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Outbreaks, Diseases and Plagues — Books About Pandemics to Engage Teen Readers

The same way movies about pandemics are trending right now, books about pandemics are also rising in popularity. They are a great opportunity to gain historical perspective and generate conversation with your child about what is happening in the world today. Several fiction and non-fiction choices offer options for diving into the high-stakes stories of outbreaks, diseases and plagues.

If you’re looking for engaging reading to share with your middle school or high school student, Missouri Military Academy Librarian Fran Robley shares the following list of suggestions:

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry A #1 New York Times bestseller, The Great Influenza dives into the importance of truth and leadership during a pandemic.

“Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research, The Great Influenza provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon. As Barry concludes, "The final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that...those in authority must retain the public's trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first, and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart.”

An American Plague by Jim Murphy  – An award-winning novel, An American Plague describes how the yellow fever affected city residents, from social to political implications using first-hand accounts.

“Thoroughly researched, generously illustrated with fascinating archival prints, and unflinching in its discussion of medical details, this book offers a glimpse into the conditions of American cities at the time of our nation's birth while drawing timely parallels to modern-day epidemics.”

Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti – An award-winning novel, Terrible Typhoid Mary explores an in-depth look at the life of a woman stigmatized and abused because of her disease.

“This riveting biography of Mary Mallon […] looks beyond the tabloid scandal of Mary's controversial life. How she was treated by medical and legal officials reveals a lesser-known story of human and constitutional rights, entangled with the science of pathology and enduring questions about who Mary Mallon really was. How did her name become synonymous with deadly disease? And who is really responsible for the lasting legacy of Typhoid Mary?”

Flu by Gina Kolata  – An interesting analysis of the Great Flu Epidemic that killed 40 million in 1918, Flu explores the story of the flu and previous epidemics, detailing the science and the latest understanding of this mortal disease.

“In 1918, the Great Flu Epidemic felled the young and healthy virtually overnight. An estimated forty million people died as the epidemic raged. Children were left orphaned and families were devastated. As many American soldiers were killed by the 1918 flu as were killed in battle during World War I. And no area of the globe was safe. Eskimos living in remote outposts in the frozen tundra were sickened and killed by the flu in such numbers that entire villages were wiped out. Scientists have recently rediscovered shards of the flu virus frozen in Alaska and preserved in scraps of tissue in a government warehouse. Gina Kolata, an acclaimed reporter for The New York Times, unravels the mystery of this lethal virus.”

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston – A best-seller turned into a mini-series, The Hot Zone tells a thrilling story of the Ebola virus' first appearance in the United States. It gives particular notice to the fact that viruses are largely spread due to human error.

“A highly infectious, deadly virus from the central African rain forest suddenly appears in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. There is no cure. In a few days 90 percent of its victims are dead. A secret military SWAT team of soldiers and scientists is mobilized to stop the outbreak of this exotic "hot" virus. The Hot Zone tells this dramatic story, giving a hair-raising account of the appearance of rare and lethal viruses and their "crashes" into the human race.”

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe – Drawing on historical accounts, A Journal of the Plague Year tells the story of how the Bubonic Plague devastated families and the city of London.

"The Great Plague of London instilled terror in the residents of London; a mysterious unseen enemy striking down a hundred thousand, no less than one in five citizens. Defoe goes to great pains to achieve an effect of verisimilitude, identifying specific neighborhoods, streets, and even houses in which events took place. He provides tables of casualty figures and discusses the credibility of various accounts and anecdotes received by the narrator."

The Plague by Albert CamusThe Plague tells a story about the Bubonic Plague, while alluding to a powerful metaphor about fascism.

"A haunting tale of human resilience in the face of unrelieved horror, Camus' novel about a bubonic plague ravaging the people of a North African coastal town is a classic of twentieth-century literature."

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – By the author of Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain tells the story of a group of scientists dealing with an epidemic caused by an extraterrestrial microorganism.

"A military space probe, sent to collect extraterrestrial organisms from the upper atmosphere, is knocked out of orbit and falls to Earth. Twelve miles from the crash site, an inexplicable and deadly phenomenon terrorizes the residents of a sleepy desert town in Arizona, leaving only two survivors: an elderly addict and a newborn infant [...]Under conditions of total news blackout and the utmost urgency, the scientists race to understand and contain the crisis."

The Stand by Stephen King The Stand tells an apocalyptic vision of a world ravished by a deadly plague.

"A patient escapes from a biological testing facility, unknowingly carrying a deadly weapon: a mutated strain of super-flu that will wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population within a few weeks. Those who remain are scared, bewildered, and in need of a leader."

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – Set in a time where a devastating flu killed 99% of humanity, Station Eleven tells a story of survivors determined to keep art alive.

“Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.”

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