Looking for a last-minute gift for the Upstreamist in your life? Or a book to open your mind—or soothe you, or inspire you—to carry you forward into a new year?
To feed your reading lust, HealthBegins’ Senior Associate and most voracious reader Kathryn Jantz surveyed our staff and assembled this list of good reads for Upstreamists. We believe that, amid the hard, important work of advancing health equity, it’s crucial to protect time for our own rest, reflection, and continued learning in our work as Upstreamists. And for some of us, diving into a deep book can be a means to get there.
We hope all our partners take time this season for rest and recovery. If a book is how you like to rest, we hope you resist the call of emails or dirty dishes and find stories that give you insight, inspiration, joy, or perspectives on our work.
Here’s a list of some of the HealthBegins team’s favorite upstream reads, curated by Kathryn:
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017). Recommended by Managing Director Sadena Theverajah. This sweeping multi-generational tale, set in Korea and Japan, traces the story of a teenager who falls for and then emancipates herself from a wealthy stranger. It presents an opportunity to view the world through an entirely different lens.
- Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez (2022). Recommended by Editorial & Communications Director Grace Rubenstein. Based on a true story, this novel follows a young Black nurse in Alabama in the 1970s as she sets out to make a difference for women in her community. Then she discovers the profound medical and ethical wrong being done to two young girls—and grapples with what role she should play.
- There There by Tommy Orange (2018). Recommended by Kathryn Jantz. This novel follows twelve characters from Native American communities as they travel to the Big Oakland Powwow, each carrying their own traumas and aspirations, and eventually occupy Alcatraz island. The writing is beautiful even as it describes the impacts of racism and generational trauma, so that, as Kathryn says, “it’s sad but you love it.”
- Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2018). Recommended by Health Equity Senior Associate Roza Do. This collection of essays by an activist and performance artist explores the politics and realities of disability justice, in what’s billed as “a mapping of access as radical love … and a tool kit for everyone who wants to build radically resilient, sustainable communities of liberation.”
- How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequity in America by Priya Fielding-Singh (2021). Recommended by Kathryn Jantz. A sociologist’s in-depth account of four families and their relationship to food (with a particular focus on the role mothers play in the food lives of their families)—supplemented by dozens of interviews—provides important insights into food insecurity in the United States and reframes potential solutions.
- Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN by Tara Brach (2019). Recommended by Health Equity Project Coordinator Kyron Pierce. This book will reframe your relationships with others and with yourself and give you concrete tools for navigating that which is out of our control.
- The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (2021). Recommended by Sadena Thevarajah. Written by a Black American woman who holds a PhD in physics, this book explores topics from the latest theories of dark matter to the physics of melanin in skin—while boldly calling for a more just practice of science.
- Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe (2021). Recommended by Kathryn Jantz. This fascinating and troubling book tells the story of the Sackler family, Purdue Pharma, and their role in fueling the opioid epidemic—while raising critical questions at the intersection of marketing and medicine. It’s interesting to imagine what could happen if we used Purdue’s devastatingly effective marketing strategy (customized one-on-one conversations to promote provider behavior change) to advance equity instead of addiction.
- Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui (2020). Recommended by Senior Fellow Ellen Lawton. As Ellen says, “upstream cross-sector work is hard, and you have to bring all different kinds of muscle to it.” This book is about mission but also about pushing through challenges and trying different strategies, and it might inspire you to look at swimming differently and “dive” in.
- The Family Roe: An American Story by Joshua Prager (2021). Recommended by Kathryn Jantz. An extremely readable book about the real people behind Roe v Wade and the history of how our public arguments over abortion were framed. The compelling stories the book recounts illustrate how complex issues at the intersection of sexism and racism play out in individual lives and create a public discourse bigger than any individual person.
- The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman (1997). Recommended by Health Equity Project Coordinator Shiva Dhiman. This readable account of the life and healthcare experiences of Hmong immigrants emphasizes the impact of culture and background on a person’s experience with American healthcare. Be warned, this book is so sad and is a deeply disturbing reminder of the need for cultural competency and humility in caregiving institutions.
- Caste: The Origins of our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson (2020). Recommended by CEO Rishi Manchanda. This book shines a light on caste systems—the underlying infrastructure that determines which groups have power and which do not in the U.S. and in other countries. Through rich narratives and research, the book helps us understand the impact of unspoken caste systems in America, and ways we can counteract and transform them.
- The Hurting Kind by Ada Limón (2022). Recommended by Grace Rubenstein. The latest collection of poems by the U.S. Poet Laureate. Limón possesses a deep sense of the hopeful, vulnerable spirit that connects us to our world and each other—and the power to illuminate the struggle and beauty in these connections with the simplest of words. Her earlier collections, The Carrying (2018) and Bright Dead Things (2015), also belong on your nightstand.
- Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman and illustrated by Loren Long (2021). Recommended by Sadena Thevarajah. Told in verse, this story by the first U.S. Youth Poet Laureate follows children of varied backgrounds as they form a musical band and discover they have the power to create change.
- Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor and illustrator Rafael López (2019). Recommended by Sadena Thevarajah. The Supreme Court Justice celebrates kids’ many different abilities, drawing on her own experience as a child with diabetes. As children in the story work together to build a community garden, we see the superpowers within their differences.
- Come On, Rain! by Karen Hesse and illustrated by Jon J. Muth (1999). Recommended by Grace Rubenstein. In beautiful words and imagery, the author and illustrator recreate the exuberant, shared release of a summer rainstorm during a heat wave in a multi-ethnic urban neighborhood.
- Equality’s Call: The Story of Voting Rights in America by Deborah Diesen and illustrator Magdalena Mora (2020) Recommended by Kathryn Jantz. The author of the Pout Pout Fish, Diesen used her knack for wordplay to concisely and accurately describe the evolution of voting rights from the founders to the present in a beautiful picture book that even Kathryn’s three-year-old enjoys.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can read along with you and share your recommendations with others.