Reading through a Quarantine: An Epidemic Reading List
What shall we then read?
When presented with a new experience, the committed reader tends to wonder, “What can I read that will shed light on this event, place, or experience?” A number of plague, epidemic, and quarantine book lists have popped up online — I’ve linked to a couple of them below. Since few of us have ever been in a pandemic or been quarantined, it can be oddly comforting to walk through an unfamiliar experience with a fictional character.
If you’re feeling too stressed already, dystopian fiction may feel a bit too dark and it might be time to read something classic (how about something from the Excellence in Literature book list?), something light (maybe P. G. Wodehouse), or something you love and have read many times before (Chronicles of Narnia, perhaps?). Meanwhile, for those who want plague- or epidemic-related reading, here are just a few ideas. Amazon links are, as always, affiliate links.
Classic plague tales: an epidemic reading list
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe: Daniel Defoe was just five in 1665 when the plague caused over 90,000 deaths in London, but he used his memories and research to create a fictional account of the epidemic and its victims.
The Plague by Albert Camus is set in the 1940s and is told in a conversational tone. If rats give you the creeps, this may not be the book for you!
“The Masque of the Red Death,” an 1842 short story by Edgar Allan Poe has a cast of a happy prince, his friends, and a masked ball attended by the Red Death, Poe creates a gruesome tale of plague and death.
The Decameron: In this classic tale by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) a group of ten young people flee from plague-ridden Florence to a deserted country villa where they tell stories each night. Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which was influenced by The Decameron, not all of the tales are suitable for young ears, but overall it’s an entertaining read.
Modern books with epidemics, plague, or quarantines
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis: This sci-fi novel features an Oxford graduate student who is sent on a time-travel research expedition to the Middle Ages and ends up in the middle of the Black Death. At the same time, the plague shows up in modern England. Did the research expedition trigger it or have the time travelers brought the plague to the modern world? I consider this an approachable, non-depressing read even if you don’t often read sci-fi.
Plague, epidemic, and quarantine reading list for middle grade and young adult readers
This is far from a complete epidemic reading list of kids’ books that take place during or after a plague or during a quarantine — it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I chose these books not only because they are good stories, but because they’re a reminder that pandemics have happened before and will most likely happen again, and that it’s possible to be courageous in difficult times.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: As the book opens, Mary is orphaned by an outbreak of cholera. This is what happens afterward. I’ve read this book many times since childhood, and enjoyed it thoroughly every time. My boys liked it too, and as it does for many, it inspired a bit of gardening fervor in my grandchildren when they read it. I recommend this highly, but be sure to get a good unabridged edition.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: The boarding school epidemic Jane survives might not be the first thing you remember about the book, but it’s there, and it does help to shape who she becomes as the story evolves. If you haven’t read it and feel that you should, maybe now is the time. This is also one of the books students read in the first level of the Excellence in Literature curriculum.
A Time of Angels by Karen Hesse: Hannah, a young Jewish girl, falls ill with influenza during the 1918 epidemic and is separated from her family to be cared for by an elderly German farmer. Hesse, a gifted storyteller (one of my favorites), weaves a beautifully compelling tale of love in a time of epidemic and fear.
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson: When yellow fever sweeps through Philadelphia, Mattie’s dreams of growing her family’s coffeehouse into an even more thriving enterprise are upended, and life changes. Well done.
Listening for Lions by Gloria Whalen: Africa has always been Rachel’s home, but when her missionary parents die in an influenza epidemic, her conniving neighbors decide to take her back to England as the center of a duplicitous plot. A bit of advice she remembers, “If you are among evil people, you must be like the lion, gathering strength and awaiting your time” helps her know what to do.
The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson: In this Dickensian tale, Eel cobbles together a meagre living while trying to evade a wicket former stepfather. When cholera sweeps through London, Eel and his friend Florrie are enlisted to help a doctor prove the true cause of the disease.
The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis: The recommendation for this book came to me with this quote: “There is a lion in our village now. It is called AIDS. It is carrying away our children. So I want to say today, in front of all of you, that my son died of AIDS, and I loved him. His wife probably died of AIDS before him, and I loved her, too. And I am tired of burying my children.” I have not yet read it, but plan to, and I am including it as it addresses one of the modern plagues and its consequences. I would suggest that parents preview for age-appropriateness.
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Other reading lists on Excellence in Literature
Other quarantine and epidemic reading lists
I can’t vouch for the excellence of all the entries on these lists, but if you need more options, here they are!
What to Read in Quarantine this Summer from The Atlantic
Your Quarantine Reading List from the New York Times
YA and Middle Grade Epidemics from GoodReads
Pandemics: An Essential Reading List from Vulture
7 Essentials Books about Pandemics (nonfiction) from the New York Times