It feels like every couple of months there’s a new bit of research announced proving that reading makes you smarter, or richer, or less likely to have voted for Trump. And while they’re seized and tweeted by earnest readers, teachers and librarians, it’s hard to argue with the core fact that reading really does seem to make you happier.

While reading a good book is not going to magically fix all your problems, the evidence suggests it might help you be able to cope with them. A key part of the power of books boils down to the way books make you more empathetic and therefore your relationships stronger – and a study really did find that Harry Potter readers are more inclined to dislike Trump. So.

The science of it is all to do with “mirror neurons”; when we read about something, our brain reacts as though we’re experiencing it ourselves. It shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise that reading about a wealth of different people and places makes us think more broadly about what it must be like to experience the world differently but the science is now backing up what readers have known for a long time. It also shows how important it is to read broadly and diversely. As Samuel Johnson said, although a little bit melodramatically: the only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.

At the School of Life in London you can enrol in a ‘bibliotherapy’ session, and GPs are now prescribing books for panic attacks, depression and anxiety alongside medication and more traditional therapy. There are studies showing reading reduces your chances of developing dementia, that it slows memory decline, helps you sleep better, reduces the symptoms of depression. You can find stats to prove a link between reading and almost every mental health issue. For some suggestions of where to start, Reading Well has book lists arranged by subject including self-harm, body image and anxiety.

In 2009 researchers from the University of Sussex showed that even six minutes of reading can reduce stress levels by two thirds, because it forces concentration on one thing and eases tension in your muscles and heart. Mindfulness may be a new phase, but reading is the original meditation and has been around a long time. An actual sentence in a report by The Reading Agency is: prolific and regular readers are the happiest groups… more regular readers are least anxious.

And that’s science, guys.

Aside from science, I’ve seen the real life impact of the power of reading. I used to work as a librarian in a big secondary school in Coventry with 11-18 year olds and I saw first-hand the impact that books could have on teen readers (and teachers); whether it’s for advice, catharsis or escape. Although famously a solo activity, I’ve also seen the way reading builds communities and breaks down barriers between students from wildly different backgrounds. And that’s not even getting onto the online communities and fandoms that the internet has gifted us.

The latest campaigner for the health benefits of reading is DJ and writer Gemma Cairney, who gave this year’s Reading Agency Lecture on mental health and the books that have had an impact on her, three of which she’s shared with us below, as well as why they mean so much to her.

She says, “Mental health comes in a lot of different flavours but it’s written about so clinically, and it doesn’t have to be – more people than we realise are experiencing one of those flavours and we just need to open up lines of communication around our mental wellbeing and start being more honest A good book is all about imagination, sparkle, something accessible and not too self-indulgent. When I started to think about the things that have inspired my life and writing, I found these were the books that gave me the licence to be me from a young age”.

Here are Gemma’s top picks for those who want to get reading…

The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

“I’ve got a rampant imagination and this captured that from an early start because it’s a totally bananas book. I’m a kooky person and you’re often lambasted for that, but his book taught me that it’s okay to be wacky and different, and I liked that a lot”. Buy a copy here.

faraway-tree

Forever by Judy Blume

“Everyone got their hands on Forever because It was the first time we could actually delve into a serious issue. At that age you start to become inquisitive about sex and when that happens it’s quite hard to regulate your idea of it. I feel lucky that I could get information from a book which is nuanced and rounded and about love, because sex should be about love.” Buy your copy here.

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Lorali by Laura Dockrill

“I love this book because it’s so brilliantly weird. The use of slang, the poetic nature, the need for imagination and fantasy, it gives you confidence that there is something out there for everyone, you just need to explore and find the right book for you.” Buy your copy here.

lorali

@acaseforbooks

Image: Hailey Hamilton

It’s National Poetry Month, but you probably already know that. Your English teacher has probably made you study some long dead poet’s use of foreshadowing or alliteration or whatever. You know good ol’ Billy Shakespeare with his doths and thys, maybe you’ve studied John Donne with his old timey spelling or Sylvia Plath’s intense and harrowing poems, or drawn a beard on Carol Ann Duffy in your GCSE anthology and called her ‘Carol Ann Fluffy’ (just us?).

But news: poetry doesn’t have to be all rhyming couplets and iambic pentameters. It can be fun and free flowing. It can be political or metaphorical or just for kicks. And you don’t always have to study it. Sometimes, amazingly, you can just enjoy it.

So here are six of our fave modern poets who are breaking down stereotypes. And not a single dead white guy in sight.

Hollie McNish

Since Hollie won the UK Slam Poetry Competition in 2009, she’s had YouTube videos of her spoken word poems go viral. Like, millions of views in a few days sort of viral. She’s also the first ever poet to record an album at Abbey Road Studios. Hollie tends to write about everyday occurrences that bother or frustrate her, in a beautiful and lyrical way. Basically, she’s amazing. Buy her book, Papers, here.

Happy National Poetry Day. Here's a poem about how brilliant my shoulders are. Left one in particular xxx

A post shared by Hollie Poetry (@holliepoetry) on

Warsan Shire

The name might sound familiar to you, since one of her poems was recently performed by this up and coming indy musician… I don’t know, maybe you’ve heard of her? Beyoncé. That’s right. Bey-freaking-oncé. Author of the gorgeous poems sampled throughout Lemonade, Somali-British poet Warsan Shire comes with Queen Bey’s stamp of approval – so you know she’s good. Buy her book, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, here.

#warsanshire #wordstoliveby 📝 #forwomen 🙌🏾 for the #goddess and #sparkle and #firewithin 🙏🏽✨🔥

A post shared by S|A|M|Y🌹R|0|S|E (@samyoflosangeles) on

Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest is one of the most acclaimed poets in the country today, often mixing poetry, music and rap to make political statements. Her performances have taken her on tours to Australia and all over Europe, and she’s been on the bill at festivals like Latitude and Glastonbury. Plus in 2013 she was the youngest ever recipient of the Ted Hughes Award. So there’s that… Buy her book, Let Them Eat Chaos, here.

Lang Leav

Lang Leav writes poems and short stories and they’re all so elegant and beautiful and timeless – essentially the Chanel of poetry. She is HUGE on Tumblr (a great place to find poets) and has published two beautiful books. Buy her book, The Universe of Us, here.

Laura Dockrill

Laura Dockrill may be best known for being BFFs with Adele and Kate Nash, but she’s wildly talented in her own right. Along with writing poems and short stories she is also an illustrator and has illustrated all of her own books too, NBD. Buy her book, Mistakes in the Background, here.

Bridget Minamore

One of our lovely betty writers (read her articles here), Bridget also just happens to be an incredible poet. She writes beautifully about race and class and what it means to be a woman today and her spoken word stuff is SO. FREAKING. GOOD. Buy her book, Titanic, here.   

@LilyPesch

Image: Getty / Katie Edmunds

Author Alwyn Hamilton came in to the betty bedroom to talk to us about her first novel, Rebel of the Sands. We talk about her main character, Amani, and how a 16-year-old sharp shooter becomes a rebel and survives in a dessert with no one but herself and a strange boy for company.

The sequel, Traitor to the Throne, is about to come out, so this is a great way to catch up on the first book before reading the new one.

January has a tough time of things. It can’t be fun following the month quite literally known as ‘the most wonderful time of the year’.

Sure, Jan gets all the excited people on New Year’s Eve, staying up late just to greet it. But then it all goes downhill pretty rapidly from there. The mince pies have been taken off the shelves in supermarkets. The Christmas trees are half dead in our driveways. And there certainly aren’t any more presents to look forward to (no matter how many times you check under the sofa “just in case”). You’ve watched everything you’re even vaguely interested in on Netflix. All in all, it’s a downer (poor January), which is where comfort books come in.

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Comfort book are books that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Books that maybe your parents once read aloud to you. Books you used to read way past bedtime with a torch under the covers. Books that never use the word “doth”. And because our mantra this month is ‘new year, same you’, we think it’s the perfect time to revisit some old friends.

To inspire you, here are our fave comfort books that we’ll be reading this January.

1. Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne

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“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

In many ways, Winnie the Pooh is the literary equivalent of watching videos of unlikely animal friends on YouTube. How often do you see a bear, a teacup pig, a tiger and a kangaroo even on the same continent, let alone hanging out as buds? And that tale of heartwarming cross-species friendship and adventure is just the thing to get you through January. Not to mention a few jars of honey.

2. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

A series of unfortunate events

“The three siblings were not born yesterday. Neither were you, unless of course I am wrong, in which case, welcome to the world, little baby, and congratulations on learning to read so early in life.”

Even if you didn’t actually read this series when you were a child, you’ll probably still find them incredibly comforting as a… not-child. The books are quirky and fun and follow the adventures of three orphan children who, spoiler in the title, are constantly running into trouble. We dare you to get through them without literally lol-ing at least once a page.

3. Harry Potter(s) by JK Rowling

harry-potter

“Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”

Oh, Harry. How can you not find comfort in a world where headmasters are as cool as Dumbledore and you can get from one side of the country to the other without setting foot on a train? But maybe the real joy of re-reading Harry Potter is that it will last you all the way through until March.

4. The Lottie Project by Jacqueline Wilson 

The Lottie Project

“There are some teachers – just a few – who have YOU’D BETTER NOT MESS WITH ME! tattooed right across their foreheads.”

Let’s be real, this entire list could just be Jacqueline Wilson books. We are pretty confident that out of the 100+ (mmhm, and you thought your PLL fanfic was long) books she’s written over her career, there’ll be one that speaks to your particular comfort-reading needs. The Lottie Project is one of our faves, telling the tale of an uber popular high school girl who finds a photo of Victorian girl who looks exactly like her and decides to investigate her doppelgänger’s life. Sofa, blanket, bucket of tea: perfect Sunday.

5. Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

princess-diaries

“Lilly says I have an overactive imagination and a pathological need to invent drama in my life.”

If your childhood was peppered with princess pillows and tiaras that you wore once and promptly lost, these books will probably be your ideal comfort read. The series follows Mia, a totally down-to-earth girl who lives with her quirky mother in New York. But when she’s 15, her dad lets slip that she’s actually the Princess of Genovia, a tiny country in Europe (fictional, before you use it in a Geography test). Ballgowns, tiaras and important life lessons ensue.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

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“I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing is ever going to happen again.”

While it sucks that it’s so cold but not snowing outside (regardless of how many times your check your weather app), a visit to Narnia might just make up for it. The first book in the classic series by CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe plunges you into a world of magic and mythical creatures, where animals can talk to humans and the White Witch has ruled for 100 years of deep winter (think GOT, but you know, cuddlier and generally less distressing). Instead of doing a wardrobe clearout in January, just crawl inside an imaginary one.

Hopefully that’s inspired you to raid your stash of comfort books and get reading. Who needs mince pies when you’ve got books?

(We’re kidding. Double check your pantry, just in case one of those pastry bad boys is still floating around in there).

Image: Getty

We catch up with Jennifer Niven, author of the bestselling All The Bright Places and Holding Up The Universe, to talk about the YA community, the pressure teenage girls face, and the advice she’d give her 13-year-old self.