12 Books That Will Lift You Up When You Are Down

Sometimes you need a pick-me-up.

Sometimes, you need a pick-me-up. You're feeling blue, down in the dumps, maybe even dealing with a lump in your throat. Whichever idiom fits your situation, you're just not feeling like your best self.

To abate the waves of sadness, or palpitations of dread, we've compiled a list of books that can help lift you up in these less-than-desirable times. From a graphic novel to a memoir to a fictional story of intrigue to a picture book adults can enjoy, here are 12 very different books you should read:

Adams Media

Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe by Yumi Sakugawa

Yumi Sakugawa is an illustrator and comic artist who moonlights as the editor of a wellness blog. Her illustrated guide explores the abstract and often overwhelming ideas of mindfulness and meditation through black-and-white doodles of skeletons, squids, flying eyeballs and all the living creatures that came before us. If you aren’t into the self-help genre but are intrigued by the prospect of introducing meditation in your life, Sakugawa’s lovely visual exploration takes the most lofty of ideas (like being one with the universe, for instance) and makes them curious, mischievous, ready to engage. -- Priscilla Frank

Touchstone Books

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

You’ve probably seen the book's cover image somewhere around the Internet. And there’s a pretty good chance you know what it’s from: Hyperbole and a Half, an odd personal blog that quickly developed a cult following charmed by writer Allie Brosh’s deliberately childlike Microsoft Paint illustrations and comical narration. Brosh retold and illustrated funny anecdotes from her childhood, or relatable conflicts from her 20-something existence. I loved the blog, and would reread entries when I needed an upper, nearly choking sometimes on my laughter.

For some time, however, her posting slowed, then stopped. She revealed that she was battling depression, even describing her struggle with the illness in two gently funny, poignant posts. Finally, in 2013, she put out a book of her comics, both new and from the archive, called Hyperbole and a Half. It’s not a long read, and it’s not arduous, but it’s exactly what you need when you’re feeling depressed and unmotivated. Her ridiculously energetic, oversized humor brings the color back to life, but it’s not empty, heartless humor. Without wallowing, Brosh’s comics wisely and empathetically portray the reality of depression, uplifting with a perfect blend of exuberance and thoughtfulness. -- Claire Fallon


Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookshop by Robin Sloan

Sloan’s novel is the fairy tale of the Facebook age, in which a laid-off web developer guy takes a job at a rarely frequented bookstore filled with more mystery than an episode of “Poirot.” Working the graveyard shift, the story’s protagonist eventually stumbles upon a mysterious set of books and -- using a romantic interest’s data visualization skills, of course -- attempts to crack the code of a secret society. Chaos ensues, but Sloan’s characters work together to prove things like teamwork and analog reading instruments are still worth our while. It's not only a feel-good story, it's also a great escape from the details of everyday life. -- Katherine Brooks

New Directions

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

Takashi Hiraide is a poet by trade, and it shows in the subtle nature of this story. A pair of writers who work from home as freelance editors find their listless days interrupted by a new visitor -- a neighbor’s cat who enjoys basking and playing in their garden. Though the narrator isn’t partial to animals, his wife is, and so he learns to enjoy the free-spirited creature who begins making his days more lively. Though the story is a reflection on loss, it also moves slowly and sweetly like a summer breeze. It’s a novella-length reminder of simple pleasures, and the happiness that can be gleaned from attachment. -- Maddie Crum

Flying Eye Books

Hug Me by Simona Ciraolo

The title and genre of this gorgeously illustrated picture book might lead you to believe it is solely for children, their parents, and maybe totally infantilized millennials. Leave your judgment at the door, folks: as a single 27-year-old who keeps this book on her shelf -- and who has completed a few books without pictures in them in her life -- I will heartily recommend this to anyone regardless of age or gender. Because no matter how tough the cruel world has made our outside exteriors, I’ve found no one can resist this heartwarming tale of a tiny cactus, raised by a cold and unfeeling cactus family, simply looking for some comfort. Besides the life-affirming, there’s-a-lid-for-every-pot ending, you also get to see what a grumpy cactus playing Sudoku next to Chinese food leftovers looks like which, much like this book, is something you didn’t know you needed until you did. -- Jill Capewell


I’ll Have What She’s Having by Rebecca Harrington

What if you could live in a world where your biggest -- nay, only -- problem was that you were forced to subsist entirely on the bizarre diets followed by a constellation of celebrities? For a few glorious hours, I’ll Have What She’s Having can give you that escapist fantasy. Harrington’s nonfiction book recounts her very true attempts to eat like Elizabeth Taylor (steak and peanut butter on bread), President Taft (glutinous biscuits), Gwyneth Paltrow (juice), and Madonna (seaweed), despite her clearly questionable culinary skills. “The cake … is crumbly and tastes like a prune, but this is probably my fault,” she writes. “‘I like the tacos,’ one of my friends says, after I ask about the cake.” With funny anecdotes about the various celebrities and Harrington’s own sometimes-feverish fascination with them (on Gwyneth Paltrow: “I enthuse: 'She’s so fun. She smokes one cigarette a week!'”), the book reads like a dive into a glossy lady mag, only far more substantive, hilarious and refreshing. Just try to read a couple chapters without coming away giggly and rejuvenated. -- Claire Fallon

Blue Rider Press

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton

Shapton’s book, as its title implies, is less a straightforward narrative and more a collection of observations that could only be made by someone who’s fully immersed in his or her vocation or hobby. Both an illustrator and former Olympic Trials-qualifying athlete, Shapton sketches portraits of the teammates she once had, paints watercolors of every pool she’s ever swam in, and snaps photographs of every swimsuit she’s ever trained with. Her artwork is accompanied by vignettes that bring the sport to life -- what is it like to wake up before the sun rises each day? What is it like to win or lose a race by less than half a second? Though the author assumes the tone of an expert, her writing has a whimsical, lively air that will make the topic relatable to anyone. More than a collection of works about swimming, it’s a passion or obsession brought to life, and a reminder that devoting your time to a single task has beautiful benefits. -- Maddie Crum

St. Martin's Paperbacks

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

For anyone who spends the first hour (or three) of their workday watching eye-dampening dog videos, veterinarian James Herriot’s novel is for you. All Creatures Great and Small recounts Herriot’s time practicing veterinary medicine in rural England, aiding both poor farmers and lifelong pet owners in keeping their beloved animals alive. While some of his memories are gut-wrenching (Old Yeller kind of gut-wrenching), others are incredibly heartwarming, illustrating the undeniable bond humans and creatures can form. -- Katherine Brooks


2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

Bertino’s writing is like a kind stranger or an Internet video of a dolphin rescuing a dog: a small wave from the universe to remind you of the unexpected, beautiful qualities of the everyday. In this debut novel, we follow young Madeleine Altimari, the Catholic-school attending child of her late singer mother and jazz aficionado father, distant and mourning since the mother’s death. Despite these grim circumstances, Bertino uses them as a jumping-off point for an endearing tour of gritty, snowflaked Philadelphia on one particular Christmas Eve Eve, during which motherless daughters can get their wishes and condemned, legendary music halls stay open for one last encore. Bertino’s writing is what the word "mellifluous" was made for. “The city gathers its black-skirted taxis around the ankles of Rittenhouse Square ... Pinwheels hem and sigh in flowerpots stuffed with foam,” reads part of the opening. Her resilient characters will remind you that you, too, can persevere. -- Jill Capewell


Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Even if you don’t subscribe to Robinson’s brand of religiosity, her more overtly Christian-themed works carry a soulfulness that nourishes. Gilead, the first of three novels set in fictional Gilead, Iowa, tells the story of Reverend John Ames -- or rather he tells it, in the form of a long letter to his young son. Already a long-widowed old man when he unexpectedly fell in love, remarried and had a child, Ames now must come to terms with the increasingly likely possibility that he won’t be there to watch his boy grow into a man. In his letter, he distills a lifetime of heartbreaks, revelations, reckonings with family history and musings on the purpose of life. The bittersweet meditations of Gilead won’t offer frivolous distraction, but they do offer something more substantial: a real acceptance of life’s pain, and a reminder of the hope and grace that can find us nonetheless. -- Claire Fallon


Songs for the Witch Woman by John W. Parsons and Marjorie Cameron

Jack Parsons was a rocket scientist. Marjorie Cameron, an artist and witch. The two fell in love in Pasadena, California, in 1946, Parsons believing Cameron was a manifestation of sex magick, his true love incarnate. Songs for the Witch Woman is a collection of love poems for the spookier set, imbued with the black magic Parsons and his buddy Aleister Crowley were known to dabble in. The poems are assembled alongside Cameron’s delicate and dark drawings, depicting mythological witch-lions, contorted angels and other nightmarish, bewitching visions. If your idea of a pick-me-up involves tapping into your darker feelings in the most decadent way, look no further. -- Priscilla Frank

Harper Collins

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Disclaimer: this book is uplifting, but it’s also quite tragic. Wilder tells the fictional story of a group of interrelated strangers, all of whom died the day an Incan rope bridge collapsed in Lima, Peru. The book’s central character -- a friar who witnessed the collapse -- explores the lives of these strangers, attempting to discern why these particular people died at the time that they did. Was there some sort of divine or cosmic plan at work here? Or did the deaths of these men and women mean nothing? Even if you aren’t particularly religious, you’ve probably questioned whether or not destiny is at work in your life, imbuing it with meaning. And while such a story could definitely end in tears, Wilder manages to end on a hopeful note, immersing the reader in deep thoughts about love and devotion that are -- surprisingly -- quite happy in the end. -- Katherine Brooks

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