Keeping Your Teen Busy at Home: Part 3, A Pre-College Reading List

To write the third installment of this series designed to help parents know what to do with their 14-18 year olds while stuck at home, I dove into the world of college reading lists. I nearly choked had to come up for air.

Just kidding. But the world of college reading lists has changed a lot since the last time I looked, and I found it enormously confusing. I understand that they are trying to move on from the traditional canon. Although I maintain that it’s important to at least be familiar with some of those books and authors, I applaud the expansion of subjects and most especially genres that I found in the new lists.

What I had trouble finding is any sort of consensus that might be helpful to high school students who aren’t yet sure where they are going to college, so what I’ve done here is consult a master list of all the colleges (well, a lot of them). I selected the titles that appear the most often and filtered out some to avoid repetition of subjects. I filled in a few more that I didn’t see on the lists are good literature that I think teenagers would like. They are The Lois Level picks.

What’s great about these books is that they are contemporary and look pretty interesting. Don’t forget, if you get them on Kindle, you and your teen can read one copy at the same time. In different rooms. Kindle allows 6 simultaneous downloads.

And if your teen prefers, audio versions are just fine. The biggest thing that keeps teens from reading is time, and if using audiobooks buys them some, no harm done. A lot of adults do it too. Hearing such complicated ideas rather than reading with their eyes is probably good for them; written language is much denser than normal spoken language.

Another way into this is to share this list with your teens, and let them decide: What Students Will Be Reading: Campus Common Reading Roundup, 2019-20

If your teens are interested in certain universities, they may be interested in looking at those particular schools and doing the reading.

Remember, college isn’t all about test scores. There are entrance essays, and some universities have interviews too. Teens need to be able to think and express themselves too, and reads like this give them something to say.

More in this series from The Lois Level:

Keeping your teen busy at home Part 1: Life Skills

Keeping Your Teen Busy at Home Part 2: Academic Enrichment

Note: Accessibility to books during the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine.

All of these books are available through online retailers or on Kindle. Please consider ordering and picking up from an independent bookstore to help them maintain their business. Many libraries, at publication time, are operating curbside pickup service; check your local library’s web page to see if this is an option.

If you are new to using your public library’s digital services, read The Lois Level’s Subscribe to your Library for an overview. Digital library checkouts might also be an option, and there are many more materials that are useful to high school students.


These books are chosen to help expose young adults to a range of ideas. Reading nonfiction is also great SAT prep. Some of these books can be long and time consuming to read. If it’s just too much for you (or your teen), try the Young Adult (sometimes called Young Readers’) edition as shown below for Just Mercy. The YA versions are usually by the same author (or at least supervised by the person in reality, I’m sure). They don’t feel “dumbed down”: they just focus on the main parts of the story and might simplify the vocabulary a bit.

For more ideas, check this Pinterest board from The Lois Level, Popular Nonfiction Adult Books with “Young Readers” Editions. Any of the books appearing on this board are worthwhile pre-college reads.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Braving the Wilderness by Brene’ Brown

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

I found Evicted riveting. I had no idea that renters’ rights could be so abused. Who knew there was such big money in renting to poor people?

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World-and Why Things are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling

It’s good not to have EVERYTHING that teenagers read be depressing.

One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture by Stephanie Anderson

Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference by Warren St. John

A Lois Level pick, this one makes the social justice theme go down easily with a heavy dose of sports. The coach is a Jordanian graduate of Smith College. YA version available.

Read more here: 3 Different Books That Make Me Feel the Holy Land in my Bones

Mixed Genres

These are both picks from The Lois Level. They are very short, but very good intense reads. Previous articles about them appear below.

They are both very fast reads with a lot of meat to them; perfect for your teen who reads slowly or just doesn’t like it.

Short Read

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

Citizen by Claudia Rankine: the reader, the text & the design from The Lois Level

Really riveting use of mixed media (visual art plus prose and poetry) to delineate the current American Black experience.

Short Read

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso

The Lois Level on Sarah Manguso’s “Ongoingness” and the Mindset of Social Media


Two of these are about making it to university, and two are more about making an impact as adults.

A Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

This book is a riveting read. It also has my favorite cover art ever.

More from The Lois Level here: Loved Educated? Try these.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Great for the teen considering working in the sciences.

What the Eyes Don’t See by Mona Hanna-Attisha

About fighting the good fight.


Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Yes, nonfiction is in, but Jesmyn Ward’s novel frequently appears on current lists.

Silence by Shusaku Endo

This is almost a Lois Level pick, but it did appear on one list. In translation from the Japanese, Endo’s work is interesting for foreigners because he was a Christian and wrote about Japan as a Japanese with a very different world view from his countrymen. Even agnostic Westerners, are far more influenced by a Western, Christian-based (and generally monotheistic) way of thinking than they realize.

It is translated from Japanese, so if readers see something repeated over an over that seems strange, it’s likely a motif that is significant in Japanese.

If your teen wants more novels, try this old-school college reading list that is supposedly from the College Board (the company behind the SAT’s) although I can’t find it on their current web site. Regardless, it is a solid list; in fact, quite a few of these books are commonly taught in high schools. If you have questions about which ones might be accessible for your teen, please use the e-mail address above.

In most cases, any book by the author listed would be good choices; many authors, such as John Steinbeck, for example, wrote many shorter books that are also good to have read.

The College Board Recommended reading list for College Bound Seniors

Graphic Literature

Yes, we seriously read graphic literature these days. Ironically, the genre is most often called “graphic novel” when in fact most of the major work is nonfiction.

I think it works really well for books set it other cultures because these books literally show us what we can’t really imagine.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

This one is on practically every list.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

This book is already a classic, but it’s a good read for teenagers because the protagonist is upper middle class. Readers need to see that bad things happen to everyone.

Belonging by Nora Krug

This book is a Lois Level favorite and has recently been a bestseller in Europe. It was simultaneously released in English and German.

It is a stunningly illustrated memoir about a German-American who decides to trace her family’s involvement in World War 2. As Nazi’s.

Read more about Belonging from The Lois Level here: Have you ever wondered if you have Nazis in your family?

Also a Lois Level favorite (look for an upcoming article), Guy Delisle gets overlooked by the college lists (probably because he’s French), but all of his books are well worth reading. These are just two of his most compelling.

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy DeLisle

Pyongyang by Guy DeLisle

Yes, that would be the capital of North Korea. He actually went there!

For an overview of high school literature programs, read The Lois Level’s Did you ever wonder why you had to read what you read in school?

Cover Photo Credit

pxfuel royalty free photos

pxfuel royalty free photos