YA Nonfiction

LITTLE FISH by Ramsey Beyer

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Ramsey knows that she wants to go to art school and that she does not want to stay in the Midwest. She loves her small town, her family, and her friends, but something is calling her to Baltimore–and not just the punk scene. As she begins her college education in an unfamiliar environment, Ramsey navigates the challenges most college freshmen experience such as homesickness, adjusting to new freedoms, more difficult coursework, and new relationships. This graphic memoir will appeal to high school realistic fiction and memoir fans, especially seniors about to experience their own freshman year.

TOMBOY by Liz Prince

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Liz is a tomboy. Not the kind of tomboy that you see on TV with braided pigtails and overalls, but the kind of girl  who gets mistaken for a boy due to the way she dresses and acts and the activities that she enjoys. In fact, Liz wishes she were a boy because then she wouldn’t have to deal with all of the double standards applied to her because she is a girl.  She is secretly pleased when people mistake her for a boy. Unfortunately, being a tomboy  seems to have doomed her romantic life.   By recounting the story of her childhood, Liz Prince explorers the idea of what it means to be a girl in a world of conflicting gender expectations.

 Although brief sections of this graphic memoir read a little bit like a sociology text, the sense of humor of the author and her relatable story about growing up, trying to fit in, facing bullying, and discovering her identity is an engaging read.   I recommend it to teens who enjoy graphic novels, memoirs, or realistic fiction.

LAST OF THE GIANTS: THE RISE AND FALL OF EARTH’S MOST DOMINANT SPECIES by Jeff Campbell

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How would you feel if you encountered a 12 ft. tall bird? Or a 6 ft. tall, 10 ft. long ox?  As strange and potentially alarming as they might sound, these and other giant creatures ruled their ecosystems until humans hastened their extinction.  In his book, Campbell describe the origins, history, role, and extinction of thirteen “giants” of nature.  Each account is incredibly interesting, but detailed and written with a sophisticated, scientific style that may not appeal to all of the teen readers to whom it is marketed.  Despite a few half-hearted and awkward references to social media, and an occasional break in tone for an attempt at teen-speak, the book reads like a scientific article.  So while it won’t attract a broad teen audience, it is fantastic for high schoolers and adults who are interested in the subject matter and looking for a well-researched, thorough narrative about the evolution, impact, and decline of each species–as well as a glimpse into the future of possible back-breeding to restore giants into the ecosystem. 

An engaging read which I recommend to older teens and adults who are interested in biology and/or history.

YOU’RE NEVER WEIRD ON THE INTERNET (ALMOST) by Felicia Day

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Before The Guild” and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Felicia Day was an isolated, home schooled kid who discovered a community and her own voice on the then fledgling internet.  Her memoir goes beyond hilarious anecdotes from an unconventional childhood with the history of the Internet and online gaming from a user’s perspective, her experience with video game addiction, a glimpse into the life of an unknown actor trying to make it in LA, an account of creating a low budget Web series (“The Guild”), and her perspective on and experience with Gamergate.  A truly gifted writer, Day divides her memoir into semi-chronological sections by topic, giving each individual part its own arc in addition to the overall narrative arc of the memoir, which encourages readers to pursue their creative passions. 

I picked up this book as a Guild fan, thinking it would just be an interesting glimpse into Felicia Day’s life.  Instead I found one of the most interesting and entertaining memoirs I have ever read and a new audiobook favorite!  If you are not a Felicia Day fan already, the book may lack the “squee” factor it had for me, but if you are an Internet user who enjoys memoirs, you will probably still find her story engaging.  Definitely listen to the audiobook!

BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson

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Jacqueline’s childhood was shaped by the Civil Rights movement, her grandfather’s garden, the kids playing in the streets in Bushwick, and so many other things.  She gathers her memories and turns them into poetry in this National Book Award winning memoir.  Her story is accessible and beautifully told with vivid imagery and a depth of reflection that inspires similar personal reflection from readers of all ages.  A beautiful book.  I highly recommend it!

AUDACITY by Melanie Crowder

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Clara always loved learning. But in her small Jewish community, women were not meant to be scholars. And her father was determined that not even his sons would ever learn Russian, the language of their oppressors.  Still Clara dreamed of being a doctor, and taught herself in secret how to read and how to speak Russian. When a violent pogrom destroyed their community, Clara and her family moved to America, and the opportunity for her to pursue her studies seemed more real than ever. But when the need to support her family forced Clara to work in a sweatshop, she discovered the horrible plight of the working immigrant woman – and child – and her dreams of becoming a surgeon began to conflict with her desire to pursue justice for the oppressed women around her.  Still a teenager, Clara formed a union, and endured terrible hardships as she pursued her new dream.

Inspired by Clara’s real life love of poetry, Crowder tells the true story of Clara Lemlich as she imagines Clara would have experienced it in beautiful poetic verse. The story is exciting, informative, and inspiring. Teen readers may see parallels between Clara’s struggle for justice and many injustice is in our world today. The book concludes with a detailed description of what is true and what is fictionalized in the novel, as well as interviews with Clara’s surviving relatives. I highly recommend this book to teen readers who enjoy historical fiction.

TAKING FLIGHT: FROM WAR ORPHAN TO STAR BALLERINA by Michaela DePrince with Elaine DePrince

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As a child, Michaela DePrince witnessed terrible violence in war-torn Sierra Leone. She survived the death of both of her parents, and escaped as a refugee to Ghana, where she was adopted by an American family.  What kept Michaela’s hope alive through her years in Sierra Leone was a torn magazine cover with a photograph of a ballerina on it. It was the most incredible thing she had ever seen, and she hoped that one day she could become a ballerina too. Her adoptive parents supported her dreams, and Michaela overcame racial discrimination to become one of the world’s few black classical ballerinas. 

Young as she is, Michaela’s memoir only covers her first 17 years of life. But her story is inspiring and very well-written. I read it in one sitting. Although marketed as a young adult book, her story will be of interest to teens and adults. I highly recommend it!

THE ENDLESS STEPPE: GROWING UP IN SIBERIA by Esther Hautzig

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Esther had a beautiful childhood. She shared a large home with her parents and extended family in their Polish town of Vilna. They had beautiful garden that Esther tended with her grandfather, and she attended a wonderful school. But that all ended with the German invasion. As the Polish army fought valiantly against the Germans, the Soviets began to wage war against what they considered to be internal enemies. Labeled as capitalists, Esther, her parents, and her grandparents are shuttled into cattle cars and taken to labor camps in Siberia. From age ten to age fifteen, Esther learns to survive working in the harsh, barren landscape. But as she grows and builds friendships and a life for herself, it becomes difficult to imagine ever leaving.

Esther Hautzig tells her life story in beautiful and evocative prose. Her experiences of joys and hardships are both shocking and accessible; in many ways, childhood in Siberia is no different from childhood anywhere else.  There is sadness in this story, as you can imagine, but ultimately, Esther’s story is hopeful. I highly recommend this book to middle grade readers and teens who enjoy historical novels and memoirs and who are interested in hearing a less-often-told side of the Second World War.

FREEDOM’S CHILDREN: YOUNG CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS TELL THEIR OWN STORIES by Ellen Levine

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Ellen Levine compiled the stories of over a dozen African American civil rights activists, all of whom were children and teenagers during the Civil Rights Movement in the American South.  The stories these activists tell about their childhood struggles are at times shocking but always inspiring.  Readers will learn about some of the major events in the Civil Rights Movement (such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott), as well as small victories with hometown sit-ins and day-to-day struggles with segregation.  Intended for older school-age children and teens, this book includes frank and occasionally graphic discussions of the violence during that time period, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

I used this book as the basis for a library program for children ages 7 & up and their parents.  I discussed the violence selectively–as an introduction for the younger kids that would not be traumatizing.  I did share one picture of protesters being attacked with fire hoses when we talked about peaceful protests and talked about how African American students were bullied at first when integrating schools.  I focused on the children and how they had used peaceful means of protest to help change attitudes in their country.

This program was very well-received by students and their parents.  Students were surprised to learn that children their age (and sometimes younger than they) were arrested for peaceful protests–and shocked to learn that some “colored” schools didn’t even have bathrooms or outhouses!  After the presentation, we had time for students to write or draw a reflection on what they had learned.  I gave them the following prompts:

  • One story that inspired me today was . . .
  • One time I saw injustice when . . .
  • One time I stood up for someone else when . . .
  • One time I stood up for myself when . . .
  • One time I was brave when . . .
  • If I were alive in 1950, my life would have been different because . . .

I was so impressed with their observations about injustice and bullying in their own school environments and their insights into how segregation would have impacted their lives–no matter what their race.  While the children wrote and drew, parents began a conversation about racism they had witnessed or experienced in their lifetimes.  A parent from South Korea discussed her experience with injustice and protests during her childhood and how it compared to the American Civil Rights Movement.  It was a very thoughtful and productive conversation.

This was one of the best-received programs I have ever done, and I found it personally inspiring, as well.  I highly recommend the book, and if any librarians/educators would like more information about the program, just shoot me an email!  I would be more than happy to share my presentation.

BLIZZARD: THE STORM THAT CHANGED AMERICA by Jim Murphy

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The blizzard that hit the east coast of the United States in March 1888 took the country and the fledgling National Weather Service completely by surprise and claimed hundreds of lives.  Though it was not the most devastating natural disaster the United States has ever faced, it drastically changed the way our nation viewed disaster preparedness and meteorology.  Jim Murphy tells the story of the great blizzard through the eyes of the people who experienced it–some who survived to tell the tale, and others who perished–while weaving in the science behind the storm and the big picture of the political and social climate that affected the responses of individuals and the government.  Although it is targeted for middle grade and teen readers, this fascinating and fast-paced book may be of interest to adults, as well!