vivian-versus-the-apocalypseVivian Versus the Apocalypse
Katie Coyle
2013, Hot Key Books

Have you ever read a book that made you want to be a braver person, one that is beautiful and scary and funny and heartbreaking and genuinely weird all at once? Vivian Versus the Apocalypse is that kind of book. Orphaned after her religious parents disappear during the Rapture, Vivian Apple finds herself trying to make sense of her new reality, which thankfully is shared by her best friend, Harpreet “Harp” Janda. Their world is dangerous, strange, and violent, with those who were left behind clinging to extreme religion or other types of organized thinking in order to survive. Along the way Viv is able to reinvent both herself and the notion of what family means, and the friendship between her and Harp hits Rayanne-and-Angela levels of greatness: There’s real love, real understanding, and, even in the darkest days, a lot of humor between them. There’s also a little romance involved, but it’s never treacly. Coyle’s storytelling is so good, and I promise that as soon as you pick up the book you won’t be able to stop reading it—you’ll do that weird thing where you balance it on your knee as you eat your bagel and drink your coffee because you can’t stand to leave Vivian’s universe for even one second. —Pixie

FANGIRL_CoverDec2012 Fangirl
Rainbow Rowell
2013, St. Martin’s Press

Cath loves to write fan fiction, specifically the slash fiction that she co-writes with her twin sister, Wren. But now that the two are at college, Wren wants to go out and make new friends, even while Cath continues to seek comfort in fictional worlds. Rainbow Rowell is a tricky writer—it’s only after you put Fangirl down and find that you can’t stop thinking about its characters and situations that you understand how nuanced and complex the world of this book is. This is a good read for everybody, but it should be mandatory if you are feeling at all anxious about or overwhelmed by your first year of college. —Anna F.

9780670024858_custom-c58d1b4d23670c8c87e9b24046ae2f4b2c69a177-s6-c30The Signature of All Things
Elizabeth Gilbert
2013, Viking Adult

Most people know about Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love and have picked a side: either love or hate so much that the mere thought of it makes them want to hurl. No matter which side you come down on, I think you’ll love this new book, Gilbert’s smart and sexy second novel. It’s about family and botany and love, and it’s not a spoiler to say that there are some truly great masturbation scenes, too. The story stars Alma Whittaker, a brilliant and homely spinster and a self-taught moss expert, and if there were any justice in the world, girls everywhere would dress up as her for Halloween. There were so many scenes in this book that will stay with me forever, the way my very favorite novels do. —Emma S.

9780142402511_custom-66e143a11d17d4c35815b4986c68fb2d63f4547b-s6-c30 Looking for Alaska
John Green
2005, Dutton Juvenile

This book tells the story of a teenage boy who, while waiting for his life to begin, falls in love with a beautiful, free-spirited girl. No, wait, come back! I know that sounds like the most contrived, clichéd description of every coming-of-age story about bland dudes everywhere, but John Green knows what he’s doing. Miles “Pudge” Halter, the boy in question, heads off to a boarding school in Alabama, where he joins a group of gifted misfits. They teach him how to live—if by “living” you mean smoking a lot of cigarettes and pulling pranks on rich kids. One of his new friends is the girl in question, Alaska, who has some less-than-admirable qualities, which is where Green’s book diverges from all those cliché coming-of-age books starring moody boys and Manic Pixie Dream Girls who exist only to help the male protagonists find themselves. Keep this book close, and lend it out only to people you really, really trust. —Anna F.

Art Spiegelman
1991, Pantheon Books

Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, is often assigned as required reading in school, but it doesn’t feel like a history lesson. Even though the characters are all drawn as animals, it’s such a human story, based on the life of Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, during World War II. We’ve all heard so much about the Holocaust that it can be hard for it to feel vivid and real anymore, but this book shows you so many little details and tiny human moments that it returns you to a place where you can actually imagine what the people living through it might have been feeling. Spiegelman describes things I never even considered that must have added to the misery of being imprisoned, like when Vladek tries to find a way to talk to his wife, Anja, in Auschwitz, and when Jewish families are subject to surprise encounters with the Nazi secret police. The story is mostly heartbreaking, but you have to read this if you want a real, human perspective on the war and the Holocaust. —Britney

9780399162091_p0_v3_s260x420We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler
2013, Marian Wood/Putnam

This is the first Karen Joy Fowler novel I’ve read, but it definitely won’t be the last! I picked it up because I’d heard there were some fun twists and turns in it, but what really drew me in was the narrator’s voice: Rosemary is infinitely witty and relatable—she seems like kind of girl you’d turn to for advice just to hear her view on things. We begin her story in the middle, as she starts explaining to us that two siblings in her close-knit family have long since disappeared, and she, now a grownup, and her family are still trying to pick up the pieces. The less you know about what unfolds from there, the better, but this story had me laughing, sobbing, and cringing for hours on end. —Emily

almost-homeAlmost Home
Jessica Blank
2007, Hyperion

The interconnected stories in this book, told from the perspective of teenagers living on the streets of L.A., reveal how the kids came together to create a new home—one that is a lot less lonely than the ones they came from, even if it lacks a roof and regular meals. Tracy is the leader and mother figure, but she’s also addicted to drugs and doing some sketchy sex work to survive; 12-year-old Eeyore, the youngest character and the real heart of the story, seems like she’s headed in the same direction. Though it’s a work of fiction, Almost Home is the most realistic and raw portrayal of teenage homelessness I’ve read. Six years later, I still think of it often, especially when I’m pondering what family really means. —Stephanie

03092844, A Dublin Memoir
Peter Sheridan
2000, Pan Books

I discovered the playwright Peter Sheridan’s autobiographical novel about his teenage years in 1960s Dublin during my Irish literature phase, and it remains a firm favorite. It’s a remarkably candid treatment of teenage life, especially in the way that music and the particular sort of obsession with it is something most teenagers know by heart. His relationship with his father, with its overtones of abuse, make for difficult reading at times, but Sheridan handles the subject sensitively, and he makes sure that we see his father as a person rather than just a cruel monster. This is a great coming-of-age novel, and it adds a touch of ’60s disaffection and counterculture to the usual mix. —Ragini

paradox-press-stuck-rubber-baby-soft-cover-1Stuck Rubber Baby
Howard Cruse
1995, Paradox Press

This semi-autobiographical graphic novel chronicles the 1960s civil rights movement in the American South and the author’s experience with racism and homophobia. Heavy, right? The main character, Toland Polk, transforms from a politically indifferent white guy trying to deny his homosexuality to a devoted gay activist celebrating his first out relationship. He’s able to make this change thanks to the black community of his hometown, since they’re the first people in his life to accept his homosexuality. The extremely detailed drawings in the book give life and intimacy to historic events, and Cruse also effortlessly tells a larger story about the idea of family, unconditional love, how the family you’re born into can affect you, how the one you choose can heal you, and what it feels like to finally belong to something bigger than yourself. In the end, Stuck Rubber Baby really drives home the point that everyone is worthy of love, despite—and sometimes because of—our differences. —Emma D.

Cecil Castellucci
2007, Candlewick

Cecil Castellucci is a storytelling goddess in my eyes—I mean, just check out the story she wrote for Rookie. This is my favorite of her books, and also one of my favorite books ever. It’s about a 16-year-old girl named Katy who is forced to trade Montreal for L.A. when her mom heads off on an archeological dig for the summer. This might sound like a dream vacation for some, but for Katy it means living with the father she hasn’t seen since she was little, who turns out to be an aging punk rocker called the Rat. Katy isn’t into punk (or music at all)—to her it only represents her parents’ messy history. Newly thrust into the L.A. punk scene, she definitely feels beige, which happens to be the nickname given to her by Lake, a punk girl who’s been bribed into being Katy’s friend. Watching the relationships between Lake and Katy and (especially) between Katy and her dad is a pure delight, but the best thing about this book is that it isn’t about a fish out of water learning to be like the other fish—Katy really becomes her own authentic person. —Stephanie

sisterhoodThe Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Ann Brashares
2001, Delacorte Press

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book series exists at a really specific moment in my memory. Thinking about Tibby, Lena, Bridget, and Carmen, the “sisterhood” in the title, now takes me directly back to the year before I started high school, when I wanted desperately to leave my stifling hometown and have friendships as unspoken and intimate as the ones those girls shared. The five books in the series are all about creating a family by surrounding yourself with the people you choose to have close to you. Despite having kind of cheesy titles written in a Curlz MT–style font, the novels tap in to really challenging and mature material and taught me a lot when I read them as a teenager. Carmen’s questioning of her cultural identity and her struggle to accept her father’s new family, Lena’s sexual awakening (followed by a drawn-out and painful heartbreak), Tibby’s relationships with people struggling with mental-health issues, and Bridget’s alienation from her withdrawn father are all intense story lines for a YA series—these books go into deep shit. The titular jeans are the physical embodiment of the titular friendship, but eventually the girls discover together that their relationship can’t be defined by a pair of pants. Seriously, how can you ignore such a great message? —Brodie

EverythingIsIlluminatedEverything Is Illuminated
Jonathan Safran Foer
2002, Houghton Mifflin

This is a work of genius about a journey to uncover the past, but it’s also about how the history of our families makes us who we are today. In the book, a character who shares author Jonathan Safran Foer’s name is compelled by a single old photograph to travel to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He’s accompanied by a young Ukranian named Alex, Alex’s blind grandfather, and his grandfather’s “seeing eye bitch,” Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. The pages feel heavy with infinite sadness—the sadness of memory, the sadness of Jonathan’s ancestors, and the sadness of Jonathan himself. It’s a multilayered story about Jewishness and what it means, and how the past touches and changes our lives. —Ragini

the-god-of-small-thingsThe God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy
1997, Harper Collins

Set in India, this novel is about a family that endures the consequences of breaking that country’s love laws, rules about couples and families that everyone’s expected to follow. The story is often seen through the eyes of Estha and Rahel, twins who are seven years old at the beginning of the book, as they try to make their lives make sense in the wreckage left behind after it’s discovered that their mother, a divorced woman named Ammu, has been secretly seeing a man from a much lower caste than her own. While expertly weaving that family’s story, Roy also manages to make important commentary on Indian history, socioeconomics, and the postcolonial attitudes, while also conveying how the seemingly small interactions and misplaced love between people often have big, tragic consequences. —Nova

The-Family-Fang-CoverThe Family Fang
Kevin Wilson
2011, Ecco

I picked this up on a whim at Powell’s Books while visiting friends in Portland last month—an employee recommended it, and as a former bookseller the one thing I know to be true in life is that your bookseller is rarely wrong. The great thing about this story is that you can’t tell if the performance-artist parents at the center of the story are completely crazed and their kids should be taken away by the state, or if this weird family should be a model for stuck-up parents everywhere to aspire to. You follow the kids to adulthood, so you get to see the ways their childhood has shaped and damaged them, but The Family Fang doesn’t dwell on negativity as much as it reveals the strangeness of being related to people in the first place. If living with your family makes you feel like an alien, this is the book for you. —Danielle

Jeffrey Eugenides
2002, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Middlesex tackles heady subjects like incest and intersexuality with sensitivity, but it’s also a seamless blend of fact and fiction that traces the lives of multiple generations of Greek immigrants. The book story will suck you in with its details about secret cults, illegal liquor trading, war, race riots, and what teenage life was like in the 1970s. It’s kind of about a family chasing the American dream, but not in a stuffy or boring way. Main character Callie/Cal’s evolution and the changes in the dynamics of the Stephanides family are windows through which we get to watch the evolution of America. —Ragini

2134009All We Ever Wanted Was Everything
Janelle Brown
2008, Spiegal & Grau

This story is told from the point of view of three women: Janice, a Silicon Valley wife whose husband has just left her for her tennis partner, and her two daughters, Margaret, whose feminist magazine Snatch is failing as badly as her relationship with her actor boyfriend, and 14-year-old Lizzie, who has recently been labeled the school slut. I initially thought it would be hard to relate to their upper-middle-class problems, but they are such real, flawed characters that I couldn’t help empathizing with them as they faced their issues and worked together to make a new life. This was a fast and entertaining read that I immediately passed along to my mom. —Stephanie ♦