One of the most familiar rituals of Back to School time is the handing-out of the year’s reading list, most of which is awful and you will dread. Your school’s reading list is probably terrible and was chosen by a bunch of tedious elders whose tastes were formed by their tedious elders, and so on and so on back into history until you get to the first cro-magnon to order a bunch of young primates to read Bartleby the Scrivener.
When it comes to reading lists, you are the most qualified individual to choose what books you should read. Of course, you should not skip your assignments, and many of those books are good, actually (The Catcher in the Rye is exactly the book you need when you are that certain age).
But if you ONLY read the books your teacher told you to, then you will learn something terrible and untrue, which is that reading is a chore and you hate books. Instead, you must decontaminate your school-approved reading list by slipping in some books that you will actually enjoy, and for that I recommend seeking out some fun, pulpy-but-smart, diverse fantasy and sci-fi literature. There’s nothing like a bunch of dragons and ghosts and spaceships for chasing away the mustiness of old. Here’s where to start:
Let’s get these out of the way: The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, anything by George R. R. Martin and Phillip Pullman and C.S. Lewis and Terry Pratchett, The Once and Future King, the Oz books. They are all great and very fun and worth a read, in part so you can talk to other nerds, but they are so much a part of the fantasy canon that it’s a bit like waking up in the faewild and asking, "Is there an Olive Garden nearby?" Tasty, yes, and the breadsticks are free, but there's so much more to explore. Don’t get me wrong, I love these books and hope you will read them. Just don’t stop there.
It is dumb that so much fantasy literature is all white, as if bearded Europeans are the only ones who look good in a loincloth. The Imaro novels are set on the continent of Nyumbani, and though the genre often assigned to it is “sword and sorcery,” readers more accurately refer to its place as “sword and soul.” The tale of a mighty nomadic warrior, the books are fierce adventures tinged with magic — sort of like Conan, only without those books’ jaw-dropping racism.
An urban fantasy tale, Shadowshaper follows Sierra Santiago, a Brooklyn teen battling both gentrification and walking corpses. The novel weaves a contemporary setting with a spiritual past, and has a particularly fun ensemble of characters, along with lots of intriguing Puerto Rican folklore.
With an incredible fantasy setting that will grab hold of your imagination, Black Wings Beating is the story of two twins seeking a deadly bird of prey in the mountains. They set out for love and for glory (you know, hero stuff) but there’s something evil stalking them on their fantastic journey. Family, adventure, and gays — this book has everything you’re looking for.
“Mystery, decadence, and dangerous desires,” promises this title, and oh yes indeed does it deliver. Set in an alternate-timeline Paris of the 1800s, a diverse group of treasure-seekers team up against a powerful secret society in a lush adventure. Targeted to teen readers, but enjoyable for anyone.
Nearly a hundred years old and unjustifiably overlooked by many readers, this one is an incredible take on high fantasy, set in a city situated on the edge of a magic boundary. Powerful humans seek to banish the supernatural, but the supernatural have other ideas. With this book, writer Hope Mirrlees provided a template for what truly great fantasy can be.
I love everything about the premise of this one: A criminal mastermind, scourge of the galaxy, turns out to be a teenage girl on a mission to destroy evil imperialists. Captured and sent to a military academy, she befriends other young people with wavering loyalties and fantastic abilities.
You are aware, aren't you, that Tyra Banks wrote a fantasy-horror novel a few years ago? It's called Modelland and it's kind of Harry Potter plus Willy Wonka plus Akira. You may think you know the full depths of Tyra's zaniness, but nothing can prepare you for just how bonkers her vision is — and how talented she is at writing scenes of truly terrifying body mutilation. I wouldn't say that the book is "enjoyable" to read, but I might use words like "vexing" or "inexplicable."
This is enough to get you started, but a good reading list is one that breathes and grows. I’m eternally on the hunt for more SFF reading from diverse authors, so please don’t be shy about chiming in with recommendations of your own. Either leave your favorite titles in the comments, or slip them into an apothecarial vial under a waning hollow moon, whispering the incantation your wolfmother taught you before she vanished into the Wicked Arbor at the village’s edge.