The best books about influenza

3 authors have picked their favorite books about influenza and why they recommend each book.

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The Animals in That Country

By Laura Jean McKay,

Book cover of The Animals in That Country

There’s a lot of pandemic fiction, but rarely are they as creative and thrilling as this. The zooflu that rips through Australia allows people to talk to animals while they’re sick, and when it inches towards the family-run zoo at the heart of this novel, tensions rise and bonds are tested, especially between addict Jean, her granddaughter Kimberley, and prodigal son, Lee. 


Who am I?

Growing up in the sub-tropics of Brisbane, there was a magic in the heat. It was one that spoke to me from a really young age, and I’d daydream about finding portals to secret worlds in the stutter of a sprinkler’s spray, or the ooze of a monster in mid-afternoon sweat. There was no way I couldn’t find a story in the oppressive swelter of year-round summers, and in my head, I’d cast roles for my family and my friends. Over the years, that bred into a love of writing and reading stories about strange families finding their own sorts of magic with each other and their environments, and the ways that little taste of the uncanny can reveal and conceal in equal measure. 


I wrote...

The Rabbits

By Sophie Overett,

Book cover of The Rabbits

What is my book about?

Crippled by grief since the disappearance of her older sister, Bo, Delia and her mother became dysfunctional, parting ways not long after Delia turned eighteen. Now an art teacher at a Queensland college, Delia has managed to build a new life for herself and to create a family of her own. Only more and more that life is slipping: her partner, Ed, has gone, her daughter, Olive, is distancing herself, and all of a sudden, in the middle of a blinding heatwave, her sixteen-year-old son, Charlie, disappears too. 

The Rabbits is a multigenerational family story with a dose of magical realism. It is about family secrets, art, very mild superpowers, loneliness, and the strange connections we make in the places we least expect. 

A Death-Struck Year

By Makiia Lucier,

Book cover of A Death-Struck Year

Set in Oregon during the 1918 influenza pandemic, this historical young adult novel features a teen girl separated from her family as the illness spreads from the east coast of the US to the west. Like Lil, the main character from my book, Cleo in A Death-Struck Year grapples with moral dilemmas. I was drawn to Cleo’s struggle of wanting to help others, which will put her life at risk, and of desperately wanting to survive.


Who am I?

I'm the author of short stories and novels including my young adult debut, Pandemic, which continues to be a timely read about surviving a widespread deadly virus. After the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 (commonly called Swine Flu), I was fascinated with the idea of a global illness that could be much, much worse. I researched historical diseases, interviewed public health officials, and the idea for my novel was born. Written and published before COVID-19, some of the details are eerily predictive of coronavirus. Pandemic won SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Award the year after its publication, and a June 2022 reissue of the original novel includes updated resources and backmatter.


I wrote...

Pandemic

By Yvonne Ventresca,

Book cover of Pandemic

What is my book about?

Only a few people know what caused Lilianna Snyder's sudden change from a model student to a withdrawn pessimist who worries about all kinds of disasters. After her parents are called away on business, Lil’s town is hit by what soon becomes a widespread fatal illness. With her worst fears realized, Lil must find a way to survive not only the outbreak and its real-life consequences, but her own personal demons.

The Great Influenza

By John M. Barry,

Book cover of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

This brilliant non-fiction work by John M. Barry is fascinating for its scholarship and engaging prose. We learn about the source of the H1N1 influenza virus in birds through its mutations to a deadly pandemic engulfing the globe and responsible for killing an estimated 50 million people. In addition to writing layman’s course in virology, Mr. Barry focuses on individuals who perished and those who searched unceasingly for a vaccine. This is the most timely of books for readers who have endured the twenty-first century coronavirus pandemic. 


Who am I?

I divide my reading between works of imagination and historical nonfiction. All good fiction requires research to enhance it’s authenticity. Several years ago, I published a story set in the 1918 influenza epidemic. The research for the story was fascinating, and led me to John M. Barry’s book included in my recommendations. After editing a memoir for retired screenwriter and film director, Gerald Schnitzer (sadly now deceased), he invited me to co-author a novel set in the Four Corners featuring a virologist who combines science and spirituality to find a cure for a pandemic, which became Blood of the White Bear


I wrote...

Blood of the White Bear

By Marcia Calhoun Forecki, Gerald Schnitzer,

Book cover of Blood of the White Bear

What is my book about?

Images of White Bear Kachinas erupt from the dreams of virologist Dr. Rachel Bisette and invade her consciousness. Kachina calls for relief from a hantavirus epidemic in the Four Corners. Rachel rushes to the Southwest to lead the search for a vaccine. Only one survivor of the virus is known, but she is elusive. Eva Yellow Horn, an indigenous healer, carries the gift of immunity. As Rachel searches for Eva, she discovers this healer’s gift of healing beyond science. Eva also knows the truth about the deaths of Rachel’s parents years earlier, when her father investigated the Church Rock spill of radioactive waste. The pandemic is fiction, but the spill and its consequences are historical facts.  

Pale Rider

By Laura Spinney,

Book cover of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

I read this book as background reading for writing my own virus-based novel, and it was an absolutely fascinating study of the response to a pandemic that took place almost exactly a century ago. It covers everything from the role of the First World War troops’ demobilisation on spreading the virus, to the impact of poverty on infection rates, to why young, fit people were the most likely to die of the illness. And, of course, why it was called Spanish Flu in the first place (spoiler alert: not because it came from Spain!)


Who am I?

In my day job working for a charity, I work with emergency planners, examining how we can minimise the harm caused by disasters, including outbreaks of disease. I’m fascinated by the measures in place to deal with catastrophes, and how contingency planners respond on a practical and a human level. When writing my novel about a killer virus, I devoured both fiction and non-fiction books tackling pandemics ranging from the Black Death to Aids. I am confident I know the skills needed to survive when a pandemic reduces the world’s population to a small, doughty band of survivors. I am not confident I possess these skills.


I wrote...

The Health of Strangers

By Lesley Kelly,

Book cover of The Health of Strangers

What is my book about?

The Health of Strangers is the first book in a series of crime thrillers set in Edinburgh, against the background of a (fictional) pandemic. Written pre-Covid, the books accurately predict many of the civil liberties issues we’ve grappled with during the coronavirus crisis. The Health of Strangers introduces Mona and Bernard of the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team, who hunt you down if you miss your monthly compulsory health check.

Hampered by public indifference and limited resources, the team deals with corrupt politicians, religious cults, and illegal raves, and tries very, very, hard not to end up dead. 

Pale Horse, Pale Rider

By Katherine Anne Porter,

Book cover of Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels: A Library of America eBook Classic

During the flu pandemic of 1918, the author, Katherine Anne Porter, became deathly ill but recovered. Published over twenty years later, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is her fictionalized account about falling in love with a soldier during the war, then fighting to survive the influenza outbreak. I love that Porter drew from her own experience to write this short novel. (She disliked the term novella.) Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a beautifully written story about a devastating disease.


Who am I?

I'm the author of short stories and novels including my young adult debut, Pandemic, which continues to be a timely read about surviving a widespread deadly virus. After the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 (commonly called Swine Flu), I was fascinated with the idea of a global illness that could be much, much worse. I researched historical diseases, interviewed public health officials, and the idea for my novel was born. Written and published before COVID-19, some of the details are eerily predictive of coronavirus. Pandemic won SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Award the year after its publication, and a June 2022 reissue of the original novel includes updated resources and backmatter.


I wrote...

Pandemic

By Yvonne Ventresca,

Book cover of Pandemic

What is my book about?

Only a few people know what caused Lilianna Snyder's sudden change from a model student to a withdrawn pessimist who worries about all kinds of disasters. After her parents are called away on business, Lil’s town is hit by what soon becomes a widespread fatal illness. With her worst fears realized, Lil must find a way to survive not only the outbreak and its real-life consequences, but her own personal demons.

Age of Pandemics (1817-1920)

By Chinmay Tumbe,

Book cover of Age of Pandemics (1817-1920) : How They Shaped India and the World

It manages to leverage the world history of coping with pandemics over the last couple of centuries by focusing on India’s Experience with them. A readable academic book with frequent reference to the author's own life experience. It uses the history of public health to illuminate all aspects of the nation’s history

Who am I?

I have been trying to understand India’s evolution especially its economic path for the last half-century— by reading, traveling, and writing on aspects of that evolution. Originally this started with the Cold War concern about how a democracy would navigate using a democratic political system. So I took appropriate courses in college and graduate school, worked in India in the Peace Corps, and then spent a little under a decade teaching about it a doing research. For the following five decades I have continued my interest and publishing and studying. Whether I have understood much is for others to determine but these are my five book nominees.


I wrote...

The Marwaris: From Jagat Seth to the Birlas

By Thomas A. Timberg,

Book cover of The Marwaris: From Jagat Seth to the Birlas

What is my book about?

What makes the Marwaris so successful?

The book shows how Marwaris rely on their centuries old system for conserving and growing capital along with a community business ethic and supporting network. Building on an earlier book by the same author on the history of Marwari businessmen up to 1960 it surveys the extent to which they have been able to retain their position relatively and absolutely into the twenty-first century.

As Bright as Heaven

By Susan Meissner,

Book cover of As Bright as Heaven

Alright, alright, alright, I get it: no one wants to read a pandemic book. Not here, not now. But Meissner’s novel, set in Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish Flu, is a surprisingly uplifting tale. In addition to sisters, we also get to experience the time from the viewpoint of the girls’ mother. It’s a beautiful, resonating story that reminded me of the tricky balance that always exists—pandemic or no—between mitigating risk and living life to its fullest. 


Who am I?

I’ve always been a lover of all things history, so it’s no surprise I gravitated to the world of historical fiction for my profession. What moves me the most is how, across time periods and culture, the bonds of family (more specifically sisters), remain one of the most enduring and poignant themes with which almost all can identify. Growing up, my relationship with my own sister was complex and difficult. However, now that we are grown, I can fully appreciate just how much my connection with her shaped—and continues to shape—the person I am. Exploring family ties in literature (both writing and reading) is one way in which I celebrate our common humanity. 


I wrote...

If It Rains

By Jennifer L. Wright,

Book cover of If It Rains

What is my book about?

It’s 1935 in Oklahoma, and lives are determined by the dust. Fourteen-year-old Kathryn Baile is a spitfire born with a severe clubfoot. Once her beloved older sister marries, Kathryn’s only comfort comes from her favorite book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Then Kathryn’s father decides to relocate to Indianapolis, and only the promise of surgery to finally make her “normal” convinces Kathryn to leave Oklahoma behind.

Back in Boise City, Melissa Baile Mayfield is the newest member of the wealthiest family in all of Cimarron County. In spite of her poor, rural upbringing, Melissa has just married the town’s most eligible bachelor and is determined to be everything her husband—and her new social class—expects her to be. Melissa secretly defies her husband, risking her life to follow God’s leading.

A High and Hidden Place

By Michele Lucas,

Book cover of A High and Hidden Place

While not technically a ‘romance,’ this is the remarkable story of one woman’s quest to uncover her past. In 1963, 25-year-old journalist Christine Lenoir watches in horror as Lee Harvey Oswald is shot live on TV. She has flashbacks and vivid dreams about her life as a young child. Raised by religious sisters in a convent in France, Christine is led to believe that her parents died of the flu. In actuality, she discovers that they and most of the residents of her hometown were slaughtered by the Nazis in June of 1944. It’s a difficult read, but this is an extraordinary book.

Who am I?

One of the reasons I enjoy writing historical novels is because I’ve always loved history. I enjoy creating characters and settings based on real-life incidents. I’m also involved in genealogy and find that kind of history fascinating. Reading about incidents (or like Dragnets Joe Friday used to say, "Just the facts, ma’am,") can be dry and boring. When a reader can experience history through fictional characters, history becomes more immersive than the dry accounts of a historical event. It’s entertaining to be able to take oneself back in time to a world with few modern conveniences and fewer distractions of media. While the reader is entertained, they can also learn about history in the process.


I wrote...

Julia's Gifts

By Ellen Gable,

Book cover of Julia's Gifts

What is my book about?

Julia buys gifts for her yet unknown future husband and brings them with her to France when she enlists to be a medical volunteer in the Great War. As the war disillusions her, she begins giving the gifts away, and in the process, meets her future husband.

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