Great Books to Gift Upstreamists: HealthBegins Staff Picks for 2023

If we could give you a gift this holiday season, it would be rest and recuperation. We talk often with all of our partners about the need for not just removing structural harms but also creating spaces for healing. This isn’t only about systems-level, community healing but also creating the space for each of us individually to heal. Let This Radicalize You, recommended below, describes the long arc of social change and the necessity for periods of “introspection and renewal.”

Since we can’t bottle up rest and recuperation and send it to each of you, we are giving you the next best gift, the books that inspired us, transported us, and rejuvenated our minds and souls. Much like last year’s edition, this list is curated by Senior Associate Kathryn Jantz with contributions from across the HealthBegins staff and includes books deeply connected to the work and books that are pure flights of fancy. Enjoy! 


Rough Sleepers by Tracy Kidder (2023). Recommended by Eva Batalla-Mann. This book follows Dr. Jim O’Connell as he builds the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. It illustrates both the harrowing stories of rough sleepers and the resilience, friendship, and humor that flourish in this community—and their human stories make it thought provoking and a pleasure to read. Kidder asks deep questions about structural changes while highlighting the transformative power of compassion and interpersonal relationships.

Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond (2023). Recommended by Rishi Manchanda and Kathryn Jantz. This book answers the question of why poverty persists in a country as wealthy as the United States. By focusing on how poverty works for all of us, Desmond names both how we contribute to poverty in our day-to-day lives and how we can reduce it, calling on all of us to become poverty abolitionists. This short and readable book is an inspirational and important read for every Upstreamist.

Let This Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care by Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba (2023). Recommended by Sadena Thevarajah. Perhaps this should have been titled “Let This Revitalize You.” Originally imagined as a pamphlet with insights for young organizers, it grew into a 277-page book full of light, love, and lessons for organizers at all stages. I leave it on my desk and will often read just snippets at random to inspire, ground, or recharge me. From the back cover: “Let This Radicalize You is a practical guide and imaginative resource for building power in an era of destabilization and catastrophe.”

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant (2021). Recommended by Tatiana A. Perez. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of being an Upstreamist is that we have to unlearn what we think we know and rethink our most deeply held beliefs. Grant’s book provides insights into this particular wisdom and how to achieve it. This book is for the Upstreamist who doesn’t have all of the answers (which is all of us). 

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee (2021). Recommended by Kathryn Jantz. At the time that I read this book, I was trying (and failing) to get my son enrolled in public swimming lessons that sell out in less than three seconds (literally). The first chapter charted the connection between public pools and racism, and I was immediately enthralled. It provides a compelling case for how racism hurts everyone.

Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks (2002). Recommended by Rishi Manchanda. From the publisher: “Combining critical thinking about education with autobiographical narratives, hooks invites readers to extend the discourse of race, gender, class and nationality beyond the classroom into everyday situations of learning…Teaching, she explains, can happen anywhere, any time—not just in college classrooms but in churches, in bookstores, in homes…Teaching Community tells us how we can choose to end racism and create a beloved community.”

Congratulations, the Best is Over! by R. Eric Thomas (2023). Recommended by Kathryn Jantz. Thomas is one of the few authors who literally makes me laugh out loud. This book of essays follows his first book of essays (Here for It), which is also phenomenal. His essays touch on racism, religion, depression, and family dynamics, all with his particular wit and humor. I’ve recommended this book to multiple people and everyone who has read it has loved it. 

A Heart That Works by Rob Delaney (2022). Recommended by Ellen Lawton. A graceful, sad, honest, funny, and hopeful book about grief and life and love. Rob Delaney is a comedian, actor, and writer in long-term recovery. I love him because he is all those things—plus he’s from my home state of Massachusetts. 


The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia (2015). Recommended by Tatiana A. Perez. Set in a small town in Mexico during the 1918 influenza pandemic and the Mexican revolution, this story follows Simonopio, whom the reader first meets as an abandoned infant with a cleft palate. Full of magical realism and dynamic characters, this is a beautifully written book. 

Babel by RF Kuang (2022). Recommended by Sara Bader. In this historical fantasy novel, a young boy is brought from his native China to London and eventually enrolled at Oxford University’s Babel, where language powers the might of the British Empire. It touches on themes of the power (and interconnectedness) of language, impacts of colonialism, and student revolutions. The end takes an odd turn (in my opinion), but it was still a thought provoking read!

Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward (2006, republished 2018). Recommended by Eva Batalla-Mann. This book follows the story of twin brothers in rural Mississippi as they graduate high school and experience the enduring cycle of poverty and generational trauma. Through it all, the love they feel for each other and their small community provides strength and solace. Ward’s ability to convey both beauty and pain at the same time is powerful and creates a rich portrait of a world often ignored. (Her other books are also amazing and I would highly recommend them!)

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford (2022). Recommended by Kathryn Jantz. This is a story of six generations of women through their immigration from China to England to San Francisco. The story centers on how the experiences of one generation carry into the next. With a mix of historical fiction, magical realism, and actual science, this book is fascinating and touching and made me think about trauma and healing in new ways. 

The Haunting of Alejandra by V. Castro (2023). Recommended by Alejandra Cabrera and Melissa Meza. This book tells the story of Alejandra, a woman haunted by the Mexican folk demon La Llorona. The book touches on intergenerational trauma and mental health and is delightfully spooky. 

Vampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas (2023). Recommended by Melissa Meza. For the Upstreamist who didn’t get enough of the spooky season and wants a lighthearted and suspenseful novel, this one has it all: vampires, vaqueros, and star-crossed lovers. If your world feels too heavy, this is escape literature at its finest. 


Loss and Other Rivers That Devour by Gustavo Barahona-López (2022). Recommended by Grace Rubenstein. This debut book traces the evolution of the poet’s grief and identity (both emotional and cultural) as he reconciles with his late father’s limiting expectations. Barahona-López, the son of Mexican immigrants, explores the fractures of immigration, toxic masculinity, and cultural erasure through subtle, quiet verse.

Rifqa by Mohammed El-Kurd (2021). Recommended by Sadena Thevarajah. This powerful book of poems, named after the author’s grandmother, from the frontlines of occupation and settings across the globe is a “deafening command” on the urgency of Palestinian life and liberty. The poetry is stunning, vibrant, unapologetic, honest. The foreword by aja monet captures the interactivist ties of Palestinian liberation movements with other global activist movements and requires us to confront the call to action as we realize “Rifqa is my grandmother, and she is your grandmother, too.”

Focal Point by Jenny Qi (2021). Recommended by Grace Rubenstein. Written while the poet was completing her PhD in cancer biology and after her mother died of cancer, this debut collection juxtaposes biomedical science and the unmeasurable realms of spirit and hints at their intersection. Qi’s poignant poems apply a fresh, sometimes humorous point of view to the eternal question: “How do we live with loss?” Yet they are worth reading for their beauty alone. 

Picture Books

We Are a Garden by Lisa Westberg Peters and Victoria Tentler-Krylov (2021). Recommended by Grace Rubenstein. A poem-like book that illuminates the journeys of the many different migrants who have made a new home in America over centuries, depicting us all metaphorically as seeds carried on the wind.

Rivka’s Presents by Laurie Wallmark and Adelina Lirius (2023). Recommended by Grace Rubenstein. On New York’s Lower East Side during the flu pandemic of 1918, a little girl can’t go to school because her father is sick, so she trades her neighbors’ chores for lessons. A heartwarming portrait of life among New York’s immigrants and a prism for the importance of community.

Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio (2007). Recommended by Sara Bader. Grace runs for class president in this cute book that teaches kids about the electoral college system and campaigning for what you believe in even when the system doesn’t seem quite fair. It made my daughter want to run for class president herself!

Breathing Makes It Better: A Book for Sad Days, Mad Days, Glad Days, and All the Feelings In-Between by Christopher Willard (2019). Recommended by Tatiana A. Perez. From the publisher: “Read aloud and breathe along with this sweet story teaching children how to navigate powerful emotions like anger, fear, sadness, confusion, anxiety, and loneliness. With rhythmic writing and engaging illustrations, Breathing Makes It Better guides children to breathe through their feelings and find calm with recurring cues to stop and take a breath.”

Itzel and the Ocelot by Rachel Katstaller (2022). Recommended by Sadena Thevarajah. This colorful children’s book follows a young protagonist, Itzel, as she seeks to awaken the giant snake who can bring the rain. The indigenous Salvadoran tale captured my son’s imagination as he rooted for Itzel on her journey with jungle creatures he had never heard of before. The book stirred questions for him about drought, folk tales passed from older generations, and discovering new (to us) animals.


If you read one of these books, tell us about it! Did you hate it or love it? What did it make you think about? We would also love to hear about some of your favorite reads! Please send your tips to or tweet us @HealthBegins so that we can read along with you and share your recommendations with others.