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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Biographies

I remember reading a lot of biographies when I was a teenager. Not memoirs or autobiographies (although I read those too), but big, thick books about famous people written by someone who had done a lot of research. I was obsessed with the Beatles, and I know I read several massive biographies of John Lennon and Paul McCartney each. I also read biographies of baseball stars like Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams.

 BiographiesMy questions today is, was I a weird teen? Wait, don’t answer that – let me rephrase. Are there teens out there who are reading those types of “true” biographies? I know teens love memoirs–Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called “It” is probably the most popular nonfiction book at my library. And we’ve talked often on this blog about the fact that the Alex Awards has a heavy bias towards memoirs.  But very few (if any – it all depends on how you count) Alex Awards have gone to biographies like the ones I described in the first paragraph.

We know that biographies are being written and being written very well. From 1964 – 1983, The National Book Award had a separate award designated, variously, “History and Biography”, “Biography”, or “Biography/Autobiography”. Even given its own separate or semi-separate category, biography seeped over into other nonfiction awards, with biographies of John Keats, Mark Twain, and others winning for “Arts and Letters” and a biography of Einstein sneaking into the “Science” category.  In the 30 years of awards since the nonfiction awards were consolidated into a single category, something like 33 “true” biographies have won or been nominated for the NBA.

So great adult biographies are out there – but they seem to be a bit beyond the reach of teens. Over the past several months, I’ve been looking for a good adult biography to recommend on this blog and have struck out even on big names like Mozart and EE Cummings. Am I missing something here, or are there not as many good adult biographies for teens as there used to be?

Or, maybe a more plausible guess: maybe all the great biographies for teens are actually being published for teens these days? The YALSA Nonfiction Award has given out stickers to biographies of Steve Jobs, Janet Joplin, PT Barnum, Claudette Colvin, and Leonard Bernstein.

Help me out–are there adult biographies that I should be recommending to my teens, or should I just be happy there are so many great YA biographies?

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About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark

Comments

  1. Katie Stuart says:

    The adult book that has been most popular with my 8th graders is Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I read it because I was at a party where a husband, wife and 16 year old son were all raving about it. I wouldn’t try to teach it as a whole class book at this level, but for readers with some stamina it has been a hit. Boys who have read war stories and like history have been drawn to it and have recommended it to others.

    I, too, read lots of biographies as a teen and one that I think I would have liked is The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. I haven’t had a student read it yet, but if I taught high school, I would be recommending it.

  2. Angela Carstensen Angela Carstensen says:

    Unbroken is popular here, too, Katie. The other one that always goes when booktalked is In the Garden of the Beasts, which might be considered the biography of a family. Many of the titles I start to list are actually autobiography, so perhaps that is a more marketable genre for teens these days?

  3. Maryalice says:

    I am desperately in need of some great YA biographies! Though I have added many memoirs, my biography section is very out of date. Would you share some of the “many great YA biographies” you mentioned?

    • Mark Flowers says:

      Definitely start with the YALSA Nonfiction Award winners I mentioned in the post – you can find the full bibliographic details here: http://www.ala.org/yalsa/booklistsawards/bookawards/nonfiction/previous

      And if you click on the link for each year’s award, you can find the Official Nominations, which also include some great biographies. Here’s 2013, which includes bios on Harry Kellar, Charles Dickens, and Temple Grandin: http://www.ala.org/yalsa/booklistsawards/bookawards/nonfiction/officialnoms/2013

      My two personal favorite YA biographies of recent years are Candace Fleming’s AMELIA LOST, about Amelia Earhart., and Steve Sheinkin’s THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD, both from 2012.

      Recently, I’ve been dipping into Katherine Krull’s “Giants of Science” series – they are all super short, probably officially intended for middle grade readers, but great for teens, and they include books on Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, and more.

      And don’t forget graphic novel biographies. Jim Ottaviani is the best, especially FEYNMAN and PRIMATES, but there are many others out there.

      Hope that helps for a start!

      • Maryalice says:

        Thank you! I am looking into all of the titles/lists you suggested. Now, my question is how are you shelving these books in your library? Are you placing them in the 92s or within their subject area? I appreciate your feedback!

      • Mark Flowers says:

        Hi Maryalice,

        Personally, I don’t have much control over where things get shelved in my library – I work in a big county system, and the answer to your question seems to vary wildly from biography to biography. Personally, I’d rather have as many bios shelved in the 920s (or, even better, a separate Bio section) as possible, but I can see the arguments both ways. Maybe other readers have more input?

  4. @jeReads says:

    Adult sports biographies are very inspirational for teens, especially young men. Some titles:
    SHOOTING STARS by Lebron James & Buzz Bissinger
    THE CAPTAIN: THE JOURNEY OF DEREK JETER by Ian O’Connor
    FRANCONA: THE RED SOX YEARS by Terry FRANCONA and Dan Shaughnessy

    Another fascinating non-fiction book about baseball (though not a biography) is THE BASEBALL CODES by Jason Turbow

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