What’s a “classic” piece of literature? Mark Twain defined it as “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”
Those words might ring true when you sit down to read War and Peace or Moby Dick, but what about middle school classics?
Modern Classics in Middle School
A classic includes enduring themes, relatable characters, and a compelling plot. It’s a book that feels fresh when we read it multiple times (don’t make me confess how many times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice!).
Fortunately, there are many, many excellent books that can be classified as classics for intermediate and middle school students. Unfortunately, writing styles have changed throughout the years…you’ve noticed that, right? Readers expect to be grabbed by the lapels right at the start of the book. Students will often abandon “classic” literature because it may have a long exposition or complex explanations and back stories that can challenge all but the strongest readers.
Here’s where a read aloud will help. Read the first few paragraphs or even chapters out loud to your students. Often that is enough to get them familiar enough with a text to decide they are going to pick it up and read it on their own. You may even want to read the entire book to them. One year I read my students Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Because of the difficult vocabulary, as I read, I abridged parts so my students would be able to understand the story.
Here are five classics that your middle school students might enjoy…and if you haven’t read them, you should. They are classics that you want to read and do read!
1. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Oh how I love this book! I’m including it as a classic, even though it was written in 1994 (a mere baby in terms of classic novels) this Newbery Winner is a wonderful read!
Thirteen-year-old Sal is on a cross-country trip with her grandparents to see her mother. This book has an amazing voice, interesting characters, and a an intense theme that makes it a novel that can be read over and over again. It’s a great way to introduce students to symbolism and discussions on theme.
I love all of Sharon Creech’s novels. I think I’d even enjoy reading her grocery list! She is an amazing writer — and this book is a jem!
2. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
This classic was published in 1967 while the author was still a teen herself. A powerful book about social groups in high school — and what it’s like to “walk a mile” in another’s’ shoes.
Ponyboy Curtis tells the story of the conflict between the Greasers and the Socs. A conflict that causes Ponyboy to question social roles and stereotypes. While the book includes underage drinking, smoking, and gang violence, the voice and actions of the characters are real. My students love this book — it is full of symbolism, real dialogue, and themes that we go back to throughout the year.
One of my favorite activities with this is to dig into the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which Ponyboy recites.
What does it mean to “stay gold”? Teaching this poem as an extension of the novel study strengthens the themes. Students also write their own “stay gold” poem following Robert Frost’s beautiful example. (See how I teach it on my Teachers Pay Teachers store“Nothing Gold Can Stay.”)
Should you watch the movie? Well, the star-studded cast of the 1983 film might be enough to entice you! Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, and Ralph Macchio all in one movie?? Yup!
3. The Pigman by Paul Zindel
This book was published in 1968 and is a brilliant example of alternating narrators. In a similar way that The Outsiders is narrated in a way to chronical certain events, The Pigman is narrated by John and Lorraine who alternatively tell the story of their interactions with Mr. Angelo Pignati. In the days before caller ID, a group of kids play a game of making prank phone calls and seeing who can stay on the phone the longest. As a result of a phone call, John and Lorraine encounter and become friends with Mr. Pignati (who is nicknamed the Pigman due to his collection of pig figurines).
To say that you will laugh and cry when you read this book is so trite…but you will! I love the alternating narration! The character voices are distinct, but it is also a story of loss and confusion.
Like The Outsiders, the characters engage in underage activity, so you’ll want to make sure it’s appropriate for your students. This book (also like The Outsiders) has made it on banned and challenged book lists — and Zindel’s was one of the most challenged authors in 2000 (along with Lois Lowry — but that’s the topic for another blog post!).
Paul Zindel is the author of several other teen books — including ones with amazing titles like My Darling, My Hamburger and Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on my Eyeball.
4. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
This fantasy was published in 1937, and the story still captivates readers. Wizard, dwarves, a magic ring, a dragon, and a quest. All the elements of a terrific story!
Even though this very popular book is a movie that many students may have seen, the book is still worth the read. Struggling readers who have seen the movie can use their knowledge about it to help them with the text.
Another great read aloud — and who cannot resist hearing about the wonderful life of hobbits?!
5. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
This science fiction novel was originally a short story, written in 1959. The novel based on the story was published seven years later.
Whether your students read the short story or novel, they will be touched by the story of Charlie Gordon. His story unfolds through a series of reports that he writes during his treatment, which changes him from a man with very limited mental abilities to a genius. The reader can see those changes not only in the content of the reports, but also by how they are written — right down to the spelling and syntax.
This is also a great novel to use to discuss the power of the narrator. Charlie’s own writing style influences how much the reader understands and believes the narrator. Students enjoy discussing the question of the “reliable narrator” with this text.
This read offers an emotional and moral rollercoaster. The reader is happy to see Charlie’s life change, until Charlie’s future becomes clear — a horrifying future.
If you are looking for great topics to use to discuss moral and ethical topics with your students, this story or novel will fit the bill! Discussions can lead to a class debate, argument or persuasive writing essays.
Like other classics on this list, Flowers for Algernon has also made it to banned and challenged books.
Is that is?
There are so many wonderful classics that your students will love! Even though the cover art might not be as flashy and exciting as more contemporary titles, encourage your students to give them a try.
You can find more excellent titles for your middle school readers on my posts about historical fiction, nonfiction, and books with memorable characters. Keep those kids reading!
And don’t forget to leave your favorite classics in the comments below