25 Great Books for College Bound Students: A Reading List About Art, Culture, Science, and More

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Back in 2014, I served on a committee tasked with developing a list of up to 125 titles of outstanding books for the college bound. Since the creation of that list—and knowing the myriad hours that went into finding great titles for it—I’ve kept notes on things I’ve read after that would fit the bill of being a great book for college bound students.


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The list below is meant to be a jumping off point. It’s meant to encourage life-long learning, interest in areas within and beyond one’s preferred major studies, and develop a love of reading for information, as well as for pleasure. They should spark conversation and provide a means of thinking about a variety of social and cultural realities and challenges through new or sharper lenses.

I’ve organized these books for college bound students in the same style as the list above: by the Liberal Arts topics they might best fit under. As any reader knows, so many books could fit within so many categories. There are adult titles and young adult titles on the list, fiction and nonfiction, as well as comics, prose, and verse. I’ve limited selections to five per category, for a total of 25 books, and all of which are titles I’ve read personally; there is, of course, substantial room for more books for college bound students. I’d love to hear additional titles in the comments that you’ve read and would recommend.

All of the titles have been published in the last five years, making them timely, relevant, and easy to reference and discuss. This list is appropriate for high school readers, as well as both traditional and nontraditional college students. It is, of course, also appropriate for any reader hoping to expand their knowledge and world views.


Great Books for College Bound Students


Arts and Humanities

books for the college boundBad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This collection of essays on all aspects of feminism and finding ones feminist spirit is a masterclass in not only understanding the philosophy, but also in how to write a good essay.

Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coats

Coats’s framework for understanding race and injustice provides power and context for those who are familiar with these challenges, as well as validation and reassurance for those who are all too familiar with them. Coats is a contemporary powerhouse of a voice.

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

This fictional story is about a young woman coming to understand where she, an asthmatic lesbian Puerto Rican from the Bronx, fits into feminism and the world as a whole. The voice is memorable, with intersectionality at its core.

The Newcomers book coverThe Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe

Thorpe spent a year inside a high school English Language Acquisition class, wherein she met students from all parts of the world and heard their remarkable stories of being refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraquib

This collection of essays moves between pieces about Carly Rae Jepson to Bruce Springsteen and weaves among each of them the experiences of growing up a person of color, especially in middle America. Pop culture is powerful, as is music, and Abdurraquib crafts masterful essays on contemporary American culture using those as his backdrops.


History and Cultures

Circe by Madeline Miller

Though steeped in Greek Mythology, Miller’s story about the ways women have been scored and demeaned and relegated to the margins of history resonates deeply still today.

books for the college boundDare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey by Ozge Samanci

This is a story of a teenager trying to find her own path, but her life in Turkey along the Aegean Coast and the rising tensions throughout the country make that quest challenging. A glimpse into a part of the world that will continue being relevant politically and historically.

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (series)

This graphic memoir follows the path of Congressman John Lewis and the work he has done throughout American history on Civil Rights. Lewis’s life has spanned Jim Crow and beyond, giving a glimpse into how much—and how little—has changed in America.

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

A fictionalized story of Malcolm X, as told by his daughter. The history and facts are correct and presented in a way that makes X’s contributions to Civil Rights clear. The fictionalized take allows a glimpse of how X’s work and life impacted his family, and extensive endnotes will lead readers to more resources.

books for the college boundYou Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

This intergenerational novel explores the impact of immigration upon families. Perkins looks at the ways culture is inherited, as well as how culture is changed through family and time.


Literature and Language Arts

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily XR Pan

This gorgeous novel is a study in literary writing, as well as a fascinating look at cultural heritage, mental illness, and the power of finding and connecting to one’s own story.

books for the college boundThe Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

At heart, this is a story about a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl falling in love. But in addition to being a powerful cross-cultural love story, it’s a book about immigrants—legal and not—seeking out the so-called American dream. A book that gives voice to so many humans too frequently demeaned and ignored.

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

Charlie is an American-born Chinese who finds herself at 22 living in a tiny apartment with her widower father and younger sister, washing dishes for a living. All she wants is a break, and when it comes, she must decide how to navigate cultures and obligations to her family and to herself.

books for the college boundMary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge

A graphic biography told in verse, Judge’s look at the life of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein blasts through many of the myths about both and does so with artistic, creative packaging and framing.

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

Jade’s upbringing in a challenging Portland neighborhood and the ways she must navigate being a small girl from a rough background in a private school where her skills and capabilities are doubted and undermined will resonate. Likewise, the use of art for expression here is powerful.


Science and Technology

books for the college boundBored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self by Manoush Zomorodi

This book doesn’t encourage readers to dismiss all technology. Rather, it’s an encouraging and insightful book about why logging off and allowing yourself time to get totally bored can come with tremendous benefits. Tips and tricks throughout, along with case studies of those who’ve tried them, make it easy to do, too.

Get Well Soon: History’s Worse Plagues and The Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright

From Bubonic Plague to Spanish Influenza to HIV, Wright crafts a book about the worst diseases that have shaped humans throughout history, highlighting some of those who found to eradicate them or educate others about staying safe from them. The dark humor in this book make it approachable, even for those who are less science-minded.

Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space by Margot Lee Shatterly

Lesser-known heroes, particularly those who don’t see themselves in history books, deserve their stories told, too. Shatterly highlights the work of four brilliant black mathematicians and how they helped shape NASA and space exploration.

books for the college boundMalagash by Joey Comeau

What’s the line between technology being used as a means of memory and being exploited by memory (or exploiting others with memory)? This book is about grief and loss, as well as the ways we might be tempted to make what’s impermanent impossibly permanent with technology.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Although a book about plant life and the work Jahren did in creating three amazing laboratories to study it, this is also a book about relationships and finding adventures with those who are closest to you.


Social Science

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and The Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

A true-crime story involving two teenagers: one a black teen from one of the poorest parts of Oakland, and one a white gender nonconforming middle class teen who attended a private high school. This complicated, complex story explores victimhood, guilt, and the justice system from myriad nuanced angles.

books for the college boundEvery Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea by Sungju Lee and Susan Elizabeth McClelland

What is it like to grow up in a country like North Korea? Lee’s story is about survival on the streets and how he managed to escape the country. Brutal, violent, and necessary reading.

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

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is the most racially segregated city in the U.S., and in this ethnography, Desmond explores the nonstop cycle of poverty that occurs when one is evicted from their homes. Eight families share their stories of surviving on nothing and how the system continues to make their lives more challenging.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakaur

Krakaur’s look at what happens with the justice system when rape has been reported on a college campus is necessary reading. Voice is given to the victims here, and Krakaur is unafraid to admit to ignorance when necessary, ceding the floor to let those who know speak up. Tough, timely, and unfortunately timeless in today’s campus culture.

books for the college boundWhen They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

Black Lives Matter matters, and this memoir takes a look at how the movement started by founding members of it. This is a book, too, about how personal pain and experiences can help drive change and activism. The exploration of the U.S. police state and the prison industrial complex gives much to chew on.