Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic

Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic

Best Books About the Maya

Want to learn more about the ancient Maya but don't know where to start? Check out our list of the best reads.

Before I travel, I read. A lot. Part of my preparation for any trip is to build up a base of knowledge that will ultimately create a more deeply embedded connection with the place. I generate my own touch points for the place, its people, and particularly its history. Here are a few standouts for kids and adults interested in the Maya.

Young Adult Historical Fiction

Seven Serpents Trilogy—Book 1, The Captive by Scott O'Dell Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; combined edition (2009) Scott O'Dell's Seven Serpents Trilogy follows the young Julian Escobar, a seminarian from Spain, who finds himself in the New World during the early years of the Spanish Conquest. The Captive contains Escobar's interactions specifically with the Maya culture (the second two books deal with the Aztec and Inca respectively). The Conquest-era themes run the gamut from the conflicts over religion; monotheism versus polytheism; moral and physical struggles with Indian human rights; and the similarities and differences across cultures. The Captive is a well-told story of discovery and a wonderful introduction to the Spanish Conquest, combining adventure with literature. (Buy the book)

Well of Sacrifice by Chris Eboch Clarion Books; first printing edition (1999) Chris Eboch's Well of Sacrifice is a fictionalized anthropological tour of Maya life set during the tenth century, just as the mighty Mesoamerican civilization is beginning to crumble. While Maya nobility and royalty play a key role in the story, the focus of Eboch's book is on the common people, specifically one young girl named Eveningstar Macaw, and how, through the will of her personality, she changes a Maya city. We read about the Maya culture and religion, as well as their calendaring system. As Eveningstar finds her way through the difficulties of Maya life, the reader learns about the society's professions, food, hobbies, trade, death rituals, medicinal and construction capabilities, and military. Imbued with cultural context, Eboch's narrative makes the educational content fully engaging. (Buy the book)

Travel and History

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (2 volumes) by John Lloyd Stephens; art by Frederick Catherwood Dover Publications (1963) Stephens and Catherwood traveled throughout Mexico and Central America exploring, documenting, and in some cases, buying ancient Maya ruins. These wildly successful travelogues were originally published in the mid-1800s and still carry a very genuine sense of exploring the unknown. Stephens's natural narrative is enhanced with Catherwood's exquisite drawings from many of the sites they visited, including the popular destinations at Tulum and Chichén Itzá. Print out his drawings of a site you plan to visit and bring it with you. You'll enjoy reflecting on the difference between what was found in its natural state and what's been rebuilt to support modern tourism. (Buy the book)

Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D. Coe Thames & Hudson; third edition (2012) A preeminent Maya expert, Coe continues to update his book, which is part history, part linguistics study, and part mystery. The book digs deep into the world of Mexican and Central American archaeology and the people who have worked behind the scenes to decipher Maya glyphs since the 1950s. It was these discoveries that led to the modern understanding of how the Maya ruled and lived. (Buy the book)

Maya Prophecy and Myth

The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012 by David Stuart Harmony Books (2011) (Buy the book)

2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse by Matthew Restall and Amara Solari Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (2011) Bookstores are stuffed with books on the 2012 Maya prophecy. Some are serious but can’t be taken seriously, while others are seriously entertaining and educational. These two books do a nice job of blending history and entertainment.David Stuart is a former National Geographic grantee and is one of the world’s preeminent Maya epigraphers (an expert in the study of inscriptions) and historians. With an eye on December 21, 2012, Stuart takes an anthropological, archaeological, and historical look into the far and near past of Mesoamerican cultures and, as Stuart himself writes, “examines history, ancient texts, modern Maya religion, and the early development of research to show how the Maya conceived of a remarkable structure to time and space that’s significant on its own as a compelling human achievement.”Restall and Solari are professors at Penn State, and their very readable book is more academic than narrative, but does an incredible job of incorporating a lot of info in only a few pages. It's not written for the academic community, but for readers interested in understanding what's behind the 2012 mythos. (Buy the book)

Popol Vuh, translated by Dennis Tedlock Touchstone (1996) The Popol Vuh is the Maya story of creation. The story vividly describes the Hero Twins, who defeat the gods of the underworld and ultimately lay the groundwork for the existence of humans, nature, and the gods. If your kids enjoy stories of Greek and Roman gods, or Viking heroes, these tales will be right up their alley. (Buy the book)