Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Long Summer Ahead: What Writers Are Reading As The Pandemic Goes On

What are you reading during the pandemic? We've been asking that question to a range of writers and they've responded with suggestions for fantasy, poetry, new fiction, old fiction, web comics, fairy tales and more. You can find recommendations below from Ben Philippe, Jade Chang, Raina Telgemeier, Tess Taylor and Thomas Pierce — and we'll add more as the summer goes on.

Ben Philippe Recommends The 'Animorphs' Series

During the pandemic, Ben Phillipe, author of The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, has realized that all of his previous desert island lists (you know, the lists of books you'd take with you if you were stranded on a desert island) were "complete BS." Turns out, he's not rereading The Virgin Suicides or Dostoevsky, but rather the children's fantasy Animorphs series by K. A. Applegate — in its entirety.

"The Animorphs are actually an incredibly dark dystopia," he explains. An alien invasion of Earth is underway, and five kids must fight for their doomed planet as best they can. "Underneath it all, there is such a looming sense of despair," Phillipe says. "I don't think I ever sort of latched onto that darkness when I was, you know, 14, 15. But now I'm like: Oh, God, this is so bad."

Phillipe finds the kids' tenacity soothing right now. "Even though the world is so dark, these kids keep going on," he says. "They still have crushes. They still go to dances. They have family gatherings. ... They just have to keep pretending everything's fine. ... I think that that sort of element of pretending and going on is very appealing to me right now."

Tess Taylor Recommends The Poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'

Poetry critic Tess Taylor says she and her family are doing their best to keep busy and stay positive but "every so often, something will happen and one of us will burst into tears." There's a sense that the family is all in it together — but that they are fragile.

"What I think is really important right now is to remember that poems and literature can give us a chance to reroute ourselves," says Taylor. And at a time when most of our real-world journeys are canceled, we can still escape in our own minds.

Taylor has found that "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by William Butler Yeats is "a very convincing imaginary journey." Yeats describes a small cabin, honey bees and cricket song. "I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore," he writes.

"What I love about that poem is that we go with him," Taylor explains. At the end, readers find he's still standing on the gray pavement.

"He reminds us that he hasn't actually gone anywhere," she says. "But he's just taken this beautiful imaginative journey, and he's made this beautiful sound in language. And he's calmed us down. He's calmed himself down."

One of the powerful roles of literature, she says, is to "let us have some space to imagine."

Jade Chang Recommends, 'Minor Feelings,' 'New Waves' And 'A Tree Grows In Brooklyn'

Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. The World, has found herself thinking a lot about authors trying to launch their books this spring and summer. "It's so hard in any climate, but it's especially hard right now," she says.

Chang is excited to dig into Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong. "It's part memoir, part cultural criticism," Chang explains, "And at a time when we have a president who is introducing a term like 'Chinese virus,' it feels like really essential reading."

New Waves by Kevin Nguyen is also on her nightstand. "It is kind of a heist story in the tech world, so I think it should be pretty fun," Chang says.

As for an older story, she recommends one of her "true loves" -- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. This is "a true comfort read that still won't feel completely frivolous right now ..." Chang says. "It really is about this girl kind of figuring out how to be a person in the world, how to make her way in the world, how to love the world. And ... I think it's important for us in any time, but especially in a time like this."

Raina Telgemeier Recommends Julia Kaye Comics, 'Hot Comb' And 'Almost American Girl'

Raina Telgemeier, author of Smile, Sisters and Guts,says the coronavirus pandemic hasn't really changed her work habits — she's used to working from home with her two cats — and it hasn't really changed her reading habits much either.

"My work has always dealt with anxiety and sort of the inner condition of the mind," she explains, "so I've always been drawn to realistic fiction and to memoir and to people's kind of daily lives."

Telgemeier reads a lot of web comics, and she's been enjoying the work of trans cartoonist Julia Kaye. Her Instagram handle is @upandoutcomic and "her more recent comics are about having transitioned and just, you know, what comes next?" Telgemeier says.

During the pandemic, Telgemeier says she's found herself gravitating to "regular stories about regular people and the regular relationships they have with their regular families." And there are two graphic novels that have really done that for her as of late.

First, Hot Combby Ebony Flowers, is about black hair and "about the relationships that develop when women and girls sit down in a beauty shop to put in braids or to take them out," Telgemeier says.

And next, in Almost American Girl, Robin Ha, tells her story of moving from Seoul, Korea to Alabama in the 1990s. "It's so, so hard to see Robin struggle with the culture clash and with feeling isolated, but then it's wonderful to see her find her people," Telgemeier says.

Personal comics and memoirs allow readers to "really get to see what people's lives looks like," Telgemeier says — and that's exactly what she needs during this time.

Thomas Pierce Recommends 'The Fairy Tales Of Herman Hesse'

Thomas Pierce, author of The Afterlives and Hall of Small Mammals,is recommending a book of fairy tales, but says he's tempted to call them anti-fairy tales instead. "They are lots of fragments and allegories, and they flow like dreams," he says.

One story, about a quaint city called Faldum, is what brought Pierce back to the book after many years. A fair is happening in town, and a mysterious stranger appears and grants wishes to the townspeople. Two men — who had been up in an attic all day playing and listening to the violin — are the last two to make their wishes.

"The violinist wishes he could play so beautifully that no one would ever disturb him again — and he gets his wish ... " Pierce says. "He disappears into the heavens and he's never heard from again."

The man who had been listening to the violin music wishes to become a mountain — so that he can continue to hear the beautiful violinist play — and his wish is granted as well.

"Time just lunges forward in this really interesting way," Pierce says. "Generations just come and go in this city, and the mountain's there throughout it all. ... I find it to be very comforting. It's about cycles of time, and the seasons, and the ebbs and flows, and the fact that we all exist within these cycles."

This series is produced by Mallory Yu and edited by Justine Kenin. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.