21 International Books That Belong on Your High School Syllabus

What would you add to the list?

21 International Books That Belong on Your High School Syllabus

Many high school courses tend to be dominated by American lit, but these international books deserve your consideration too.

1. The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini, Afghanistan

Amir is a young Afghani from a well-to-do Kabul family; his best friend Hassan is the son of a family servant. Together the two boys form a bond of friendship that breaks tragically on one fateful day. Years later, Amir is called back to Kabul to right his wrongs.

It’s a story of friendship and redemption woven with the history of Afghanistan, a country which will not be leaving the world’s spotlight anytime soon. Reading about the culture of Afghanistan will help give students a better understanding of the Middle East.

2. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Ishmael Beah, Sierra Leone

At the age of twelve, Ishmael Beah fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By 13, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts.

What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Journalists have profiled child soldiers and novelists have struggled to imagine their lives. But until now, there has not been a first-person account from someone who came through this hell and survived.

3. The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho, Brazil


Santiago, a shepherd boy, longs for riches, only to find riches far different—and far more satisfying—than he ever imagined. His journey teaches us about the essential wisdom of listening to our hearts, of recognizing opportunity and learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path, and, most importantly, to follow our dreams.

Following our dreams is a lesson that seems to be absent in many schools. Especially with many kids being told that more college and more money is the ultimate goal, this book can be a nice peek into alternatives.

4. The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro, Japan

In 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars, and an unrealized love between the butler and his housekeeper.

Ishiguro’s dazzling novel is a sad and humorous love story, a meditation on the condition of modern man, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change.

5. Siddhartha

Hermann Hesse, Germany

A young man leaves his family for a contemplative life, then restless, discards it for one of the flesh. He conceives a son, but bored and sickened by lust and greed, moves on again. Near despair, Siddhartha hears a sound. This sound signals the true beginning of his life—the beginning of suffering, rejection, peace, and, finally, wisdom.

The story of Siddhartha and the Buddha is a reminder to let go of our egos and embrace true peace. Nothing else will satisfy us.

6. One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia

The story of the rise, fall, birth, and death of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendia family. This story is inventive, amusing, magnetic, sad, and alive with unforgettable men and women—brimming with truth, compassion, and a lyrical magic that strikes the soul.

Marquez presents an intimate look into Columbian culture, filled with rich characters. This book deals with many things, one being the idea of existence, and what happens when we are not even existing (and what that means).

7. The God of Small Things

Arundhati Roy, India

Seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their lives in India shaken irrevocably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie. It is an event that will lead to an illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional.

Roy takes the trauma felt by India in the aftermath of its days as a British colony and personifies it as a single family, experiencing the same effects themselves on so many levels. This story is a tragedy through and through, but understanding what has happened to India is too important to pass up.

8. Half of a Yellow Sun

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigeria

Follow Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. Biafra and four other unforgettable characters—a teenage houseboy, a revolutionary university professor, the professor’s young mistress, and a shy Englishmen—tell the story.

Adichie illustrates a seminal moment in African history through “ordinary” people suffering through life in an unrelenting war. She compassionately presents poverty and other hardships.

9. Lolita

Vladimir Nabokov, Russia

Humbert Humbert—scholar, aesthete, and romantic—has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze, his landlady’s gum-snapping, silky skinned 12-year-old daughter. Reluctantly agreeing to marry Mrs. Haze just to be close to Lolita, Humbert suffers greatly in the pursuit of romance.

Hilarious, flamboyant, heartbreaking, and full of ingenious word play, Lolita is an immaculate, unforgettable masterpiece of obsession, delusion, and lust.

10. The Book Thief

Markus Zusak, Australia

Liesel is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

Books feed the soul—that’s this story’s message. And if that’s not compelling enough, the story is narrated by Death, who brings his own unique insights of the world during World War II.

11. The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood, Canada

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now …

Atwood creates a society in which misogyny is king and women have no power. This disturbing world and story eerily reflect our world today.

12. Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe, Nigeria

This is a classic narrative about Africa’s cataclysmic encounter with Europe as it establishes a colonial presence on the continent. It is told through the fictional experiences of Okonkwo, a wealthy and fearless Igbo warrior of Umuofia in the late 1800s. Okonkwo faces Britain as they devalue his Igbo traditions and assert their power over Africa.

Capturing life in both pre-colonial and colonial Africa, Achebe presents the modern African experience from within, displaying all the heartache and tragedy that shaped Africa into what it is today.

13. I am Malala

Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan

When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, when she was 15, she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school. Few expected her to survive.

This is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

14. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams, England

Seconds before the Earth is demolished for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is saved by Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised Guide. Together they stick out their thumbs to the stars and begin a wild journey through time and space.

Most books find their identity in delving into suffering and raw human emotion. Not this book. Because sometimes you need to laugh at the ridiculousness of life, the universe, and everything.

15. The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera, Czech Republic

A young woman falls in love with a man. He is torn between love, his incorrigible womanizing, and one of his mistresses and her humbly faithful lover.

The philosophical ideas presented in this book cause readers to question their own perceptions of beauty and love, and what role melancholy is allowed to play in both.

16. All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Maria Remarque, Germany

This is the testament of Paul Bäumer, who enlists with his classmates in the German army of World War I. These young men become enthusiastic soldiers, but their world of duty, culture, and progress breaks into pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches.

Paul’s single vow against mindless hatred is put to the test, giving readers a glimpse into the justifications of war, and asks whether or not anyone really survives.

17. Room

Emma Donoghue, Ireland

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it’s the prison where she has been held for seven years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in this 11-by-11-foot space. But with Jack’s curiosity building alongside her own desperation, she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer.

Room is a tale at once shocking, riveting, exhilarating—a story of unconquerable love in harrowing circumstances, and of the diamond-hard bond between a mother and her child.

18. Death with Interruptions

José Saramago, Portugal

On the first day of the year, the grim reaper decides to stop doing her job. The world initially celebrates eternal life but soon enough, reality sets in. With every passing day a fear grows; a fear that, if people don’t start dying again, there is no future.

Living longer is an almost universal desire, and this book puts that desire on trial.

19. Cry, the Beloved Country

Alan Paton, South Africa

The deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice.

This exploration of post-colonial South Africa explores racism, classism, wealth, segregation, and the abandonment of positive religious teachings, among many other themes.

20. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Rachel Joyce, United Kingdom

Harold Fry is convinced that he can save an old love by delivering her a letter. He meets various characters along the way and reminisces about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance.

Joyce tackles the challenges of love and lifelong commitment and illustrates the value of friendship, humility, and kindness. She takes the sweetness and difficulty of life and melds them together into one man’s journey.

21. The Light Between Oceans

M.L. Stedman, Australia

After World War II, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. After two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby.

M. L. Stedman’s mesmerizing, beautifully written novel sweeps us into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another’s tragic loss.

What are your favorite international books to teach at the high school level?