Top 5 Books Teachers Remember from High School

For some of us, high school is reflected increasingly far back in the rearview mirror. Yet there are books we still remember from our teenage years that have had a lasting impact on us. Books evoke emotions and their stories impact us long after we swipe the last Kindle page.

Books influence in so many ways. They provide insight into people and culture we haven’t experience. They expand our worldview. They influence our thoughts on politics and social issues and they can affirm that we are not alone in this world no matter how different we feel.

ESGI and ThinkFives polled hundreds of elementary teachers to find out their Top 5 Books they remembered most.

Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize epic of the Great Depression chronicles an Oklahoma farm family, the Joad’s.  Heartfelt and at times bleak, the novel follows a paroled Tom Joad as he suffers through a drought, economic hardship and bank foreclosures. The Joads set out for California along with thousands of other “Okies” seeking jobs, dignity and opportunity.

Considered by many critics the Great American novel, it was the bestselling book of 1939 winning numerous awards including the National Book Award and ultimately the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book spawned a 1940 movie nominated for seven Academy Awards.  The novel still proudly sits on many high school required reading lists as a timely story that probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.

Author: John Steinbeck

Published: April, 1939

Pages: 464

Estimated Copies Published: 14 million

The Outsiders

S.E. Hinton’s coming of age novel made an instant connection with teenagers from its first date of publication in 1967. Hinton was 15 when she started writing the novel and was 18 when the book was first published. It elicited much controversy and was debated both for its graphic storytelling and whether it was a great work of fiction or a paperback to be dismissed. Its portrayal of gang violence, underage drinking and strong language caused it to be banned from many school libraries while simultaneously being added to required reading lists in other high schools.

Featuring Ponyboy and his brothers, Darry and Sodapop, it is the story of teenagers who find themselves on the outskirts of regular society and who are challenged by gangs, police and society itself. Ponyboy decides to tell their story and writes a term paper for English class, which turns out to be the novel itself.

Author: S. E. Hinton

Published: April 1967

Pages: 192

Estimated Copies Published: 15 million

Of Mice and Men

Published in 1937, the second of two books on this list by John Steinbeck narrates the experiences of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in California in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression in the United States.  Chasing the elusive dream of owning their own ranch, George and Lenny experience class struggles, the barrios, isolation and ultimately the loss of innocence.

Steinbeck based the novella on his own experiences working alongside migrant workers in Oklahoma. Frequently censored because of its vulgarity and language, it nevertheless is still taught in schools throughout the US. Its universal themes of racism, isolation and the triumph of friendship over tragedy provide relevance over 80 years later.

Author: John Steinbeck

Published: 1937

Pages: 107

Estimated Copies Published: 30 million

The Great Gatsby

Set in the 1920’s Jazz Age on the rich north shore of Long Island, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic depicts the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby, the suave millionaire whom every man wanted to be and every woman wanted to be with.  Initially a commercial disappointment, its popularity soared during World War II and later when it became a permanent fixture on school reading lists.

The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, who recounts the summer events in West Egg when he rents a bungalow next door to the mysterious Gatsby.  His encounter with his cousin Daisy and her husband, Tom commences a series of indulgences, caravanning and decadence endemic of that era. Inducing debate on social class, inheritance, hedonism and race, The Great Gatsby has risen in the American pantheon of novels and is considered by many critics to be among the greatest.  

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Published: April 1925

Pages: 240

Estimated Copies Published: 30 million

To Kill a Mockingbird

Written by 34-year Harper Lee, this American classic tells the tale of recluse Boo Radley, the accused Tom Robinson and Atticus Finch, the principled lawyer who defend him, a black man accused of raping a white woman.  The novel has never been out of print since its 1960 publication and according to surveys, is still the book listed on more high school required reading lists than any other.

Narrated by “Scout” Finch, the novel exposes racial prejudice in the American south.  Based on Harper Lee’s early years in 1930’s Alabama, the mockingbird is a symbol of innocence and goodness in its natural wilderness.  The all-white jury of the novel convicts Robinson despite Finch’s representation, and the morality play evokes commitment to a great cause even at the risk of being reviled. 

Author: Harper Lee

Published: July 1960

Pages: 281

Estimated Copies Published: 40 million

Honorable Mentions

  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Little Women
  • Lord of the Flies

What Books do you remember the most from high school?


  1. I recently reread The Outsiders and it was better than the first time I read it in 7th grade.

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