Books + Comics

Back-to-School Book List

Non-school-related things to enjoy that you can pass off as educational.

These books span the decades (not hyperbole—one of them is from 1813) and were chosen because they are great and because they’re all, in their own ways, about beginnings.


What It Is and Picture This
Lynda Barry
2008 and 2010, Drawn and Quarterly
Look at yourself! You’re young, you’re confused, everything is new and full of—wait for it—beginnings! You’ve got all these thoughts ’n’ things you need to sort through and express somehow, but sitting down to make something that you know can be great, but not being sure how to get there, can be awkward. If you don’t know where to—wait for it—begin, these two books will get you started. They’re not a complete handbook to being an Artistic Genius, but that’s why they’re so helpful—Barry doesn’t give you the answers, just encouragement to find them yourself, plus a few nice pointers before you fly, fly away from the nest, into the wilds of your imagination!!!!! (Or something.) If you’re not looking to make something epic and everlasting, but just need to exercise your creative muscle, both of these books will help you find ways to just make writing and drawing and creativity part of your day, through doodling, jotting, and lots of whatnot. Technically, What It Is is for writing and Picture This is for drawing, but both are great in general for life inspiration. P.S. Beginnings. —Tavi


Just Kids
Patti Smith
2010, Ecco
It’s unlikely that there’s a more persuasive argument for being a poverty-stricken struggling artist in love than this book, Smith’s deeply romantic and powerful memoir of her friendship with her partner-turned-best-friend, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, back when they were a couple of post-teen weirdos set loose in New York City at the dawn of the 1970s. Each had moved there to make it as an artist. They wound up becoming each other’s lifelong muses and inspirations. Just Kids isn’t straight autobiography, with everything happening in linear fashion—Smith is first and foremost a poet, and so what’s missing in detail is made up for in the derailing magic of her prose. She tells the story of figuring out who exactly she was, flitting between drawing and writing until she figured out she was fated for rock music. She doesn’t skimp on gossip, dissing and discussing all the major figures she rolled with as a too-cool 21-year-old living in the Chelsea Hotel—Janis and Jimi, Warhol and scores of poets, drag queens and sundry rock and art-world legends who, like her, were still becoming. It’s an amazing and inspiring story, even before you get to the part where she changes rock ’n’ roll forever. —Jessica Hopper


Blake Nelson
1994, Touchstone
This is one of those cases wherein a female voice is expertly expressed by a male writer (it’s as good as it gets, like the print version of Ghost World). Nelson has said he cobbled together his Girl heroine by studying his girlfriend’s Sassy magazines. In turn, excerpts from Girl were later printed in Sassy. The mail the magazine received in response was key to the book’s eventual publication. The story chronicles a Portland teenager as she pieces together an identity while navigating high school and the local rock scene. In a profile on The Millions, Nelson talked about this period in his life and the culture at large: “We were in the second wave of feminism—that was the place everybody was curious about. Boys weren’t really the heroes in the ’90s. Girls were heroes. They were being brave and changing the culture. And the culture wanted to hear about girls.” —Sonja


Judy Blume
1975, Bradbury

There are people in the world who would like to see Forever… banned for that amount of time, due mostly to its willingness to take an honest look at what it means to be a 17-year-old girl on the brink of losing her virginity and taking control of her sexuality. Blume remembers what it felt like to be a teenage girl, and she uses that knowledge to take Katherine Danzinger’s story out of after-school-special territory and make it something sweet, sad and still relatable today. Katherine’s relationship with her boyfriend, Michael Wagner, evolves realistically, sex and all, and Katherine’s choices reflect her need to be mentally, emotionally and physically prepared before she says yes. Though the book promotes taking control of your sexual health by visiting organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Blume is never preachy. Nor is she afraid to write graphic scenes that depict Katherine and Michael’s time together. The result is a book about love, sexuality and loss, and about discovering new parts of yourself while leaving other parts behind. And thanks to Michael Wagner, you’ll probably never look at someone named Ralph the same way again. —Pixie


Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence
Paul Feig
2002, Three Rivers

In this rollicking memoir, Feig—writer, director, actor, creator of the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks, and, this month, Rookie contributor—captures all of the confusion, vulnerability, humiliation, and occasional terror of puberty. He’s so candid about his youthful blunders—reflecting upon unrequited loves, the perils of gym-class showers, and experiments with cross-dressing—that you almost feel guilty for reveling in it all. Almost. It’s been said that Feig’s own harrowing youth provided source material for the most cringe-inducing scenes on Freaks and Geeks—reading this book, you totally believe that. —Amber


Black Hole
Charles Burns
2005, Pantheon

The Pacific Northwest never looked quite so rainy and grim as it does in Black Hole, originally a 12-part comic book series, published collectively in 2005 as a graphic novel. Set in 1970s Seattle, the story follows the spread of a sexually transmitted disease so gruesome it sounds like something made up by Coach Carr in Mean Girls to scare students into abstinence. “The bug” infects a group of high school students, leaving them with grotesque mutations and deformities. The origins of the STD are unclear; Burns focuses instead on its psychological effects. As the infected students struggle to cope with their imposed segregation from the uninfected, a mysterious killer begins to pick them off one by one. Black Hole’s best feature, though, is not its plot, but its pervading mood of ennui and isolation. The book’s ambiguous twists and moody, black-and-white aesthetic give it a Lynchian vibe. If you like the atmosphere of Twin Peaks, you’ll probably be into Black Hole. —Anna


How to Be a Woman
Caitlin Moran
2011, Ebury

Part autobiography, part feminist manifesto and mainly hilarious, this book does not shy away from any subject. Moran covers all the bases of womanhood (e.g., discovering masturbation, bikini waxes, having kids) and their attendant humiliations and confusions—but also their joys and triumphs. This book reminded me how cool it is to be a woman. —Cynthia


Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen
1813, T. Egerton; published today by Bantam, Dover, Norton, CreateSpace, and others

Sooner or later, this novel is going to show up on a reading list for your AP English class, and nothing kills the magic of a good book more than being forced to read it for school. Therefore, you have a duty to yourselves to seek out Jane Austen’s 1813 work and read it on your own time, when you can really enjoy it. The subject matter will be familiar to many of you: overbearing parents, sibling rivalries and societal pressures run rampant. The plot revolves around the reluctant romance between the witty Elizabeth Bennett and the wealthy Fitzwilliam Darcy. Originally called First Impressions, this book sets out to prove that initial appearances can be deceiving—that the pompous guy at the party might turn out to be an all-right fella once you get to know him. (Oh, and when you’re done with the book, be sure to check out the movie Bride and Prejudice, Gurinder Chadha’s 2004 Bollywood version of the story. It’s not the most faithful adaptation, but it does involve the most dancing!) —Anna


Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie
Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Victor Bockris
1998, Da Capo

I love this book. It is a perfect, glossy combo of text and imagery: part tour diary, part biography, and part documentary of late ’70s New York punk and Blondie’s rise to fame. Making great use of Blondie ephemera and Debbie Harry’s own stream-of-consciousness writing, the book is a wonderful collaboration between Harry and Stein, and a testament to the music they made together. My favorite line in the book, from Harry: “Being obsessed got me through hard times.” All hail the queen and her consort! —Sonja


  • aliceee September 22nd, 2011 11:25 PM

    One of the saddest things about living abroad is not being able to hop on down to the library, at least for books in English. Luckily I own Pride & Prejudice, since it is absolutely one of my favorite books! I loved all the books on this list that I’ve read; as for the others, I’m itching to get my hands on them… somehow… why must these reviews be so persuasive??

  • Louise September 22nd, 2011 11:25 PM

    Lynda Barry is amaaazing.

  • Pyxie Gwynne September 23rd, 2011 12:52 AM

    If you’ve ever had a best-friend or have never had a best-friend, read “Just Kids” by Patti Smith. You won’t regret it. Robert<3Patti.

  • marypee22 September 23rd, 2011 1:09 AM

    im reading JUST KIDS for like the millionth time. It’s my favorite ever!

  • saranev September 23rd, 2011 1:24 AM

    Dammit, I already have so much to read!! I want to read all of these!

  • Mollie September 23rd, 2011 1:36 AM

    Did anyone else read/love Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech? That’s THE book I think of when I think of middle school reads.

  • julalondon September 23rd, 2011 3:21 AM

    Normally you dont really find book-lists on blogs, -just music and stuff (nothing wrong with that of course).
    Love reading though, so thank you so much for this!

  • Lotta September 23rd, 2011 5:40 AM

    I’d really love it if you did this as an every month or so kind of thing. I know that i’d like to read a lot more it’s just choosing what

  • karysrhiann September 23rd, 2011 6:53 AM

    Judy Blume is a godsend for all teenagers… she helped me through those tricky years more than any parent or teacher ever could! I’m still loving her even though I am now in my early 20s :>

  • HeartPlant September 23rd, 2011 7:42 AM

    I love Caitlin Moran’s book, it’s fab! (Plus it has Lady Gaga, so y’know…)

  • burn-your-flesh September 23rd, 2011 10:35 AM

    I’ve been meaning to get Just Kids!

  • hanna September 23rd, 2011 10:41 AM

    As a bookworm I’ve been waiting for a list like this since this site launched and now it’s finally here and it’s amazing. <3

  • Merliss September 23rd, 2011 11:12 AM

    Must. Go. To. The library! All of these books sound amazing. As for Mollie’s comment…YES. I loved Walk Two Moons! Sharon Creech was absolutely my favorite author in middle school. I read all of her books twice! Well, accept The Wanderer… I read that one three times. :)

    • bibliophile September 25th, 2011 10:25 PM

      I love Sharon Creech! Absolutely Normal Chaos was my favourite book in 6th grade

  • catstickers September 23rd, 2011 1:09 PM

    this has been one of my favourites yet! I love books and having all these selection to choose from… I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, and I’m pretty intruiged by Black Hole, so I might read that soon!

  • Gabby September 23rd, 2011 10:33 PM

    just reserved a bunch of these on my local library’s website. i love living in the 21st century!!!!!

  • rhymeswithorange September 24th, 2011 12:23 AM

    Yay for reading! I am a word nerd :)
    I have to recommend the wondrous fantastical book Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty (see the firsts part of the title? BEGINNINGS GUYS) and its sequel Sloppy Seconds. Some of my favorites.

  • rhymeswithorange September 24th, 2011 12:34 AM

    I mean Second Helpings, not Sloppy Seconds. I am obviously almost too sleep deprived to function but this website is too damn awesome, keeping me from sleep…

  • bria September 24th, 2011 4:32 AM

    black. hole. is. amazing.

  • evangeline September 24th, 2011 9:33 AM

    I need to buy just kids asap! I read about it in elle and then forgot all about it!

  • Rhibarb September 24th, 2011 5:00 PM

    This is brillant, I plan on reading everything mentioned!

  • Prairie September 25th, 2011 5:54 AM

    You guys have ABSOLUTELY MUST read ‘Stargirl’ by Jerry something (can’t remember his surname). It is a really really good book, and although I read it before I was a teenager, I would mist definitely read it again. There is also a sequel called ‘Love, Stargirl’ which is also pretty good.

    • Prairie September 25th, 2011 5:55 AM

      Whoopsy I spelt ‘most’ wrong!

  • Prairie September 25th, 2011 8:40 PM

    Just remembered his surname is Spinelli

  • bibliophile September 25th, 2011 10:22 PM

    I’m president of the book club at my school, and these are definitely going on our “to read” list!!! I prefer Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s “Alice” books to Judy Blume, but I’m so glad “Forever” is on here! I bought “Kids” for my best friend for christmas last year, but didn’t think to get myself a copy. “I Capture the Castle” by Dodie Smith is also a great bildungsroman novel teenagers will fall in love with…

    • Jenny September 26th, 2011 2:55 PM

      I LOVE “I Capture the Castle.” I wish lived inside that book!

  • Meagan September 26th, 2011 3:37 PM

    I can’t get over how much I adore Girl by Blake Nelson, and I’ve never met anyone else who has read it, so it’s awesome to see it get such appreciation!

  • epleata September 26th, 2011 5:07 PM

    I’m looking forward to reading Girl, but just have to point out an inaccuracy with Nelson’s comment: the feminism in the 90′s was the third wave, not the second. The second was in the 60′s and 70′s, with the first wave being the suffrage movement. I’m totally interested in reading Girl (as I was that age in the 90′s), but thought that, especially since this mag is targeted at teen girls, some of whom may identify as feminists, I should point this out. As someone who was actually involved in third wave feminism, as well as had ties with older women who had been involved in the second wave and who had had mixed experiences with the third-wave, I just had to note it for ya’ll.

  • Stephanie September 27th, 2011 2:12 AM

    I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Black Hole! And I call myself a Twin Peaks, Pacific Northwest lover! I will correct that error immediately!

    And Girl was like my bible in high school. Love that book.

  • Claire September 28th, 2011 5:08 PM

    Just Kids was some quality summer reading (I LOVE PATTI SMITH AHAHAHAH), and Pride and Prejudice is always a classic. And where should I even start with Judy Blume? Her books were pretty much my life from 3rd to 8th grade..

  • otherfaculties September 29th, 2011 5:50 AM

    I absolutely loved all the ones I have read (except Pride and Prejudice. Literally one of 4 books I have been unable to finish, ever). I still remember a torn up old copy of The Perks of being a Wallflower being passed around our year 10 class – anyone who took more than 2 days to read it copped a fair chunk of rage. I have given copies as a gift at every 16th birthday I have been to since (… I have lots of younger cousins. don’t look at me like that)

  • AineFey September 30th, 2011 9:09 PM

    The only book I read from this list is Forever… And that was only last year. But I really want to check out Girl. I’ll probably look up a few others, too. ;)

  • Sophia October 2nd, 2011 7:59 PM

    I just finished reading Girl and it was amazing. A really fun and relatable teen novel! Maybe i’m just being delusional but i feel like guys could really enjoy this book too!