D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths
Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
1962, Delacorte

The ancient Greeks were pretty twisted, and by twisted I mean wonderful, and by wonderful I mean cruel and violent and imaginative and romantic and capable of anything! As a kid, I kind of abhorred Greek mythology because I thought the gods were so mean and petty. Like, why the fuck does Zeus punish Prometheus for stealing fire from Mount Olympus to give to the poor, shivering, cold-ass humans? And whhhhyyyyy does he punish him by chaining him to the top of the Caucasus Mountains and sending an eagle down to eat his liver, which then regenerates anew overnight, only to be eaten again the next day? Why did he give Pandora a sealed box that he warned her must never be opened? OF COURSE GIRL IS GONNA PEEK INSIDE THAT BOX. I always felt like there was something so manipulative and unfair about the way these gods meted out punishment and justice. They were moody and sulky and they would hold a grudge for forever and then suddenly—without warning or reason—they would be totally over it. When I was in grad school, I spent an afternoon in the children’s section of the library reading this book, and I suddenly got it: these were just stories, stories that are meant to entertain and horrify and delight and disturb and console, but sometimes they did none of those things and sometimes they did all of them. Lovers who are torn apart are immortalized as constellations in the sky. Hercules goes mad several times because Zeus’s wife, Hera, hates him for being Zeus’s son from another mother, so she makes him go around the world completing ridiculously difficult jobs (which is where the phrase “Herculean task” comes from). Logic and reason and justice play a role, but never in the ways I expect. The gods and mortals who connive their way into getting what they want sometimes suffer no repercussions, and other times are severely punished. There’s so much chaos, but in a way, it’s comforting. (It probably helps that this is a children’s book with really sweet, cheerful illustrations, and most of the more heinous details are expertly edited out.) In short: read this book if you want a really delightful and fun introduction to Greek mythology, and then dig up the stuff that was deleted and scream WHHHAAATTT?! with me. —Jenny

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
Originally published in 398 AD; published many times since by many houses and in many languages

Do you know what it’s like to try and try and try to do the best you can, but still feel like you’re incapable of doing anything right? Saint Augustine did. This book is a heart-aching and deeply absorbing account of how one can want to be righteous, but still have so much trouble shaking their own perceived badness. For him, that meant trying to be chaste in a world of SEXXXY TEMPTATIONZ when he really didn’t want to be, and how he finally got over his ~lust~. As a proud, card-carrying slutmonster, I don’t identify with that specific struggle, but I still relate heavily to this book. It explains in detail how hard it can be to exist as a moral person in the world, a struggle I think all of us experience at some point or another. If you can overlook Augustine’s prudishness, this text is pretty much essential. And since it’s in the public domain, you can read the whole thing for free online. —Amy Rose

Nella Larsen
1929, Penguin Classics

This short, beautiful, tragic novel is one of those rare books that I think should be mandatory reading in high school. The main character, Irene, is a black woman living a stable life who gets thrown for a loop when she reconnects with Clare, an old friend who is mixed race and “passes” as white. Irene is both obsessed with and resentful of Clare, and theirs is one of the most fascinatingly tumultuous female relationships in fiction (seriously, you don’t know the meaning of the word frenemy until you read this book). It blows my mind how much Larsen is able to pack into such a slim volume, which deftly explores the fluidity of identity politics, the complexities of race, and the dynamics of friendship. —Anna

The Glass Castle
Jeannette Walls
2005, Scribner

The Glass Castle is the greatest thing I read this year. I devoured it, laughing and weeping, in a matter of hours. It’s a memoir of the author’s dysfunctional family, particularly her loving but wildly eccentric parents. It mainly focuses on Walls’s relationship with her father, Rex, an alcoholic adventurer who carts his family from place to place whenever he comes up with a new harebrained scheme for success, or needs to escape the consequences of his last one. He teaches his children how to shoot pistols and fight with knives, assigns them various planets as Christmas presents, and promises them—as he sets up house in abandoned basements and derelict forest cabins—that he will one day build a glass castle in which they can all live happily ever after. It’s hilarious and sweet and subtle and chillingly sad, and Walls shows that adversity can be embraced as well as overcome. —Esme

The Bone series
Jeff Smith
2005-2009, Scholastic

In high school, I stayed up for two nights in a row, skipped school, and devoured the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was like, WHAT COULD BE BETTER? Maybe this is blasphemy coming from someone who is not very well versed in the fantasy genre, but two years later, my friend lent me the entire Bone series, and I fell behind in all my classes for a week, read the whole muthafucking thing, and was like, THIS IS TOTALLY BETTER. It had all the same good stuff as LOTR (sweeping, super-engrossing plot; amazingly intricate character development; weird and memorable details), but without any of the bad stuff (long-ass stretches of boring description, completely unnecessary lyrical interludes). The main characters are three really cute cousins: the everyman Fone Bone, the greedy swindler Phoney Bone, and the happy-go-lucky Smiley Bone. They are run out of the town of Boneville and quickly become entangled in a heroic adventure to save the world! It’s kind of the standard fantasy plot, but deftly executed and joyful. If I had to estimate, I would say there are about 1000% more funnies in Bone than in the average fantasy book, and the illustrations are ace. The reissued single-volume color editions from Scholastic are especially wonderful to look at and make it all the more necessary to skip out on life for a week. —Jenny

The Mists of Avalon
Marion Zimmer Bradley
1982, Ballantine

My absolute favorite version of the King Arthur story isn’t about King Arthur or the Knights of the Round Table at all. The Mists of Avalon approaches the legend from the point of view of the women who are usually marginalized in these tales, including Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake; and, most important, Morgan Le Fay (called Morgaine here). We’ve come to know her as King Arthur’s evil and antagonistic half-sister, but in this book she’s a priestess of a dying religion who’s just trying to save her people and the magic of Avalon from the changes and hardships that men and Christianity have visited upon the land. —Rachael

Roland Barthes
1957, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Myths don’t always have to center on, like, centaurs and babes who have snakes instead of hair. Just ask Roland Barthes, the mack daddy of modern cultural criticism. In this mind-exploding essay collection, he explores the way we come to mythologize the phenomena of our everyday lives, like toys and dish detergent and stripteases and plastic. We, as people, assign special cultural meanings and associations to plenty of decidedly regular things, and this book beautifully and thoughtfully deconstructs how that goes down. It taught me that I wasn’t bizarre or alone in finding great, romanticized meaning in steak and Marlon Brando’s face. If you’re like me, you’re going to flip your wig over this perfect book. You might even find yourself mythologizing Mythologies itself, which I did instantly upon reading it. Barthes forever. —Amy Rose

Storm Constantine
1993, Orb

After my first viewing of Wings of Desire, I developed a bit of an obsession with fallen angels and stories that raise philosophical questions about what makes us human. A friend told me about Storm Constantine’s trilogy about the Grigori (a race of fallen angels), but the only book by her I was able to find at my local store was a massive volume called Wraeththu, which is an omnibus edition of another trilogy. I like the challenge that a giant book presents, and the first few sentences sounded like the set-up to an epic story: “My name is Pellaz. I have no age. I have died and lived again. This is my testament.” It turned out to be a futuristic myth that takes place in the wake of an unnamed apocalypse that brings about the downfall of humanity and the rise of a Wraeththu—a mutation of human beings that sounded pretty incredible to me. Not only do they possess magical abilities, but they’re all hermaphrodites—totally androgynous in appearance and gorgeously described by Constantine, whose writing reminds of Mary Shelley’s and Lord Byron’s. I’ve reread this book several times just to bask in its world again. —Stephanie

Let Us Compare Mythologies
Leonard Cohen
1956, Ecco

When you read this collection of poems, Leonard Cohen’s first published work, cover to cover, the poems’ rhapsody intensifies, as does their impending sense of doom. Words thunder, echo, vibrate; one verse from a poem called “Ballad” has stayed with me to this day: “The flowers they were roses / and such sweet fragrance gave / that all my friends were lovers / and we danced upon her grave.” You can see how these early poems eventually fueled Cohen’s songwriting; they float effortlessly between immense grief and anger to total lightness, like a nursery rhyme. This line from “Story” says it all: “It is important to understand one’s part in a legend.” —Minna

The Iron King
Julie Kagawa
2010, Harlequin Teen

Imagine you found out fairies were real. Now imagine you found out that you were a fairy, not the human teenager you thought you were. Oh, and your little brother has just been kidnapped by the evil Iron Fey. This is how The Iron King, the first book in the Iron Fey series, begins. At first Meghan just wants to save her brother, but soon she finds herself trapped between the warring courts of Summer and Winter, with a new threat facing both of them. Born of human technology—metal and engines and microchips—the Iron Fey are slowly poisoning the natural world that the other fairies need to survive. If Meghan and her brother are going to live, she will have to convince old enemies to band together to fight a greater evil. And, of course, in the process she finds herself falling in love with the one person she cannot have. You’ll finish this book dying to know what happens next, so make sure you have the sequels close at hand! —Rachael

Wild Girls
Mary Stewart Atwell
2012, Scribner

In 17-year-old Kate Riordan’s Appalachian hometown of Swan River, there is a local legend about teenage girls who just suddenly go wild—and not like drinking and drugging. They glow and fly and set fire to things with their fingertips. A lot of times they kill people, and sometimes they die with their victims. No one knows what causes their behavior, and Kate worries that this fate will befall her, too—or that she’ll be stuck in Swan River forever, like her mom and her sister. In her last year at the posh Swan River Academy, she’s on the verge of escape, but drama with a local boy named Mason and Kate’s pseudo-best friend Willow brings her dangerously close to fulfilling her worst fears. One of the blurbs on the back compares it to The Virgin Suicides and the novels of Joyce Carol Oates, and while Wild Girls has its own unique flavor, I would definitely put it beside those books on my shelf. —Stephanie

Greek Myths
Retold and Illustrated by Marcia Williams
1994, Walker Books

This may be the perfect children’s book formula: Greek myths + awesome drawings + comic-strip format. I carried this with me into adult life and will probably never tire of flipping through it. Initially, it was a favorite at bedtime, because nothing sparks a kid’s interest in ancient literature like a couple of funny drawings of a blinded Cyclops, but it has continued to serve me faithfully over the years. Not only did Williams capture my eight-year-old imagination by relating these stories in a funny and completely accessible manner, but she laid the foundation for a continued interest in the subject, inspired me to draw comics, and gave me something for reference and clarification once I got to college and Homer started frying my brain. —Esme ♦