16 Uplifting Books to Read in These Dark Times

Yeah, I know, another list of books that someone claims you should read while in quarantine, while you sit on your couch and just stare at your phone because that’s all you’re capable of doing. I get it. I’m in the same place right now. We’re going through a global trauma event right now and your brain doesn’t have a whole lot of space available for much else. This list isn’t here to say “if you don’t read these you’re doing quarantine wrong.” These uplifting books, these happy, distracting, think-about-something-else-for-a-while books are here to just be a distraction, something to pick up and focus on when you make the mistake of looking at the news and feel your blood pressure rise.

So here: try these uplifting books. If you can’t focus enough to read, try an audiobook. Maybe that will work better. But let these books become the world you live in for a little while.

1. I Hope We Choose Love by Kai Cheng Thom

Written by a trans woman, this is a collection of essays and prose poetry that look at the world we live in and try to find a reason to create. It pushes you to acknowledge how we deal with the hard stuff, especially within marginalized communities, and how we sometimes turn that hurt to each other. But it also looks past that, saying we can do better, we can love better, and that compassion will make it easier for us to rebuild the world. We have two paths ahead of us, and like the author, I hope we choose love. As a forewarning, while this book is definitely hopeful and uplifting to me, some of the essays do talk about suicide and transphobia, so please be aware before picking it up.

2. On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Bri’s father was an underground rap star, dying before he could hit mainstream. And after dealing with the racism and economic struggle of her daily life, she’s determined to fill his shoes. Angie Thomas uses the story of a girl pushing her way into the world of hip hop and rap and her refusal to be what people expect of her to comment on racism and prejudice and the anger and frustration it can create in people. But is also lets the reader know that your voice matters, and you don’t have to let pieces of yourself go because they don’t match what others think you should be. You are your own person, and you deserve to be whatever makes you happy.

3. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

We’ve all had that significant other that wasn’t that great of a partner but no matter how they treated us, no matter how many times they walk away from us, we welcomed them back with open arms.  If you haven’t had a relationship like that, then I’m happy for you. Seriously. But this graphic novel is about such a relationship between two high school girls, and the effects it has on the other relationships in your life. Yes, it’s a book about high school drama, but it doesn’t feel like high school drama, and you end up feeling alongside the main character Freddy as she figures out just what to do with a girlfriend who constantly breaks up with her.

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4. Bedtime Stories for Stressed Out Adults by Lucy Mangan

Y’all, this is one to help you fall asleep at night.  Lucy Mangan has collected a bunch of soothing stories to help you decompress, from classics written by people like Oscar Wilde and Katherine Mansfield, to excerpts from childhood stories you grew up with like The Secret Garden and The Wind in the Willows, and even some poetry to round it out, so there’s bound to be something to make you feel better and bring your spirits up a little bit. If there’s any book on this list I recommend getting as an audiobook it’s this one, so you can just put on a pair of earbuds and maybe have some good dreams.

5. How To Survive a Plague by David France

This one may hit a little too close to home, but it’s not about the most recent plague that’s, uh, plaguing us. It’s about the last one that happened where the government did nothing: the AIDS crisis. David France takes you through how the community banded together, fighting for a treatment and to be treated as human. The books teaches you about the activists who created groups like ACT UP and TAG, and tells you the stories of people who were fighting to survive and to help help others survive as well. It’s a hopeful story, and one that eventually leads to the beginnings of a good ending: early March, two people in London were cured of HIV (the virus that eventually leads to AIDS) and as of March 29, 2020, they have shown no signs of the virus returning.

6. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

We all wanted the Romantic and Victorian fiction gang to get back together, right? Or maybe not the gang itself, but the offspring of the gang. Enter Jekyll’s daughter, on the hunt for Hyde for information about the infamous murderer—but she finds Hyde’s daughter instead. Along the way, she meets up with other daughters of men who were monstrous in their own right and passed that label down to their daughters: Rappaccini, Moreau, and Frankenstein. These girls go around and end up solving murders and even stumble upon a secret society. The story can get a little dark at times—it’s set in Victorian era London, after all—but the humor is delightfully snarky and who doesn’t like to see a group of women supporting each other and proving they’re not who society says they are.

7. Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me and You by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun

I don’t know about y’all, but I loved seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tweets every morning, with the little inspirational bits letting you know you are doing your best and you’re not alone. I haven’t seen them recently, but we’ve all been a little distracted recently. Fortunately, this book collects a lot of them, little pieces of prose to start and end you day with, accompanied by beautiful drawings done by Jonny Sun. It’s perfect for giving you words to base your day on and keep repeating to yourself throughout the day.

8. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade

Admittedly this one may be more specific to me, but someone else may think the same. This one is all about who we were, the hominids that constantly adapted and evolved to become Homo sapien sapiens. Nicholas Wade discusses when we started doing things that marked us as human, like when we first created a language or banded together to create societies. I don’t know, to me there’s something deeply hopeful about human prehistory, almost as a way of looking at how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time. Be forewarned, though: this book is fairly old when it comes to scientific research. Some of the things it states as fact we know are wrong now. For instance, there was mating between early humans and Neanderthals. Humans didn’t out compete Neanderthals. We assimilated them.

9. Everyone’s An Aliebn When You’re An Aliebn Too by Jonny Sun

This graphic novel is all about finding somewhere to belong, and how to find happiness and acceptance along the way. It’s touching and comforting, with a host of characters that will remind you of someone you know, maybe even yourself. It is a little nihilistic in tone, but the kind of nihilism that is based in hope, that maybe nothing in the universe matters, and your life is your own, so do what you want. Be happy. Also there’s a fair amount of puns, which are always nice.

10. Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Yes, this is the book that inspired the movie Love, Simon. But as we book lovers know, there’s always more in the book that wasn’t in the movie.  Besides, it’s nice to have a coming-out story that doesn’t end with the kid being kicked out or anyone dying. And this is just a comforting story that makes you feel for Simon and understand what it’s like to grow up queer and unsure if you’ll still be loved once people find out (especially in the South). Yeah, it’s a high school love story, but sometimes that’s what we need.

11. The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

It’s exactly what it says it is: a book of delights. It’s comprised of essays of varying lengths written in the span of one year about things Ross Gay found joyous, especially the small things.  The way a candy melts in your mouth, or the birds singing outside on a sunny day. It’s a nice reminder that while things may suck (and boy howdy do they suck right now) there’s still some good in the world, still some things to be happy about during the day, even if it’s just your cat curled up in your lap purring away, or your dog continually excited that they get to spend the day with you.

12. Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley

It’s a pregnancy story. A story about the struggle to become pregnant and dealing with miscarriages. And I’ll be honest with you: I am not a baby person, I have no intentions of ever having kids, and pregnancy stories get old with me real fast. But this one is different. It’s Lucy Knisley, so she tells the story with the same level of humor-mixed seriousness she always does. Lucy mixes in scientific and historical facts in with her story, and does not hold anything back when talking about her miscarriage and the toll it took on her. You rejoice with her when she finally gets pregnant and feel your heart break when she and her son almost die during the delivery. It all turns out okay though. Lucy lives to tell her tale and let others know that they aren’t the only ones struggling to be parents.

13. A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

Of course I included a book by Terry Pratchett, who would I be otherwise? This is a collection of his nonfiction essays and speeches on a variety of topics, from mushrooms to Gandalf to his belief in the right to die movement. No matter the topic, however, it always has the Pratchett humor and righteous rage to it, and those phrases that hit you in the gut with meaning before you realize what happened. This collection also has one of my favorite essays written by him, “Let There be Dragons,” about how we need fantasy, even now in this age, because otherwise what is there to hope about? Sure, it may be a thin wisp of hope, a brief glance towards the future, but it’s a beginning.

14. Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon

Get to know me long enough and you will find out I am a fan of fairytales. Any of them. This story is no different. A contemporary retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a (wealthy) private school, this is an excellent story that takes the basic themes of the original story and places them in an entirely different cast of characters, using them in new ways that makes it still recognizable but new at the same time. It’s entirely non-magical as well, relying on how emotional abuse can change a person. It’s a feel-good, cutesy romance with an Indian main character and that enemies-to-lovers trope that we love.

15. The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

This story has a main character a lot of us can relate to: someone who lives a solitary life with a cat and his work. Only this work is related to making sure children—magical children—are well taken care of in government orphanages. But when our protagonist is sent out to see if a group of kids may bring about the end of the world, he finds a place that may be home. It’s a beautiful example of found family (and queer romance!), and a nice balm on the soul in times like these with people who support each other and the nice banter that flows between them.

16. Unscripted by Claire Handscombe

Book Riot’s very own Claire Handscombe wrote this one! It’s a situation we’re all pretty familiar with too: having a hardcore crush on an actor. But Libby, our main character, has a plan to actually end up with her Hollywood crush. It’s a well-written feel-good romance with the occasional stream-of-consciousness narrative that is incredibly relatable and draws you into the story.  It’s inspiring the way the different character narratives come together and reminds you that, although clichéd, dreams can come true.

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