By McKenzie Tozan

Let’s be honest: 2020 has been a roller-coaster of a year. From a pandemic to forest fires to murder hornets (which felt a little reminiscent of The Hunger Games and Caesar Flickerman, am I right?). . . this year has been full of surprises! 

But I’ve discovered that it’s easier to get through a challenging, unprecedented time by seeking out new beginnings, a way to start fresh.

And what better way is there to start fresh than to celebrate a milestone birthday? Entering a new decade is no small thing, and it can be full of new opportunities if you allow it to be. 

One way I personally allow new opportunities into my life is by selecting books that push my boundaries a little bit, challenge what I thought I knew, and deepen my senses as an empath. Here are five books, in multiple genres, that gloriously fit the bill.

Little Fires Everywhere By Celeste Ng

This has been one of my favourite reads, gratefully discovered early in 2020, thanks in part to my love of Celeste Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, and in part to the Hulu adaptation of this work. Little Fires Everywhere closely follows five particular women, three who are mothers, and two who are entering womanhood and grappling with what it means to be a mother. 

At every turn, this author challenges us with questions about womanhood, adulthood, privilege, and poverty, and how to acceptably fulfil the roles we’ve been given despite our circumstances. It’s an incredible read, for the joy of its storytelling but also for what it can teach us about the worlds outside our own. 

Where The Crawdads Sing By Delia Owens 

Much like Little Fires Everywhere, this author is incredibly interested in questioning the various perspectives of a story. Rooted in the marshland of North Carolina, Where the Crawdads Sing follows a young woman as she grew up in the marshes in the late ‘50s, and later the investigation of the murder of a man the young woman was believed to have romantic ties to. 

This novel also looks at quirky perceptions, privilege, and unique upbringings. It’s certainly a book that will have you thinking twice about taking a story at face value, and its writing and imagery will stay with you long after you’ve read that final page. 

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search For Everything Across Italy, India And Indonesia By Elizabeth Gilbert 

Now a decade “old,”Eat, Pray, Love continues to be a novel that I find myself turning back to when at a crossroads, or when I need emotional grounding. If you haven’t read it, the real-life based story follows a middle-aged woman who believes she has it all, from a good husband to a beautiful house to an upstanding career. It all shatters when her husband demands a divorce. 

Looking to find her purpose in life, she leaves everything behind in search of emotional and spiritual answers in Italy, India, and Indonesia. Gilbert’s novel is beautifully memoiristic, imagistic and cultural, and full to the brim with great food. What’s not to love? 

Wonder By R.J. Palacio 

This is a beautiful story, particularly for those who have children in their lives, for unpacking issues of “judging a book by its cover.” Wonder follows the story of Auggie, born with a series of health conditions and has a somewhat different-looking appearance after many surgeries. 

When Auggie decides he wants to go to public school to make friends, he underestimates how difficult the journey will be. We also see how rewarding it is for those around him to learn that appearances aren’t what makes a person different or special. 

The Feminine Mystique By Betty Friedan

This final selection falls a little more on the theoretical side. Still, it’s an important work that can challenge our way of thinking, and maybe even transform our relationships for the better. In 1957, Friedan surveyed her female classmates at a Smith College reunion, discovering that the majority of them were unhappy with their roles as housewives. 

The Feminine Mystique could easily go hand-in-hand with Little Fires Everywhere, as themes of the wife are similarly challenged. Its ideas are also quite reminiscent of the film, Mona Lisa Smile (which, like Wonder and Eat, Pray, Love, also stars Julia Roberts). 

Allow yourself the time and grace to really sink into these books. Give them time to breathe (though, if you’re anything like me, you probably won’t want to put any of these books down after reading the first few pages). I found each of these books to be incredibly impactful each in their own right. 

Whether fictitious, autobiographical, or theoretical in nature, they all challenged me to think more deeply about living situations and perspectives outside my own, and I find myself revelling in and growing from those lessons to this day. What better present could you give yourself than an opportunity to grow?!