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

The Books I Picked & Why

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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