Since 2000, 21st Century novels have taken fiction in a new and exciting direction, though it has become much harder to weed out the good from the bad (and the ugly) in the digital age. Anyone, who is everyone, it seems, has a book for sale on Amazon, resulting in millions of choices. Good for consumers, but bad for literary snobs. That means a lot of the books that were written after 2000 may have to wait a while before they can be deemed “classics.” The existing classics your teachers made you read in high school — we’re sure they’ll always be around. But they may have to share shelf space with our top 15 picks.
Jonathan Franzen’s powerful look at modern love and marriage speaks passionately to every phase of life, and could easily prepare kids for the world ahead. It’s also challenging material, winning with most critics but polarizing to large groups of people. It’s one of those 21st Century novels that schools will love in the years ahead.
14. The Fault In Our Stars
John Green’s ambitious and heartbreaking love story transcends its teen audience and really shows off what the young adult novel is capable of doing outside of its niche audience. The story follows 16-year-old terminal cancer patient Hazel and her intriguing relationship with Augustus Waters, an acquaintance at the Cancer Kid Support Group.
13. We Need To Talk About Kevin
The Boston Globe called Lionel Shriver’s disturbing tale of loyalty, family ties, and unsettling violence “sometimes searing… [and] impossible to put down.” Shriver is a strong female voice and writes with the punch of a gifted journalist. The story centers on a woman, who wishes to understand what drove her teenage son to violence.
12. A Storm Of Swords
G.R.R. Martin’s A Storm Of Swords was published in 2000 and is the third book in the ongoing Game Of Thrones saga. This entry on our list of 21st Century novels is some of Martin’s best work to date and is intriguing enough to make students want to go back and read the first two, while bookmarking future installments.
11. The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini humanizes a cultural experience that at the time of its publication in 2003 was quite buried in fearful American, anti-Afghan sentiment. He pulls it off with a dramatic father and son visualization that makes you forget about whatever baggage exists between the opposing cultures. It’s a story, in Hosseini’s own words, of “friendship, betrayal, guilt, redemption and the uneasy love between fathers and sons.” Apparently, America agrees. The Kite Runner has sold more than seven million copies in the US alone.
10. The Help
In 2009, Kathryn Stockett did something unusual. She wrote one of the best 21st Century novels (and one of the best novels dealing with the Civil Rights movement of all time). There were a lot of things unusual about this achievement. Firstly, Stockett was a white woman writing in intimate detail about the experience of African-American women. Secondly, she managed to write passionately and in enormous detail about a time period she didn’t even live through. (Stockett was born in 1969.) Finally, she managed all this and won universal acclaim as a first-time novelist. Her story (and her novel) are great examples of overcoming odds, and though sometimes heartbreaking (at least in the book’s case), are wonderful lessons that students should learn. And The Help is a pretty good history lesson, too.
9. Shadow Of The Wind
Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s prose is simply stunning, and his story reads as if it were Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 crafted from a more modern sensibility. It takes place shortly after the Spanish Civil War and deals with a boy, who finds solace in a book called The Shadow Of The Wind by an obscure author named Julian Carax. As he seeks out more of the author’s works, however, he is shocked to find that he may have the last ever copy of Carax’s work in existence. He may also be in danger, since someone has been destroying Carax’s titles at whatever cost.
8. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay
The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay is considered by many to be Michael Chabon’s best work, and if you’ve ever read anything by Chabon, you know that’s quite a compliment. This entry on our list of 21st Century novels definitely strikes the right cord for those of you with an affinity for the Golden Age of comic books. (Guilty as charged.)
7. American Gods
Sure, the best work of Neil Gaiman may still be his 1980s Sandman output for DC Vertigo, but he’s certainly no slouch with prose. That’s readily apparent with American Gods, the story of two warring deities — old and new — who tie up in a battle that finds Earth caught in the balance. It’s a visually interesting piece that makes the hot-button topics of beliefs accessible for the classroom.
6. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows
The Harry Potter series first hit shelves in the late 1990s. By the time this seventh and final book arrived in 2007, author J.K. Rowling was at the pinnacle of her writing powers. Deathly Hallows is a lightning-fast culmination of characters and story events to a series most kids will pick up the moment they learn to read. Talk about a great way of holding their attention in class!
5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
This one may have to be heavily excerpted for the high school crowd, but we can see it making college reading lists. Dragon Tattoo is one heck of a unique read. It’s an erotic thriller, historical fiction, investigative journalism, family epic, expertly crafted mystery, and undeniably literary, all in one.
4. Bel Canto
Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a tale of opera and terrorism, is one of those titles that’ll make the boys (and maybe some of the girls) groan when they see it on the syllabus. But once they start reading, forget about them putting it down. The strange plot centers on a woman caught between terrorists and the group of business people and diplomats, who are held captive by them. As the story moves on, these characters find that music is their only common language.
3. The Lovely Bones
Never mind the crappy Peter Jackson-directed movie. This book by Alice Sebold is a powerhouse. Told from the perspective of a young murder victim as she watches her family deal with the tragedy of her death, the concept alone is enough to earn it high marks. Execution: even better. If only Jackson had gotten the message…
2. The Road
Cormac McCarthy has written some powerful crime fiction. He routinely knocks down the walls between genre and literary fiction. This post-apocalyptic work was more of the same, but it seemed to be a bit more ingrained with a piece of McCarthy’s soul. While his past work serves as a prime example of excellent storytelling, this book seemed more personal than anything we’ve seen him do before, and it leaves an even greater impact.
1. Life Of Pi
Yann Martel’s masterwork blurs the line between what is real and what is make-believe with dueling narratives that are equally believable but for entirely different reasons. It’s a complex and psychological fantasy from the perspective of a 16-year-old boy. In other words, it’s made for English class.
Those are the 21st Century novels we think have a shot at becoming classics. What do you agree/disagree with, and which ones should have been added to the list?
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