8 Great Narrative Nonfiction Books

Genres: Non-fiction

One of the trends I’ve noticed in my library over the past year is the increasing popularity of teen nonfiction. From true crime to biographies, my nonfiction circulation stats are going up, and that makes me super excited. I’m a fact and research hound, so I love reading and booktalking nonfiction books, especially to reluctant readers who may be more likely to finish a nonfiction than a fiction book. I even recently had an entire class of middle school students come in for narrative nonfiction books to read for book reports. That inspired me to do a “True Stories” bibliography to keep in my teen room, and a display with the tagline “Ripped from the Headlines.” It was a good resource for students and library staff and one of my most popular displays to date. Here are a few of my favorite titles from that bibliography and display.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shoshtakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson. This harrowing narrative of life of composer Dmitri Shoshtakovich is framed around the story of the Siege of Leningrad. During the Second World War, Russia sided first with the Axis Powers, then switched to the Allied side after being betrayed and invaded by Germany. Hitler decided that he had no use for the city of Leningrad and laid siege to it, determined to wipe it off the map by any means necessary. For over 900 days, the city was held hostage, and in the middle of it, Shoshtakovich composed his now-famous Leningrad Symphony. Within the besieged city, an orchestra gathered to perform it, although most were too weak and sick to play for long periods of time and some died before the premiere. The music and the composer became symbols of hope in the face of ultimate peril, and Leningrad never surrendered. Give this to history and music buffs alike, and librarians, grab your tissues for the story of the Leningrad Public Library, which remained open throughout the siege.

Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies by Tanya Anderson. Eighty years before Rosie the Riveter made women in the workforce mainstream, and fifty years before labor laws made workplaces safe, civilian women went to work in munitions factories creating ammunition for the American Civil War. Most of these were in their teens and early twenties, many of them immigrants, and some paid the ultimate price through human error, freak accident, or outright negligence. In this quick read, Tanya Anderson explores three accidents at Civil War munitions factories, examining the causes and effects of the explosions, the lives and working conditions of the workers, and how these accidents contributed to modern safe-labor practices.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. Begun as a Tumblr page, this biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg highlights not only Ginsburg’s extraordinary life, but several historic cases argued before the Supreme Court. The highly-visual format of this book gives it greater appeal for reluctant readers, and it includes a timeline, in-depth examination of women’s issues and landmark Supreme Court cases, and extracts from several Justice Ginsburg’s position papers with teen-friendly notes by prominent lawyers.

Blood, Bullets, and Bones: The Story of Forensic Science from Sherlock Holmes to DNA by Bridget Heos. This book takes readers through the history of forensic science by highlighting cases that changed the way investigators solve crimes. A perfect pick for fans of TV shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, Bones, or Sherlock.

Diary of a Tokyo Teen by Christine Mari Inzer. Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and American father, Christine Inzer relocated to the United States as a young child. As a teenager, she spent a summer visiting her grandparents in Japan, touring Tokyo and the surrounding area. Sprinkled with pop-culture references and Inzer’s own illustrations, this heartfelt and at times hilarious graphic novel/travelogue hybrid will fly with Japanophiles and aspiring world travelers. Take it to your next anime club!

Being Jazz: My Life as a Transgender Teen by Jazz Jennings. Jazz Jennings, star of TLC’s I Am Jazz, knew from a young age that she was a girl born into a boy’s body. Luckily, her parents supported her all the way from her “coming out party” on her fifth birthday to her show on TLC and teenage life as a top activist for trans youth. Jazz speaks frankly of her struggles to be accepted from school dress codes to a battle over her place in a travel soccer league that went to a national level, but this memoir is overwhelmingly positive and inspiring.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach. Roach explores military science with equal amounts of seriousness and humor. Readers learn how to put a degree in fashion design to good use in the military; find out why diarrhea poses a threat to national security; visit a movie set used to train combat medics to keep their heads when faced with horrific injuries in the field; and join the crew of a submarine to learn about the effects of sleep deprivation. Packed with laugh-out-loud sarcasm and “hey-listen-to-this” moments, this is a sure hit for military and science buffs alike.

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsburg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin. In the early days of the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsburg was a Pentagon insider, which made him privy to plenty of secrets. After leaving the Pentagon and serving in a combat unit in Vietnam, Ellsburg became a journalist and, at great personal risk, decided to publish thousands of pages of classified documents that proved that several US Presidents and high-ranking officials knew all along that they were fighting a war that they can never win. A modern parallel to the saga of Edward Snowden makes this YALSA Nonfiction Award Winner all the more thought-provoking.

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