6 Dark Academia Book Recommendations

This week I discovered the Reading Glasses podcast and have been gleefully burning through episodes. One of my favorite parts of the show is when Mallory and Brea share listener-submitted reading wheelhouses, or tropes that guarantee that a reader will pick up a book. They’re always personal and sometimes very specific, and I love hearing ones I would never think of or nodding along when a total stranger loves the same sort of books that I do.

I’ve been ruminating on my own wheelhouses–and thinking of emailing them in–and I realized that dark academia has to be at the top of the list.

What is dark academia? It’s an aesthetic and literary (and film) subgenre in featuring scholastic settings and elements of thrillers/supense and the Gothic. I love the list of common themes that I found on the fandom wiki, because it’s so comprehensive and honestly just perfect:

Common themes within this aesthetic are books, poetry, friendship, prep/private schools, classical music, coming of age, existentialism, death/murder, social classes, and romance. Writing poetry in notebooks, reading the classics, going to local coffee shops, bookstores, libraries, and museums also fuel this aesthetic.

So, it’s basically everything that I love, with more drama and tragedy than I would ever want to experience personally, but that is thrilling to read about in books.

There are a ton of dark academia novels out there, so where should you start? Here are some that I have enjoyed:

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Secret History is my number-one favorite book of all time as well as the quintessential dark academia novel, so read this one first. It follows narrator Richard Papen as he leaves California to enroll in a university in Vermont. There he stumbles into a place in a cult-like classics program and becomes entangled in the complicated lives of his privileged classmates, which become significantly more complicated when they commit a murder. Tartt writes with an unrivaled joy for language and narrative, and with much more humor than you might expect.

The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman
Following her divorce, Jane Hudson returns to her alma mater to accept a position as a Latin teacher and start a new life with her young daughter. But pages from her long-lost diary resurface, hinting that one of her students knows more details than they should about Jane’s involvement in a series of suicides that occurred at the school during her senior year. Soon it appears that Jane’s personal history is repeating itself, and with girls’ lives and her position at stake, she races to figure out why.

If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
Want some dark academia that focuses on theater rather than on dead languages? Try If We Were Villains, which is very similar to The Secret History–narrator looking back at a past murder, group of brilliant students, rigorous academic environment–but takes place at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, where actors devote themselves entirely to Shakespeare. Sexual tension, interpersonal drama, and danger will keep you reading until the legitimately shocking end.

Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand
This is a big, weird book that kept surprising me. Only the first half is true dark academia, with the rest of the book taking place years after the protagonist, Sweeney Cassidy, is out of college, but her museum work after graduation maintains something of an academic thread throughout. And the scenes set at the University of the Archangels and St. John the Divine, a fictional university in Washington, D. C., are everything you could want from dark academia and more. There’s a heavy fantasy element, with angels, hands of glory, and other dimensions alongside the relatively more commonplace trope of secret societies.

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard
This is your book if you like the blending of fantasy with dark academia and want more. Sisters Imogen (a writer) and Marin (a ballerina) are accepted into a prestigious arts program that requires more sacrifice than they initially bargained for. This novel draws a lot from the ballad of Tam Lin… So if you like it and want a more in-depth retelling of the ballad, you should also read Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. And yes, it, too, takes place at a university. It’s a slow burn and great if you enjoy books that feel like you’re tagging along with the characters through their daily lives.

I am always looking for more dark academia novels, and campus novels in general, so if you have a suggestion, feel free to share it in the comments. With any luck, I’ll have enough books to post a part 2 by this time next year.

Autistic Headcanons: Beth March from Little Women

In consuming a lot of online content from autistic people (through YouTube, Tumblr, and Instagram), I’ve noticed that developing headcanons about fictional characters being autistic is common for us.

I think that this tendency arises from the lack of quality autistic representation in media. It can be difficult to find canonically autistic characters at all, and much more difficult to find ones that do not pander to stereotypes or function as inspiration porn for allistic audiences. For that reason, I think that it is crucial for autistic creators’ voices to be heard and for allistic creators who want to portray autistic characters to do their research and to do justice to our varied experiences in their work.

But I think that regardless of canonical representation, autistic audiences will continue to claim characters as our own. It gives us a way to feel seen and represented, even if it requires some death of the author to accomplish, and it expands our options for representation beyond the largely white, cisheterosexual, male offerings. Speaking for myself, it’s nearly impossible not to notice when a character exhibits traits that I relate to as an autistic person. And frankly, it’s fun.

Over Christmas, I saw Greta Gerwig’s beautiful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and read the original novel. Although I had read an abridged, children’s version many years ago, this was my first time reading the real text. I was surprised by how much the story differed from my memory of it (likely because it ended when Mr. March returned home from the war) and by how much I enjoyed it (aside from the Christian moralizing Alcott’s publisher pushed her to include).

I also decided that, while Alcott’s Beth March probably wasn’t autistic, mine definitely is.

Here is my evidence:

  • She is known for her shyness, which she characterizes as a fear of people.
  • This anxiety and difficulty communicating with strangers seem to transcend typical shyness. There are hints in the book that part of why she is not in school like Amy is her being ill-suited to the social environment.
  • She has a special interest in music. In fact, it’s through music that she is able eventually to form a friendship with Mr. Laurence, although initially he has to communicate with her obliquely to avoid scaring her away.
  • In social situations she relies on more comfortable and capable people, especially Jo. In one instance, she agrees to go to a social engagement because she knows that Jo will “take care” of her (Alcott 114).
  • She thrives on routine and works diligently within her normal schedule.
  • However, she struggles when her routines are disrupted. In Chapter 11, when the sisters decide to be idle for a week, Beth has a moment of being unable to decide between or complete tasks, which suggests executive dysfunction.
  • She loves animals, including kittens and her ill-fated bird, Pip.
  • She is seen as agreeable and quiet, both of which are features of masking one’s autism.

Beth is described as “a dear, and nothing else,” by her eldest sister, Meg, and much is made of her selflessness and lack of personal ambition in the book. It’s easy to dismiss her as saintly and boring, especially in comparison to more active characters like Amy and Jo. However, I think that doing so does a disservice to a character who has the potential for more interesting analyses.

Sources and further reading:

2019: Reading in Review

Reading is a huge part of my life. Since eighth grade I’ve tracked every book that I read and set the goal of reading 100 books per year. That makes 2020 my 16th year of goal-setting!

As each year ends, I like to take some time to look back over the books I’ve read and set new goals for the year ahead. And because I have this blog now, I thought I would take you along with me.

Total books read in 2019:
108. (You can see a full list on my Goodreads. I welcome new bookworm friends, so feel free to add me!)

Biggest reading accomplishment of 2019:
Finishing IT by Stephen King! I originally started reading it 19 years ago but abandoned it because, to fifth grade me, it was “boring.” I read a little more than half of it when IT: Chapter 1 was released in 2017, then finally finished it this year in anticipation of IT: Chapter 2.

Best bookish moment:
In January 2019 I met Holly Black on her book tour for The Wicked King, which was exciting because she has been a huge influence on my own writing. She signed my battered paperback copy of Tithe, gave me some encouragement writer-to-writer, and accepted my gift of handmade dragon scale fingerless gloves. It was the best experience I’ve had meeting an author.

Most anticipated new release:
2019 was a great year of new releases for me: Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater, The Witches are Coming by Lindy West, and both The Wicked King and The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black.

My favorite books of 2019:
I tried to narrow this down to 10, but couldn’t, so it’s a top 12. They’re listed in no particular order (except maybe for the over-the-top brilliant Goldfinch), and my only selection criteria were, Was it memorable? Was it fun to read? Do I still have a reaction when I see the title?

  1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  2. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
  3. The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan
  4. Your Art Will Save Your Life by Beth Pickens
  5. Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson
  6. The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste
  7. If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
  8. An Irish Country Doctor (series) by Patrick Taylor
  9. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  10. The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black
  11. blud by Rachel McKibbens
  12. The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich

Goals for 2020:
I want to read at least 100 books, as always. Because 108 is a little low for me–I’ve read 120+ books some years!–I want to be more mindful of how I spend my time and try to read more. I also want to read more classics, more poetry, and more books that I own.

How I Knew I Was Autistic

I discovered that I am autistic in April 2019, at age 30. I had come off of an incredibly difficult year, marked by what I can now identify as burnout, but at the time thought was just me being myself: dysfunctional, bad, and broken.

In fact, I had been “broken” in this way for quite some time. I had briefly attended therapy sessions at my university counseling center when I was an undergraduate. There I was summarily diagnosed with depression and social anxiety and encouraged to “forget about” the traumas I experienced during adolescence and instead say nice things about myself every day.

That didn’t work. It didn’t stop what I dubbed the “big black tidal wave” of fear and sorrow that engulfed me for weeks on end. It didn’t stop the suicidal thoughts that I had first begun having when I was 12 and in the thick of middle-school ostracism. It didn’t erase my memories of being bullied throughout high school, even receiving death threats. Soon enough I learned what I needed to say to get out of my sessions, stopped going, and wrote off therapy as an option for the next several years.

But by the first quarter of 2018, I had lost my ability to get on by myself. I could no longer insist that my struggles were things everyone went through all the time. I had to admit that my feelings of being different, and my inability to stabilize my moods, socialize effectively, or carry out the plans I made for my life, were things that I could not cope with alone.

I had begun to suspect that there was something much bigger under the surface. My first real hint of what that thing was came from an unexpected place. I was reading Liane Moriarty’s novel The Husband’s Secret. In the book, the protagonist frets over her young daughter, whose odd and intense interests make her wonder whether the girl is autistic. I never finished the book, but I related enough to the daughter’s behavior to Google autism.

I delved deeper and deeper into my research, devouring lists of “symptoms”–I now prefer to call them traits–and taking every online autism inventory I could find. I also read Rudy Simone’s book Aspergirls, which examines the ways in which ASD manifests in girls and women. With each chapter I became more and more excited that finally, I had found people whose experiences mirrored my own. But I also became increasingly anxious, fearful of what a diagnosis would mean, as well as nervous that I was somehow making it all up or misinterpreting the literature.

I confided my suspicions about myself only to my husband and my mother, as I worked up the courage to find a local therapist and make an appointment. My therapist confirmed that I am autistic, and we have been working together at twice-monthly sessions since then to deal with my challenges and to work on a healthier sense of myself.

A couple of days ago, I was looking over one of my journals from this year, and uncovered an entry in March wherein I made a list of reasons why I thought I might be autistic. In retrospect, it’s so blaringly obvious that I am. I mean, the obsessive amount of research alone is a giveaway. But at the time I really didn’t know.

Maybe you’re in the stage of not knowing. Maybe you have suspicions about yourself, but fear that you’re exaggerating, making it up, or that everyone feels exactly like you do and just keeps it a secret. That’s why I’m writing this entry–why I’m writing this whole blog, really–and I want you to know that you’re not alone.

In the spirit of solidarity, and with permission granted for you to have a laugh at how obviously autistic I was without knowing it, here is the list of traits I made for myself. (Disclaimer: All autistic people are different, and everyone’s traits won’t match mine exactly.)

  • Trouble conversing, making/keeping friends throughout life
  • Extremely early literacy (age 2), early savant skills in language, reading, writing
  • High IQ (121), gifted IEP
  • Bullied in school (and as an adult…)
  • Often feel inhuman or alien, isolated, like everyone else knows the rules but me
  • Routines–could eat/do the same things every day, stressed by change and spontaneity
  • Stimming–clenching fists, playing with jewelry, running fingers through hair, chewing lip
  • Bad at social cues; silence to avoid embarrassment
  • Scared of people, crowds, eye contact, routine interactions, running errands
  • Meltdowns when overwhelmed (crying or rage)
  • Overwhelmed by noises, bright lights, chaos
  • Auditory processing difficulties–can’t hear/understand what people say, need subtitles on TV
  • Flavor/texture sensitivities
  • Intense interests and areas of focus that aren’t “normal”
  • More comfortable alone or with animals than around people
  • Depression/anxiety
  • Difficulty attending to mundane tasks
  • People talk down to me, assume that I’m less intelligent than I am, believe that I am younger than my age
  • Dislike of sounds (chewing, abrasive voices), textures (cotton balls, crunchy snow)
  • Ambivalence toward gender roles (lifelong)

Are you autistic? If so, how did you first realize it?

A Christmas Eve Reminder

This Christmas Eve, remember that us neurodivergent people might…

❄️ Need to step away from overwhelming social situations to avoid fatigue and sensory overload.

❄️ Express gratitude or appreciation for gifts in ways you consider insincere or inadequate. (They’re not; we often struggle to express emotion, especially when we feel we’re being made to perform.)

❄️ Be more at ease with comfort objects present or while stimming. (If nothing else is available, we might scroll through our phones. It’s not to ignore you; it’s to distract from and regulate the amount of sensory input we’re receiving.)

❄️ Not want to be hugged or touched. (Please ask! And don’t be offended if we say no!)

❄️ Be wary of trying new foods due to aversions and sensory/texture issues.

❄️ Seem awkward or closed-off during “normal” holiday small talk.

The holidays are challenging for a lot of us due to increased social pressure and disruption of routines. Please be understanding.

Autistic During the Holidays

Winter has always been one of my favorite times of year. I love cold weather and the rare beauty of snow, and I really enjoy the holidays. As a pagan who was raised Baptist, I keep both Yule and Christmas, and the traditions surrounding them bring me a lot of comfort and excitement.

However, there are aspects of the holiday season that are challenging to me, and to a lot of other autistic people. Changes in normal routines and additional social pressures bring with them a lot of stress. Even as someone who likes Christmas, I struggle, and I often end up tired and overwhelmed.

Here are some tips for making this time of year easier. All of them are strategies that I employ, myself.

Take a partner with you to social events.
If possible, take someone you trust and who knows you well to social events. This might be a friend, family member, or a significant other. Whoever it is, they can help you feel more comfortable just by being there with you, so you always have someone to talk to and don’t have to be alone. They can also help to include you in larger groups that might be intimidating to break into on your own, and help to distract you when anxiety sets in. For me, this person is usually my husband, who is able to recognize when I’m having enough of a situation, and who knows topics that will engage me and get me into a better mood.

Keep ways to stim handy at all times.
For me, social events are intensely stressful, and suppressing my urge to stim only increases my anxiety. When I’m sitting in the middle of a loud family gathering, with everyone talking all around me, I need something to release my nervous energy and to help me focus, or else I go into sensory overload and sometimes experience shutdowns. I’m a knitter, and having a simple project to work on is a lifesaver for me; I get to fidget productively and still take part in conversation. I also keep a Tangle toy with me. It’s so helpful that it never leaves my purse or jacket pocket, and I’ve considered buying spares! Don’t be afraid to use your stim toys. Your loved ones will understand, and if they don’t, who cares?

Take time for yourself.
Quiet alone time is essential for me. I struggle with social interaction and noisy environments, and I have to get away from time to time to keep myself together. If you’re at a party or a family celebration that’s going to last all day, take breaks. Go for a walk, sneak off to your room to read for a few minutes, or even hide in the bathroom for awhile if that’s the only option. Find an empty room and stim; flap your arms or rock and release that tension.

Have a plan for unexpected food situations.
I don’t consider myself a picky eater, but I do have strong aversions to certain foods and textures. I like to eat the same things for weeks at a time and have particular “safe” foods. But during the holidays, I sometimes have to eat unfamiliar food. I always take time to survey the offerings, and I ask questions about ingredients if I’m unsure. I avoid things I know I won’t like, load up on things that are safe, and make an effort to try new dishes if I’m fairly certain I’ll like them. I like to cook, so I also offer to bring something to gatherings. Then I make something that I like, and I bring enough that I will have plenty if I just can’t eat the other food available.

Enjoy annual rituals and traditions.
During the holidays, everyone’s routines undergo changes. It can be a chaotic time of the year regardless of your neurotype. But routines are more important for autistic people, myself included. I find that by observing yearly traditions, I can create a sense of security and sameness even when I’m temporarily unable to do the exact same things that I do every day. Examples include watching my favorite Christmas movies year after year and listening to music that feels like winter to me (even though a lot of it isn’t Christmas music).

Be kind and forgiving to yourself.
Most importantly, keep perspective, be good to yourself, and don’t give in to pressures of what a “perfect Christmas” is or hold yourself to rigid standards. There are a million different ways to have a great holiday season, and yours is just as valid as anyone else’s.

I hope you all have wonderful holidays, regardless of what or how you celebrate!

And if you’re autistic, I would love to hear how you cope with the festive season.

About My Blog Title

Before going any farther, I want to take some time to explain why I decided to name this blog The Changeling Diaries.

First, what is a changeling? In folklore, it is a faerie baby who is left in the place of a stolen human child. Sometimes the changeling is just a log glamoured to resemble the stolen infant; in other stories, the changeling is a shriveled, old faerie.

In most stories, changelings do not fare well. Their parents note their unusual traits (excessive crying, unwillingness to eat, knowledge that they should not possess, for example) and realize that the changeling is not the child they bore. They want their real child back.

Methods of recovering a stolen child and banishing a changeling vary in levels of cruelty: making the changeling laugh, holding the changeling over a fire, leaving it on a midden heap, or abandoning it in the forest.

There are even cases of real-life deaths occurring because families believed one of their members to be a changeling. Probably the most famous case is that of Bridget Cleary, a 26-year-old Irishwoman whose husband killed her in 1895, accusing her of being a changeling, an imposter of his real wife.

Some have noted similarities between autistic traits and behavior of supposed changelings. (I’ll link further reading at the end of this post.) And certainly, the “stolen child” language will be familiar to anyone who has encountered certain types of autism rhetoric.

I first learned about the idea of changelings in high school, when I read the novel Tithe by Holly Black. In it, a sixteen-year-old girl named Kaye–who wears a leopard coat and whose mom has a rock band, two things that immediately endeared the character to young me–learns that she is not human as she has always thought, but is actually a pixie.

I would go on to read many more books about faeries, both folkloric texts and urban fantasy. The idea of the changeling stuck with me over the years, largely because it was then, and is now, so relatable. I often feel as though I do not fit into the world around me, as though I was switched at birth with someone or something else.

I’ve used the word changeling in usernames on various social media platforms, both as a way to signal my interest in faerie folklore and as a nod to those feelings of being a bit different. I use it now in my title for this blog for those reasons, but additionally as a little sly wink at the connection between changeling lore and autism. While it is a dark connection, I find the tongue-in-cheek reclamation to be personally satisfying in a sort of fantasy-punk fashion.

Perhaps I don’t belong. I’ve certainly been held over my share of metaphorical fires. But this “changeling” is still here, learning about this strange world and doing her best to carve a space in it for herself.

Sources and further reading:

Black, Holly. Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale. New York: Simon Pulse, 2004.

Pérez Cuervo, Maria J. “The Bizarre Death of Bridget Cleary, the Irish ‘Fairy Wife.'” Mental Floss, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/539793/bizarre-death-bridget-cleary-irish-fairy-wife .

Purkiss, Diane. At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Nymphs, and Other Troublesome Things. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Vyse, Stuart. “The Enduring Legend of the Changeling.” Skeptical Inquirer, https://skepticalinquirer.org/exclusive/the_enduring_legend_of_the_changeling/ .