There’s no shortage of lists offering to recommend the best novels for middle school students and teens. A quick Google search online will reveal thousands of literary lists, from “Best books for 6th graders!” to “Must-read high school fantasy books!” and everything in between. Unfortunately, the attention spans of many young people seem to be shrinking; the average time children read every day has dropped to just 30 minutes a day recently. And sadly, only one-in-two teens described their social group as “book readers.”

So if you’re trying to jump start a love for reading in a young person, put aside the “Best novels for middle school students” lists for a moment. Instead, consider recommending one of these absolutely essential American short stories, perfect for any middle school book list. You might find some of these stories on required reading lists for schools, but they’re great stories for readers of all ages. Best of all, unlike most novels for middle school students, these short stories are available to read for free online!

    • “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry – This classic American short story follows a poor young married couple as they hunt down Christmas presents for one another. Its famous twist ending is the perfect introduction to comic irony.
    • “The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Frank Richard Stockton – This 19th century tale follows a slightly more dysfunctional couple, but it’s also been provoking discussions on morality in middle school classrooms for more than a century.
    • “Flowers for Algernon,” Daniel Keyes – Various incarnations of this story won the two most prestigious awards in the science fiction and fantasy genre, the Nebula and Hugo. This story can help launch discussion on moral themes like tolerance for the disabled. Plus, it’s just a really good short story.
    • “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut – Kurt Vonnegut was one of the great American humorists of the 20th century. This short story can help teach young people about the genre of satire, as the story offers a biting critique of forced egalitarianism.
    • “To Build a Fire,” by Jack London – Those looking for a quintessentially American short story can do no better than the works of Jack London. Not only do they offer a thrilling look into the history of the American frontier, but they’re also inspired reading choices for young people in particular.

Of course, this list could have been 1,000 entries long. There’s no shortage of great short stories and novels for middle school students, and there’s tons more by American authors as well.

If you’re trying to get a young person in your life to read more, remember: children of frequent readers are more likely to read themselves!