Get Higher SAT and ACT Scores By Reading Challenging Books for Teens

As a longtime SAT prep and ACT prep tutor and lifelong reader, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the best challenging books for teens to read in high school.

Of course, different teenagers will enjoy different books. But, if you’re trying to raise your SAT and ACT test scores for college applications, it pays to set aside time for some independent reading projects.

For high school students, reading challenging books is the best way to get higher scores on the SAT and ACT Reading tests. And, you’ll also become a more confident reader for college and life beyond school.


12 Epic and Challenging Books for Teens to Read in High School

This list of books is definitely challenging. You might call them “epic.” Tons of tough vocab words. Most of these 12 books are lengthy and complex, with multiple characters and subplots.

But, the payoffs of finishing one of these monster books for yourself are huge.

Imagine your confidence as a reader after finishing one (or several) of these challenging books. Just by finishing one, you’ll be a faster and deeper reader. Higher SAT and ACT Reading scores are a natural result.

But, higher SAT and ACT scores are not the only payoff. These books are considered “classics” for a reason. They are remarkably good stories, set in believable worlds, and populated with memorable characters.

Rich with adventure, action, intrigue and romance - these are 12 of the most epic and challenging books ever written.

I’m sure I’ve left some great books off this list. Feel free to disagree. Check out my list, then tell me how you feel in the comments section below the article!

In no particular order, here we go…


War and Peace

War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace

When people mention War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, they’re often using it as the example par excellence of a massive, epic, and difficult read. That’s what makes it such a perfect epic and challenging book for teens to read.

The story focuses on a Russian family (and by extension, all of Russian society) during the Napoleonic Era. As the French army invades their home country, the danger and drama of the war engulf each family member in their own ways.

Sweeping from the tiniest details of everyday life to the grandest eagle-eye views of history, the scope of this epic novel will affect you for life - even long after you’ve forgotten the thousands of scenes and events that make up the fabric of the story.

Your reading-comprehension skills will be tested to the limit as you keep track of multiple sub-plots and dozens of key characters with similar-sounding names.

Although all English-language copies of the book will be a translation from the original Russian, there will still be plenty of challenging vocabulary words to study and make into flashcards.

Be warned: it took me an entire summer to finish this book, and I’m a fast reader. As with all the books on this list, make sure you have the time and patience to see this read through to the end!


The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo,” by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo

The most epic tale of wrongful betrayal, imprisonment, and a no-holds-barred attempt at revenge.

Picture being betrayed at 19 on the night of your wedding. You are popular, happy, successful, and kind. A few of your “friends”, who are jealous of your success, conspire to accuse you of the worst crimes. And, despite your innocence - you are sent to prison for life.

Within this distant jail, you are imprisoned for 19 years - 7 of them in utterly solitary confinement.

Your enemies, free to act, take your fiance as wife and become wealthy and contented with their lives.

Then you escape. You find a fortune. And you devote the next decade of your life, intellect, and fortune to exacting a crushing revenge upon those who betrayed you over 20 years ago.

This is the tale of The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas - probably the greatest revenge story ever told.

This book is a challenging, lengthy read in an older style of language - great for SAT Reading preparation. Teens who finish will find themselves richly rewarded - with a wealth of great scenes and memorable characters coupled to an epic arc of story.


Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged

You will either love Atlas Shrugged, or hate it. Personally, reading this challenging book changed my life (much for the better, I think).

The wealthy and talented Dagny Taggart runs her family’s railroad, as the dystopian world around her crumbles and collapses at the hands of incompetent politicians and a lazy, shiftless society. To make matters worse, a “secret destroyer” is accelerating the decline of society by quietly stealing away all the men of talent from their positions of leadership - creating a vacuum of capable and intelligent humans to lead the world.

Dagny, confident that she can save the world from ruin, strikes out to find this secret destroyer and stop him. But nothing is as it seems… and bit by bit, her entire universe is turned upside down.

This world-spanning suspense-adventure is a philosophical love letter to Capitalism. The author, Ayn Rand, escaped the Communist horrors of Soviet Russia for the Capitalist freedom of the United States, and it shows in her sacred devotion to the Power of the Individual.

The heroes and heroines of this lengthy book are industrialists, entrepreneurs, inventors, individualists, composers, and Creators. The villains are the lazy, the politicians, the bureaucrats, and the group-thinkers.

Many readers are turned off when they find Rand’s philosophy both selfish and heavy-handed. Others enjoy the discovery of a fantastic adventure story with an inspiring message about self-empowerment and the courage to pursue your dreams -  learning to confidently say “Get the hell out of my way” to anyone who tries to stop them out of petty jealousy or fear of change.

If you like Atlas Shrugged, be sure to pick up The Fountainhead, also by Rand - it’s actually a shorter book, but just as epic!


Moby Dick

Moby Dick,” by Herman Melville


A young sailor joins a motley crew of whalers, led by one-legged Captain Ahab, in a life-threatening hunt for Moby-Dick, the great white whale.

Combining a story of high-seas adventure with the documentary-style approach of a naturalist or biologist, author Herman Melville builds to a dramatic showdown between man and beast.

The insane Captain Ahab seems willing to challenge the elements, Nature itself, even the gods - all in pursuit of his enraged revenge on Moby-Dick, the only whale to escape Ahab’s harpoon.

A sympathetic young narrator leads us through the novel, lending a very human touch to a larger-than-life tale.

Keep a dictionary handy! The colorful language of the whalers and the nautical sailor’s vocabulary can make for a challenging read for teens.

Perfect in its imperfections. A tattered, glorious cloth of an American novel. In the author’s lifetime, it only sold a pathetic 3,000 copies. Now it’s considered a very serious contender for the title of “best American book of all time.”

Words don’t really explain the journey of Moby-Dick. You just sort of have to experience this epic book yourself.


The Iliad

The Iliad,” by Homer

The Iliad / The Odyssey

Have you ever made something so good that people will STILL be talking about it three thousand years later?

Well, that’s how good these two stories (The Iliad and The Odyssey) are. And they are the perfect challenging books for teens to read before they go to college.

Homer’s epic poems of war and world-crossing adventure were hallmarks of Greek civilization - and by extension, these two poems are a major portion of the groundwork for all storytelling in Western civilization.

The poet may have been blind in life - but the imagery and power of his poetry has endured for nearly three thousand years.

Make sure you get a “good translation.” This is a somewhat personal decision, so I recommend flipping through several copies while in the bookstore. Pick the style of translation that appeals most to you.

Well-educated teens (and adults) should know the basic outline of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Help maintain Western Civilization and read these two epic poems for yourself!


Les Miserables

Les Misérables,” by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables

An utterly beautiful and epic novel by French author Victor Hugo.

Is it a romance? A redemption story? A detective novel? Or a fictional version of real historical events in France?

Les Misérables dwells on themes of unforgivable errors and redemption… sacrifice and sorrow… society and the individual. A vast cast of characters live and die, love and hate, steal and pay back their debts.

Yet never is the human touch lost - not even for a moment. Despite the massive themes and scope, somehow everything ties together perfectly in the end.

My favorite parts may be the descriptions of the environs of Paris, written by perhaps the most gifted French writer of all time - and Hugo knew the city of Paris like the back of his hand.

A love song to France and to the possibilities of human courage, in the form of an epic and challenging novel. This book and the characters in it will sear themselves into your memory and give you goosebumps for the rest of your life.


Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment is a philosophical, psychological crime thriller and a classic work of epic and challenging Russian fiction that teens can enjoy.

A young student, Raskolnikov, believes that a “great man” is allowed to commit any crime, as long as he has something of extraordinary value to offer humanity in return.

Believing himself to be such a man, Raskolnikov tests his theory by murdering a lonely old woman. Will he be able to cope with the guilt and redeem himself? Or, is he simply an evil, murdering thug of no special value?

As the detectives pursue the narrator, Fyodor Dostoevsky penetrates so deeply into the mind of his main character that the reader begins to feel guilty of some great crime himself.

As with all translated books, the “best translation” is highly personal. Browse your options at the bookstore before deciding on the edition you prefer.

The difficulties of this book are in concentrating and imagining enough to appreciate the story. You must keep track of major and minor characters, plots, and subplots. It’s not a book where every key point is explained and made obvious. You have to think for yourself and use your imagination to fully enjoy this challenging but classic novel.


Sometimes A Great Notion

Sometimes A Great Notion,” by Ken Kesey

Sometimes A Great Notion

Sometimes A Great Notion is the magnum opus of author Ken Kesey, who also wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest - which is probably his more famous work.

But this novel is even better… and far more epic and challenging. It’s also in my personal top 10 favorite books.

An obstinate and resilient family sets itself at odds with the logging society it exists within - and apart of. Brothers seek revenge on brothers. Families are torn apart - but will they be put back together again?

Most of the drama and action in this book is between characters and their histories. Complex personal relationships and hidden family secrets simmer underneath the gorgeous Oregon environment that Kesey builds. Tension builds to almost unbearable levels towards the dramatic climax of the novel.

It’s a relatively “easy” read on this list of challenging books for teens, because it was written by a modern American author. And it’s long, but not that long.

However, there are some seriously adult themes and situations in this book. That doesn’t mean that teens won’t enjoy reading it - just warning you now.



Shogun,” by James Clavell


A shipwrecked English sailor finds himself in Feudal Japan with no understanding of basic customs and culture. Barely surviving with his life, he begins to make alliances and enemies among his new countrymen.

And bit by bit, he gains power in a foreign culture that becomes more familiar to him - and to the reader along with him.

The first book in a massive series by James Clavell, Shogun is also a standalone read.

The challenges for teen readers will come from the focus and patience it takes to completely read a book of this length.

The style and vocabulary are modern, which makes it somewhat easier. However, the impressive roster of characters and subplots means that there’s quite a lot to keep track of.

A great book for epic adventure lovers, historical fiction buffs, and anyone who wants to visit Japan someday!


Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove,” by Larry McMurtry

Lonesome Dove

A Cowboys-and-Indians classic epic by Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove follows the trail of a small group of Texas Rangers as they drive cattle up towards Montana.

The grizzled old leader Gus, the rogue rambler Jake, and Captain Call are the good guys - mostly. Blue Duck, the marauding Indian leader, is the antagonist. But the Western environment forms its own patchwork of dangers.

Colorful cowboy phrases, dusty trailpokes and deadly gunfights form the fabric of this Western epic. It’s not exactly a “politically correct” book - it features savage Indians, damsels in distress and strong men to save them.

Lonesome Dove won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so it’s acclaimed by critics and readers alike. And, since it was written in the last 30 years by an American writer, it’s a relatively easy and “modern” read.

The main challenges include the length of the book, the multiple characters and subplots, and the idiomatic cowboy vocabulary. Nevertheless, teens will find this books of the most accessible epic novels on this list.


For Whom The Bell Tolls

For Whom The Bell Tolls,” by Ernest Hemingway

For Whom The Bell Tolls

Here it is - my favorite book of all time, by my favorite American author.

Ernest Hemingway knows how to tell a war story. Set during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, a young American commando intends to lead a ragtag band of guerilla fighters in a critical mission for freedom.

Despite his laser focus on his dangerous mission, the people and events around him start causing the situation to spiral out of control.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a war story and romance of struggle and perseverance, victory and tragedy. It left an indelible mark on me and remains my number-1 favorite book of all time.

This is also one of the easiest books to read on this list. It’s got a modern style, and Hemingway was known to favor a simple and direct style of writing.

Still, it’s a lengthy read with complex and heavy themes. There is a great deal of subtlety required to fully process the depth of meaning in this book.

The main challenge comes from attention to detail, and the need to read between the lines. Although Hemingway’s words are direct and clear, he doesn’t spoon-feed you everything. The reader is expected to read between the lines to understand the subtle emotions, themes, and meanings behind the words.


Lost Illusions

Lost Illusions,” by Honoré de Balzac

Lost Illusions

The talented and handsome (but poor and provincial) Lucien heads to the big city of Paris to become a famous poet.

And, well… he does become famous, wealthy, and popular. Then he starts to realize some of the consequences of this newfound wealth and popularity.

Meanwhile, a second story is taking place with his friend David, who remains in the countryside and marries Lucien’s beautiful sister, Eve. David runs his father’s print shop and is certainly neither wealthy nor famous.

As David struggles to keep food on his family’s table, Lucien spends every last penny on luxuries and big-city lifestyle. And eventually, all the mistakes and misjudgments start to add up to some serious consequences… for everyone.

Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions has some minor similarities to Les Misérables, also in this list - epic French fiction with an emphasis on the human characters.

A somewhat dark and pessimistic read, this book still has many moments of optimism and joy. Overall, it is remarkable for the variety and depth of moods and scenes.

It’s on my list of epic and challenging books for teens because it’s the perfect novel to read before going off to college. Remaining true to yourself is a major theme of the book.


Library of Epic and Challenging Books for Teens

This library is just epic.


Did I Leave Any Books Off The List?

This is just one tutor’s list of 12 challenging and epic books for teens, so I’m looking forward to your feedback.

For what it’s worth, I have perfect SAT and ACT Reading scores, and I’ve read books my whole life. I’m confident that these books are a good choice for teens and high school students who want to try some challenging reading projects.

Still, if you think my list is awesome - or really stupid - or you just want to add another epic book to the list, then use the comments below the article to add your own suggestions.


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Talk to you again soon, and happy epic reading!


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