5 Great Books to Inspire Your High Schooler Before College

As high school seniors begin to look ahead to college, many will wonder what kinds of experiences lie in front of them. Some may even seek advice from great authors. If you’re looking for those off-the-beaten-path books for a teen who will soon embark on this important step towards independence, check out these five holiday recommendations.

1. A Crash Course in Culture

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

Not to be confused with the Tom Cruise movie by the same name, this unusual novel doubles as a survey in classic literature, foreign languages, mathematics, and film. Sibylla is a single mother in possession of a ferocious intellect, but even her genius is no match for that of her son Ludo. At four, the boy is reading “The Odyssey” in Greek, and soon thereafter, studying obscure Japanese kanji (the characters used in Japanese writing), advanced calculus, and the Icelandic sagas. Ludo’s scholarly exploration is paired with his mission to find a suitable father figure, as Sibylla refuses to tell him about his parentage. Inspired by the classic Kurosawa film “The Seven Samurai,” Ludo meets seven potential dads, themselves all men of prodigious talents.

DeWitt’s staggering knowledge is on display in this fictional work, and few readers will be acquainted with all of the writers, philosophers, artists, and musicians she references. Nevertheless, the story is so engaging, and Ludo so endearing, that it’s easy to go along for the ride — and develop a comprehensive reading list of your own along the way.

2. A Meandering Trek to Satisfaction

Rules for the Unruly: Living an Unconventional Life by Marion Winik

“The path is not straight,” Marion Winik cautions in this coolest of self-help books. For young people who aren’t sure what they want to do with their lives — or are sure, but worry about how they’ll get there — this combination of memoir, therapy session, and advice column offers reassurance and inspiration. Winik traces her own winding road through life, chronicling many mistakes and reckless decisions she made along the way before landing in an adulthood that, while still unconventional, is also stable and healthy. She shares stories from friends and acquaintances whose lives didn’t always move smoothly from college to success. But the artists, innovators, and entrepreneurs she writes about exemplify how plans, relationships, and careers can veer wildly off course — but often in exchange for something better.

3. A Novel Voice for Creativity

The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde

As they undergo the ordeal that is the college application process, it’s easy for high school students to lose sight of the value of their creative and intellectual talents. Competition can lead them to focus instead on how they can leverage their abilities to get into a top school; and once there, they may end up homing in only on what they need to launch careers and land lucrative salaries.

Hyde’s book, which melds anthropology, history, and philosophy, is the perfect antidote to this marketplace-oriented mode of thinking. He argues that creative inspiration belongs to an “alternative economy,” one that does not follow the traditional laws of commerce but instead belongs to the realm of gift exchange. In addition to encouraging aspiring creatives to think of their work as something beyond a commodity, Hyde also advises how they can find their voices and nurture their talents.

4. A Scholarly Descent Into Delusion

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

College can entail reading mountains of articles and analysis; for those seeking inspiration in what may often seem like arid pursuits, this book presents a brilliant twist on scholarly writing. The book begins with a 999-line poem (called “Pale Fire”) penned by a fictional author named John Shade, and the rest of the novel is an interpretation of the work by one of Shade’s colleagues, Charles Kinbote.

Students who wonder what an oddball professor is like will find an extraordinary exemplar in Kinbote, who, while as witty and erudite as any Nabokov protagonist, also comes to reveal himself as possibly delusional. His commentary on the poem proves to be mostly memoir about what he perceives to be his bond with Shade and what he believes about his own lineage. Kinbote is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, the absent-minded professor taken to an extreme, and the novel is an ideal introduction to one of the 20th century’s greatest authors.

5. A Dive Into Wit and Conflict

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

The transition from high school to college, from childhood to adulthood, is invariably a bumpy one. Tassie Keltjin, who narrates “A Gate at the Stairs,” is roughly ushered into an unfamiliar world when she leaves her rural hometown behind for a large midwestern university. Broke, she takes a job babysitting for wealthy white parents who have just adopted a mixed-race baby girl, and the narrator finds herself mired in questions and conflicts around class and ethnicity. Meanwhile, her brother is considering joining the military, her classes — including “Intro to Sufism” — are befuddling, and her budding romance with a fellow student proves to be much more loaded with political implications than she expected.

Moore is famous for her witty wordplay and natural style. These elements, coupled with the relatable story, make this novel perfect for the college-bound.

Learn more about the colleges your teen is considering by using the free Noodle search tool, and ask questions on individual university profiles, save schools to shareable lists, and find further advice from Noodle Experts like Alanna Schubach.