where we're tallying votes (and share with others)! It could use a boost.

  • Mary Molloy

    While I have read a variety of books as an adult that I would love to put to the top of the list (though it would be relatively innumerable), I cannot escape the fact that my favorite book AS a teenager was Catcher in the Rye, because it spoke to my angst and what I was experiencing mentally and emotionally at the time. Because of this, I find it an invaluable read for teens.

  • Anne Higgins

    I am always amazed at how many teens have never heard of The Giving Tree or The Prophet. Two simple reads of life lessons that seem to be so needed anymore.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Hi Anne - please enter them at That's where we're tallying the nominations - it takes just a few seconds! Thanks. (And yes, very surprising that these books aren't at the tip of the tongue for most teens).

  • Meg Kinney

    To Kill a Mockingbird has gravity but is so accessible through the lens of Scout. (Also, for the commenter who put Island of the Blue Dolphins -- thank you for reminding me of this wonderful book. I have not thought about it in so long and it really moved me as a kid.)

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Hey Meg - it's amazing how many folks respond to To Kill A Mockingbird. Would love to include your name among the mix - please just enter the title at so we can count it! Thanks

  • kevin.fleming.12720

    You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train is the best Zinn book and is a must read if folks are recommending People's History. I would also vote for Island of the Blue Dolphins because its awesome.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Kevin - make sure you enter them at - that's where we count them! Good add with You Can't Be Neutral. Haven't heard enough about that or Island of the Blue Dolphins. Very much want your voice included in the mix. Thanks

  • Mark Weinstein

    People's History is a must. On the other side of the spectrum, if you are going for emotional literacy, Alphabet Living is a charmer.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Hi Mark - Nice add with Alphabet Living. Please enter em both if you haven't yet: People's History is picking up a bunch of late interest - would love your nomination among them. Thanks.

  • Lauren Modery

    A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. It's a super long and dense read, but not too much unlike text books. And it's way better than any history text book.

    • Liz Dwyer

      Absolutely agree. It is a thick book, which might be intimidating to some. There is "A Young People's History of the United States," which comes in three volumes and is appropriate for ages 10 and up.

        • Jonathan Goldberg

          Sanura - please enter it if you haven't! Looks like Lauren touched off a bit of a voting onslaught since her call. 15 or so new nominations came through. Would love to consider for the reading list. Thanks!

    • Ashley Mohler

      I agree 100%! It is an amazing read

  • commonweeder

    It looks like lots of these books are about 'contemporary' life, or ancient wisdom for maneuvering now, but I was just 18 and newly graduated when I read A Tale of Two Cities. Suddenly I saw the relevance of all those reading lists. I wasn't able to go to college - then - but that book opened a world of literature to me that would give me pleasure as well as knowledge. I might suggest Farenheit 451 to go along with that - a world where books and ideas were seen as so dangerous they all had to be destroyed and minds kept controlled by keeping them tuned into a virtual sunny life.

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Yup, nice pick. I haven't tallied but Farenheit is somewhere on the edge of the top 10 now. Tale of Two Cities is epic, but maybe it takes being in the right mind space to appreciate?

  • onepinktee

    I'm partial to "A Separate Peace" as a book that really stuck with me from my own teen reading.

  • Jeff Gentry

    I'm not from New Jersey so I didn't vote, but if I had, it would have been "Getting Things Done" by David Allen.

  • Whitney Johnson

    That is a tough question -- "The Fire Next Time" pretty much changed my life/paradigm as a teenager. I still remember James Baldwin saying, "the very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook, and my chains fell off."

    • Jonathan Goldberg

      Thanks for this. You'd be the first nominee for that book - make sure you enter it on the site! It's where we're collecting all votes and finding the "#1" to put in 53 schools. (Plus giving away Kindles.

  • Rodrigo Mejia

    Dune. The spice must flow and the imaginations must run wild. Seriously though, I wish I had read that book sooner. It completely knocked over what I thought was possible in literature.

    + imaginative works often get shouldered out by other types of books. Give science fiction a chance, teens!

    • John Cheney

      While I loved Dune, for some TRUE Science Fiction read "Venus Inc.." For the life of me I can't remember the authors name (OMG!!! Senility is finally setting in!), but it's actually two stories giving both sides of the Consumers Rights issue in the future. One if we follow the extremes or corporate America, and the other following the extremes of consumerism.
      A good read!
      John Cheney 88

      • Rodrigo Mejia

        That sounds great! I need to finish God Emperor of Dune but I'll take you up on your suggestion right after.

      • Reality Bites

        It has 4 now :-)
        When the mind is expanded by knowledge and experiences it never returns to the same constrictive space.

  • Liz Dwyer

    This is such a great question. I want to answer that every teen should read 'Dracula' because that's my favorite book (and it's better than 'Twilight'!) but I'd also opt for 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X.'

    • Alessandra Rizzotti

      I love Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". It teaches you about not only the importance of family, but also cherishing everyday moments. Plus- it's well-written.

      • Jonathan Goldberg

        It's on the bookshelf but embarrassingly, I've not cracked it. Good call. Did you read Everything Is Illuminated?

        • Alessandra Rizzotti

          Yes! I surprisingly loved Extremely Loud more! But that's just me. I love complicated narratives and it jumps a little. I LOVE "People of Paper"- it has a "100 Days of Solitude" feel which is also amazing- but are those too complicated for K-12?

          • Abi Magalong

            Agreed! I remember being young and excited about Extremely Loud--especially because it had all those red scribbles and letters in it). It's a good lesson for kids to think outside the box and cross a line or two sometimes.