tomboyTomboy: A Graphic Memoir
Liz Prince
2014, Zest Books

Any girl who grew up with big love for sports, skate shoes, and/or giant, shape-obscuring T-shirts will know how contentious it is when you don’t fit the flawlessly feminine formula of the “average teen girl.” This is why Liz Prince’s latest graphic novel, Tomboy, is a fantastic primer on gender politics. Through a series of hilarious and heartbreaking episodes from her youth, Prince examines just why being comfortable in her own skin—and sweatpants—made everyone around her so freaking uncomfortable. It makes being a tomboy a political statement. —Suzy X.

testo junkieTesto Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era
Beatriz Preciado
2013, The Feminist Press

The idea of hacking gender is something the philosopher Beatriz Preciado explores in this theoretical text, which really helped me navigate my gender identity. It’s one of the only books that I can really relate to on those terms. I like how thirsty Preciado is for the world—s/he wants to “arm-wrestle God.” Talk about ambition. This is a book to read after you’re learned up a bit on feminist theory and psychoanalysis, because otherwise it can be quite dense. But you also can absolutely get lost in the story’s elegance—it’s a really addictive combination of high theory and great narration. Philosophy porn, kind of. It’s great. Gender hackers forever. —Arabelle

coeur de lionCoeur de Lion
Ariana Reines
2011, Fence Books

Coeur de Lion, French for “the Lion-Hearted,” is the nickname of several monarchs (including Richard I of England), a brand of cheese, and the title of this book of poetry by Ariana Reines. I am especially fond of writers who spare nothing in their poetry–no one is safe, including themselves–and Reines does that excellently here. The poems in this book can be seen as one long, streaming poem that recounts the aftermath of breaking into her ex’s email account. In my favorite poem, her ex accuses her of “making a whole project” out of reading his emails, and she writes, “It’s true. I did make a project / out of it,” and then goes on to say that she’s listening to Stevie Wonder: “I know what he means when he says / La La La La La La.” Though never self-conscious, the book is always self-aware, and manages to make fun of the things it clearly feels very earnest and vulnerable about. It’s about all the things you don’t want out of a relationship—a guy who cuts out American Apparel advertisements and tapes them to his wall, a girl who breaks into your email account—but still, it feels like a powerfully nailed thesis arguing for the existence of love. —Tova

vampires in the lemon groveVampires in the Lemon Grove
Karen Russell
2013, Knopf

Karen Russell conjures up completely bizarre worlds that also feel like home. This is her second collection of short stories, and, like in her first, she writes about darkly fantastical characters in a way that makes them relatable. In Russell’s stories, girls that turn into silkworms, vampires in lemon groves, and scarecrows that come alive aren’t odd or scary—they’re complicated, emotive, and human. She takes the otherwise strange and disturbing and makes it moving and understandable. —Lucy

Micol Ostow
2014, Egmont USA

This story is about a house called Amity and two of the families that tried to live in it, thinking it would provide a peaceful, quiet life on the banks of a river in New England. It’s inspired by a famous one (maybe you’ve heard of the Amityville Horror?) and weaves together the experiences of a teen girl named Gwen, who just moved into Amity, and a teen boy named Connor, who lived there ten years before. It follows their similarly gruesome, creepy, and nightmarish experiences throughout the 28 days that both of their families could stand to stay in the house (not a spoiler—Connor offers that detail near the beginning of the book). Both Connor and Gwen have psychological histories that have made them feel different, and that also make them especially vulnerable to Amity’s strange, dark powers. I love deliciously twist-y psychological horror, but this book chilled me so deeply that I could only read it during the daytime. It’s a testament to Micol Ostow’s incredible storytelling and world-building—she brought me right into Connor and Gwen’s nightmares. A must-read for Halloween. —Stephanie

Under the SkinUnder the Skin
Michel Faber
2001, Mariner Books

This novel is slightly different than its recent film adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson. In the book, the main character, Isserley, drives up and down cold Scottish motorways looking for male hitchhikers to pick up. She prefers strong men, with meat on their bones. Spoiler alert: Isserley is an alien, and she has to kill these guys for eventual alien consumption (human meat is a delicacy to them). But because of her important job on Earth, Isserley is extremely isolated. Even among aliens she’s an outsider because of her partial integration into the human race. She begins to realize she can’t properly exist anywhere, and her feelings reflect a universal desire to belong. —Naomi

the long secretThe Long Secret
Louise Fitzhugh
1965, Harper & Row

Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy focused on the 11-year-old title character/snoop but also introduced Beth Ellen, Harriet M. Welsch’s soft-spoken sidekick. In this less famous but equally good sequel, Beth Ellen is the star. You know when you start to grow up and everything you thought you knew about life and yourself becomes weird and alien and disorienting? Beth Ellen spends her twelfth summer coming to terms with that kind of change and weirdness. She experiences events she couldn’t have predicted (like getting her period for the first time and the sudden return of her long-absent, partying mother) and starts thinking about familiar things in unexpected ways (like having burgeoning crush-feelings for the piano player at a local restaurant and new considerations about God and religion). At the same time, an unknown note-leaver starts dropping weirdly personalized Bible passages around Beth Ellen’s town. Harriet makes an appearance and tries to find out who’s behind them, while Beth Ellen keeps doing her best to navigate the increasingly unrecognizable world she thought she knew. —Lucy

oscar waoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Díaz
2007, Riverhead

Oscar is an awkward, overweight, super-nerdy Dominican teenager from New Jersey. His family is believed to be suffering under a curse brought upon them by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Oscar wants little more in life than to be in love, but is understood to be a hopeless loser, even by friends including his womanizing college roommate, Yunior (the narrator for most of the novel). The reality of Oscar’s social and romantic failures run parallel to the truth about the violence enacted on his relatives—specifically the women on his mother’s side—under the dictatorship. These stories finally intersect when Oscar returns to the Dominican Republic in a grand romantic gesture. Oscar Wao is violent and beautiful and metaphysical, politically engaging and heartbreaking. Most importantly, it’s about Dominican history and identity. It is a hero story in the same vein as the books Oscar loves and tries to write. The fanfare it received (including a Pulitzer Prize) was more than well deserved. —Meredith

starbird murphyStarbird Murphy and the World Outside
Karen Finneyfrock
2014, Viking

Starbird Murphy was born and raised on the Free Family farm, a commune in Washington State, and she would have been content to stay there. Other family members have grown restless and disillusioned since their elder, EARTH, left on a mission a few years ago, but Starbird is a true believer. She adheres to the Free Family’s values, including not knowing who her father is, not touching money, and steering clear of people from the outside. But with EARTH gone, both the farm and the Free Family Café in Seattle are in distress. The café needs a waitress, and Starbird, now 16, is told that this job is her calling. The story’s author, Karen Finneyfrock, has a background in poetry, so “beautiful” and “lyrical” don’t begin to describe the way she constructs the world through Starbird’s eyes. On the surface, Starbird’s teenage experience is so different from mine, and probably from yours, too. But Finneyfrock perfectly captures the doubts and questions we all have as we begin to separate from our families and come into our own. If you’ve ever felt alone or different (and who hasn’t?), this book will help you see the strength and power that can come from that. —Stephanie

blood and gutsBlood and Guts in High School
Kathy Acker
1984, Grove Press

I’m actually wearing a shirt right now that has an excerpt of this book printed on it. That’s how much I love it and its author, Kathy Acker, who died in 1997. Acker was sometimes described as a “literary terrorist”—she took pleasure in tearing down the writing styles of her compatriots and addressed very radical ideas about sexuality and gender through her own work. She was experimental and postmodern, and dealt with real monsters and survival in her books. In this one, she explores sex and violence from the viewpoint of the nymphomaniac Janey Smith. The story actually references The Scarlet Letter, which you might notice if you’ve read it. At times it is nightmarish (Janey’s story involves incest), but it also talks really intensely about power and the gender politics of language. My favorite passage is also one of the most famous, probably: “Even if we die—if we have to become monsters and everyone hates us, we have to read the book because it will teach us how to avoid the alligators’ jaws, the wolves who wait in the forest, the huge snakes, and how to become birds.” —Arabelle

don't let me be lonelyDon’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric
Claudia Rankine
2004, Graywolf Press

“Define loneliness,” Claudia Rankine writes in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which itself is the definition of loneliness. It’s an “American lyric” that moves from potent poetry to reflective essays and paragraphs punctuated by images like fuzzy, black-and-white television screens between a channel change. They evoke the feeling of late-night TV watching, flipping between commercials advertising anti-depression pills and news stations reporting another shooting. But they also link together the various stories Rankine tells in this book: the story of 9/11; stories of post-9/11, particularly for people of color; stories of medication and psychiatry; and stories of stifling distance—when you feel smothered by things that are far away. —Tova

a world apartA World Apart
Cristina Rathbone
2005, Random House

When I began my job in social services, my best friend recommended that I read this nonfiction book, which examines the day-to-day lives of women in prison. It is full of staggering statistics, such as how the vast majority of incarcerated women are victims of abuse. While that may sound like a sad no-brainer, A World Apart delves into how abuse is often the underlying reason behind the crimes that landed them in prison, too. Behind bars, power imbalances result in sexual abuse by guards and other inmates, while relationships occur through coercion and manipulation. You hear inmates’ stories, including their struggles to raise children and overcome addiction under unimaginably restricted conditions. While Orange Is The New Black is brilliant (and problematic! but also funny as heck!), it’s worth remembering that there are real women who are relegated to the bleakest corners of our society, locked up and forgotten about as though they didn’t exist at all. But they are mothers, sisters, daughters, and their stories need to be heard. —Meagan

the complete tales of ketzia goldThe Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold
Kate Bernheimer
2002, The University of Alabama Press

This is an utterly magical text about the three Gold sisters. Their lives are retold in a series of surreal episodes, which are author Kate Bernheimer’s strangely efficient way of showing just how weird it is to be a young woman. The youngest sister, Lucy, is bright and hopeful; Merry, the oldest, is cruel and cold; and Ketzia, the middle child, is a curious, magical girl tamped down over and over again by episodes of depression. An outsider among her sisters and in life, Ketzia moves from childhood into adulthood through plots loosely adapted from fairy tales from around the world (Bernheimer, the founder and editor of The Fairy Tale Review, is an expert on the subject). Through Ketzia, Bernheimer examines what happens in a princess’s life after the credits roll, when the magic mirror starts to tarnish, and the woods around the castle begin to loom in the dark. It’s a beautiful story of perseverance: Ketzia exists outside the standard definition of success, and yet she keeps moving. —Meredith

Neil Gaiman
2002, HarperCollins/Bloomsbury

Before Coraline was a movie, it was this delightfully creepy book by Neil Gaiman. The story is sort of a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Pan’s Labyrinth: Coraline accidentally finds a passage to a new world, and then TERRIFYING THINGS HAPPEN. Everything seems wonderful at first. Coraline’s new life is a copy of the one she left behind—but better. She meets her Other Mother and Other Father, who are basically her real parents but somehow more loving, more attentive and…they have buttons for eyes. It isn’t long before things take a dark turn. Other Mother says Coraline can stay if she sews buttons on her eyes, too. Being a smart gal, Coraline decides to go back to her family, but Other Mother has different plans for them all. This is technically a children’s story, though Neil Gaiman never writes down to his audience. I read Coraline as a fully grown person, and I couldn’t put it down until I found out how Coraline was going to outsmart her Other Mother and save her family. This short book is a must-read for horror fans—you can finish it in a couple days, but will be creeped out for weeks. —Rachael ♦