Even when the world outside feels normal, I tend to like my media to lean strongly into the lighter side of the human condition. Too much mean-spiritedness, betrayal, and murder makes me feel unsettled. I like imperfect, resilient, and lovable narrators, big ideas, and happyish endings.
This winter, even more than usual, calls for this prescription: blankets and tea on the couch with a book that will transport you, calm you, and delight you (bonus points for laugh-out-loud humor and a furry friend by your side)—all while keeping you hopeful about the triumph of our better natures.
Here are a few of my favorite lesser-known feel-good reads that will do just the trick! There’s a little something for everyone here, so maybe one of these will help fill a gap in your winter gift giving list? And maybe you’ll leave your own favorite feel-good reads in the comments below?
So Much is Beautiful, So Much is Broken
This petite book of poetry by Jill Kelly was published earlier this year and captures the author’s personal experiences with the pandemic and its repercussions. I found Jill Kelly a number of years ago though her encouraging Creativity in the Wild newsletter, and I’ve become a fan of her books and artwork ever since. This poetry makes me feel like I always do when I read Kelly’s writing: more connected and less alone. Her words communicate the isolation and fear that so many have experienced this year, and she writes with such clarity, self-reflection, and honesty, that you can’t help but feel like you’re listening to a close friend. Kelly will also inspire you with her ability to see the good in circumstances, like in this from “Day 12: Pandemic To-Do List”:
Bathe in beauty
Rest in stillness
Accept what comes my way
Come to know my blessings
Emerge healthier than before
Paint my heart out
Deepen my belief
that color is proof of the existence of God
Create retreat days and keep them holy
Go easy on myself
Be at peace
Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy
These are two short and sweet epistolary novels written by the American writer Jean Webster in the early 1900’s. If you can look past what’s squirmily antiquated (like young women falling in love with older men and the themes of eugenics that were popular at the time), you’ll fully enjoy these stories of likeable, funny young women supporting each other in their quests for equal rights, education, and career fulfillment at the turn of the century. Daddy-Long-Legs follows Judy Abbott as she leaves the John Grier Home orphanage and is sent to college by an anonymous benefactor. Dear Enemy picks up the thread of Judy’s college roommate, Sallie McBride, after she graduates and takes over leadership of the John Grier Home. If you haven’t read these yet, you’re in for a treat! Like this bit of soul-searching by Judy in Daddy-Long-Legs:
It isn’t the big troubles in life that require character. Anybody can rise to a crisis and face a crushing tragedy with courage, but to meet the petty hazards of the day with a laugh – I really think that requires spirit. It’s the kind of character that I am going to develop. I am going to pretend that all life is just a game which I must play as skillfully and fairly as I can. If I lose, I am going to shrug my shoulders and laugh – also if I win.
Be sure to find a copy that includes the author’s quirky hand-drawn illustrations.
Carry On and Wayward Son
Here’s another two-for-one (soon to be three-for-one) recommendation: Rainbow Rowell’s funny and charming Simon Snow series. These books have an offbeat history—the characters began as Harry Potter fan fiction written in another Rowell novel. But the books stand alone, with their own well-developed magical worlds, snappy dialogue, and complex characters. They follow the misadventures of Simon Snow, a reluctant teenage mage with immense power, his snarky vampire roommate, and their magical friends as they battle evil to save the world, doing plenty of messy self-discovery along the way. If you notice any ounce of similarity between these books and Dust and Mud—first of all, I’d say thank you very much, and second, I’d tell you that’s because I read these books about a dozen times while I was writing to try to puzzle out just how Rowell made her characters’ voices so appealing and her adventures so propelling. The third/final book in the series comes out this summer, so it’s the perfect time to get caught up. The author sells signed copies through her local Omaha bookstore.
Dust and Mud
And now for a bit of self-promotion: Dust and Mud, written by yours truly. The book is about a young woman, Ellie Dray, who goes to prison for an ecoterrorist bombing at her university. Her prison sentence is commuted, and she’s invited to start a farm on the property of the man injured in her attack. The book recently got a 5 star review from IndieReader, along with an Indie-Approved award and best books of the month! As IndieReader says, “this debut novel is a treasure of thought-provoking happiness.” And who doesn’t want a little more of that?