The best books that engage with pandemics, past, present, and imagined

Kelly McWilliams Author Of Agnes at the End of the World
By Kelly McWilliams

Who am I?

In June of 2020, I published a cult escape/pandemic mashup novel, Agnes at the End of the World. Of course, pandemic novels aren’t for everyone right now, but there are some readers, like myself, who seek out what frightens us in fiction to survive our present moment. I read a bajillion pandemic novels before embarking on my own, and I hope that it helps someone, as novels have always helped me. Ultimately, every pandemic novel is about social ills, large and small, and about grief. They remind us that we’re all in this complex world together, telling stories around a campfire to shine some light in the dark.


I wrote...

Agnes at the End of the World

By Kelly McWilliams,

Book cover of Agnes at the End of the World

What is my book about?

Agnes loves her home of Red Creek—its quiet, sunny mornings, its dusty roads, and its God. There, she cares tirelessly for her younger siblings and follows the town's strict laws. What she doesn't know is that Red Creek is a cult, controlled by a madman who calls himself a prophet. Then Agnes meets Danny, an Outsider boy, and begins to question what is and isn't a sin. 

As the Prophet grows more dangerous, Agnes realizes she must escape with her brother Ezekiel and leave everyone else behind. But Outside a viral pandemic is burning through the population at a terrifying rate. In a world where faith, miracles, and cruelty have long been indistinguishable, will Agnes be able to choose between saving her family and saving the world?

The books I picked & why

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Parable of the Sower

By Octavia E. Butler,

Book cover of Parable of the Sower

Why this book?

I’ve loved Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower since I was a kid, and if you’re looking for a strangely hopeful book featuring a serious survivor as a main character, pack this in your go-bag. Like all great apocalyptic novels, it’s a careful examination of society’s ills, and racism, and classism as are much of a plague as the actual plague in the novel. As a bonus, it’s one of the rare science fiction novels I encountered during my 90’s childhood that features characters of color.

Parable of the Sower

By Octavia E. Butler,

Why should I read it?

17 authors picked Parable of the Sower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The extraordinary, prescient NEW YORK TIMES-bestselling novel.

'If there is one thing scarier than a dystopian novel about the future, it's one written in the past that has already begun to come true. This is what makes Parable of the Sower even more impressive than it was when first published' GLORIA STEINEM

'Unnervingly prescient and wise' YAA GYASI

--

We are coming apart. We're a rope, breaking, a single strand at a time.

America is a place of chaos, where violence rules and only the rich and powerful are safe. Lauren Olamina, a young woman with the extraordinary power to…


Fever 1793

By Laurie Halse Anderson,

Book cover of Fever 1793

Why this book?

This historical YA novel is remarkable for its sensitive and vivid portrayal of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. I recommend it for kids and teens looking for historical analogs to our present moment. I strongly believe that an understanding of the past is the best way to contextualize the present. 

Fever 1793

By Laurie Halse Anderson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Fever 1793 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Synopsis coming soon.......


Severance

By Ling Ma,

Book cover of Severance

Why this book?

Severance is the eeriest book of the bunch, and it uses the conceit of the pandemic to examine capitalism and its ills—among them, enforced solitude and chronic loneliness. In 2020, we all learned something about the loneliness of quarantine, and I found this novel to be a wise companion.

Severance

By Ling Ma,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Severance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Maybe it’s the end of the world, but not for Candace Chen, a millennial, first-generation American and office drone meandering her way into adulthood in Ling Ma’s offbeat, wryly funny, apocalyptic satire, Severance.

"A stunning, audacious book with a fresh take on both office politics and what the apocalypse might bring." ―Michael Schaub, NPR.org

“A satirical spin on the end times-- kind of like The Office meets The Leftovers.” --Estelle Tang, Elle

NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY: NPR * The New Yorker ("Books We Loved") * Elle * Marie Claire * Amazon Editors * The Paris Review…


Contagion

By Erin Bowman,

Book cover of Contagion

Why this book?

Contagion is my oh-so-scary recommendation for teens with a taste for mystery—it’s also the pandemic book on the list that is most escapist, in its way, being set in outer space. It’s impossible not to root for Bowman’s characters, and it’s fascinating to see pandemic literature travel off-planet.

Contagion

By Erin Bowman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Contagion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Edgar Award Nominee for Best Young Adult Mystery

Perfect for fans of Madeleine Roux, Jonathan Maberry, and horror films like 28 Days Later and Resident Evil, this pulse-pounding, hair-raising, utterly terrifying novel is the first in a duology from the critically acclaimed author of the Taken trilogy.

After receiving a distress call from a drill team on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is sent into deep space to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

When they arrive, they find the planet littered with the remains of the project—including its members’ dead bodies. As they try to piece together what could…


A Beginning at the End

By Mike Chen,

Book cover of A Beginning at the End

Why this book?

A Beginning at the End is probably the novel I’d recommend to most readers now, because it’s not just about a pandemic—it’s the story of a pandemic’s long aftermath. The novel paints of picture of societal resilience and growth, and individuals holding out hope for the future after the greatest of tragedies.

A Beginning at the End

By Mike Chen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Beginning at the End as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Brotherhood

Four survivors come together as the country rebuilds in the aftermath of a devastating pandemic. A character-driven postapocalyptic suspense with an intimate, hopeful look at how people can move forward by creating something better.

Six years after a virus wiped out most of the planet’s population, former pop star Moira is living under a new identity to escape her past—until her domineering father launches a sweeping public search to track her down. Desperate for a fresh start herself, jaded event planner Krista navigates the world for those still too…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in survival, dystopia, and Philadelphia?

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