I’m going to tell you a secret: I’ve derived much of my knowledge of history via fiction. Don’t be alarmed. I don’t assume historical novels depict the past accurately. Rather, reading historical or classic fiction often inspires me to research the “true” story that inspired the fictional one.
While I’ve learned a lot this way, I also realize some stories are so extraordinary that they need to be told in their “true” form, meaning through memoir and nonfiction. With young readers, reading memoirs and nonfiction can make accessible seemingly distant worlds and invite deeper engagement with history.
Here are seven I’m glad to have read recently:
“Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson: Woodson’s memoir in verse won the National Book Award in 2014. Her stirring poems create word paintings of pre-Civil Rights era South Carolina, where she lived during her childhood in the 1960s, and New York City, where her family moved in the 1970s. Woven throughout are themes any child can relate to: friendship, family, and finding your purpose.
“The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne” by Catherine Reef: The short, difficult lives of the Bronte sisters are rendered in elegant prose. While Reef doesn’t sugarcoat the sisters’ tragic experiences, she knows her audience and treads softly.
“Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition” by Margot Lee Shetterly: The film adaptation of Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures” crafts a compelling fictional story around the true one of four female African-Americans mathematicians working at NASA during the 1950s and 60s. This adaptation tells the true story, speaking specifically to young readers.
“Inside out and Back Again” by Thanhha Lai: This poignant autobiographical verse narrative tells the story of Ha’s childhood in Saigon, her family’s escape after the city’s fall, and their relocation to the United States. Her elegant poems make painful emotional experiences accessible through emphasis through sensory images.
“Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution” by Ji-Li Jiang: Jiang presents the narrative of her family’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution in stark, unemotional prose. This is quite a feat given how devastating her story is. It’s appalling, thought-provoking, and all-around an important book to read.
“Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad” by M. T. Anderson: A biography of composer Shostakovich, the book explores the power of music to inspire and console. It also provides insight into the last days of the Romanov era, the rise of the Bolsheviks, Stalin’s sociopathic reign of terror, and the brutal years of the Siege of Leningrad. All while telling the story of Shostakovich and his music.
“Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings” by Margarita Engle: This memoir in verse, for ages 14 and up, takes place during the 1950s and 60s in California, where Engle was raised, and Cuba, where her mother’s family lived. She describes the confusion and pain of being torn between two cultures, which intensifies after the communist revolution in Cuba cuts off contact with her mother’s homeland. As a second generation American, I found her poems achingly capture the feeling of being pulled between two cultures.
What nonfiction and memoirs do you recommend for tween and teen readers?