When I was a school librarian, I observed that many of the kids perceived by their parents to be “reluctant readers” were in fact extremely eager readers—if only one counted nonfiction as “real” reading. Nonfiction can offer all the creativity, suspense, well-rounded characterization, rich vocabulary, and gripping prose as fiction—as amply demonstrated by Christina Soontornvat’s All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team (Candlewick, 2020), the 2021 Kirkus Prize winner in Young Readers’ Literature. Science journalist Amanda Baker eloquently paid tribute to young readers’ passion for nonfiction—and the stellar options available today—in her Scientific American piece, “Nonfiction Is Cool, and Our Kids Know It.” Below are some outstanding nonfiction books for teens: 2021 releases that may have slipped under your radar and 2022 titles to look forward to.
Adolescence is a time of reflection, making the thoughtful contemplation of others’ lives a natural fit. These works intriguingly venture away from the usual household names. Close-Up on War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam by Mary Cronk Farrell (Amulet/Abrams, Feb. 22) follows an intrepid young Frenchwoman who captured searing images of soldiers and civilians during the Vietnam War. A largely forgotten mastermind who made tremendous contributions to national security during both world wars is the subject of The Woman All Spies Fear: Code Breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and Her Hidden Life by Amy Butler Greenfield (Random House Studio, 2021). Co-authored by Rosemarie Lengsfeld Turke and her son, Garrett L. Turke, American Shoes: A Refugee's Story (Beyond Words Publishing, Feb. 15) tells the traumatic story of Turke’s youth: Trapped in Hitler’s Germany when borders closed during a family visit to relatives, eventually returning to the U.S. alone at age 15, she reflects upon identity and responsibility.
Today’s nonfiction often serves as a guide for action for passionate and informed young readers. Both Know Your Rights and Claim Them: A Guide for Youth by Amnesty International, Angelina Jolie, and Geraldine Van Bueren (Zest Books, 2021) and Urgent Message From a Hot Planet: Navigating the Climate Crisis by Ann Eriksson, illustrated by Belle Wuthrich (Orca, Jan. 18), frankly and lucidly discuss serious subjects but also offer hope and practical advice to young activists.
Poetry is perennially popular with young adult readers for its economy and ability to get right to the heart of big emotions, making it ideal for sharing intensely personal stories, as in the following titles. Respect the Mic: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry From a Chicagoland High School edited by Hanif Abdurraqib, Franny Choi, Peter Kahn, and Dan “Sully” Sullivan (Penguin Workshop, Feb. 1) is a moving collection created over two decades by young members of a spoken word club. Poetry by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals is supplemented by essays and interviews in which they share harrowing experiences in When You Hear Me (You Hear Us): Voices on Youth Incarceration edited by the Free Minds Book Club Writing Workshop (Shout Mouse Press, 2021). Widely renowned poet Marilyn Nelson’s latest, Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life (Christy Ottaviano Books, Jan. 25), is a beautiful tribute that sheds light on the life of a Harlem Renaissance genius.
Art can convey meaning that would take paragraphs of text to attempt to get across with the same immediacy. Two graphic memoirs—Passport, written and illustrated by Sophia Glock (Little, Brown, 2021), and Tiny Dancer, by Siena Cherson Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel (Atheneum, 2021)—present fascinating stories. Glock grew up in Central America as the daughter of CIA agents, a circumstance that made adolescence more fraught than usual. Siegel explores her changing and complicated relationship with dance after leaving Puerto Rico for a ballet career in New York City.
Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.