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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Adult Nonfiction for Teens

Looking at the New York Times’s list of 100 Notable Books of 2012, I was somewhat surprised and definitely disappointed to see that this blog had reviewed only two of the 47 titles the Times recommended (in contrast, we reviewed 12 of the Times’s 53 fiction titles). To be sure, we reviewed our fair share of nonfiction this year, and ten of our 26 choices for best of the year were nonfiction, but it still seemed odd to me that we had gotten to so little of what the Times saw as the best nonfiction of the year, so I wanted to take a closer look at the Times’s and our own list of the best nonfiction of the year.

The most obvious difference between the two lists is that ours is a much less diverse list than the Times’s. The Times’s list covers a huge range of subjects: archaeology, sociology, evolution, law, race, music, breasts, and more. Meanwhile, of the ten nonfiction titles we named Best of the Year, six are memoirs and another two are biographies (one in graphic novel form). Last year, we listed only five nonfiction titles and three of them were memoirs, with a biography thrown in. So it is no surprise that the two titles from the Times’s list which we reviewed were Katherine Boo’s memoir Behind the Beautiful Flowers and Tom Reiss’s The Black Count, a biography of Alexandre Dumas.

It’s not just this blog either. Very few Alex Awards have gone to nonfiction titles (fewer than one third), but of the 41 nonfiction Alex Awardees, 17 are memoirs, and two to four more are biographies, depending on how you count. Obviously teens are interested in many other topics than just memoir and biography, so how do we account for the prevalence of memoir and biography among the adult nonfiction titles we librarians recommend to teens?

Surely, a large part of this bias must be that oft heard mantra “it reads like fiction.” Memoirs in particular, and biographies to a lesser extent, tend to read as linear, narrative stories with straightforward plots and character arcs familiar to fiction readers. As I noted in passing, the Alex Awards are already strongly biased in favor of fiction, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that nonfiction titles that read like fiction would be preferred. And I don’t mean to impugn the Alex Awards as an institution or any member of any of their committees, because as I pointed out, our little blog holds the same bias. The narrative bias seems to be a more general bias among librarians, for whatever reason.

But my point in all of this is not (simply) to criticize librarian-generated awards lists, but to try to start a conversation about what other types of nonfiction we might be able to offer to teens. Which brings me back to the Times’s nonfiction list. A great many of the Times’s recommendations are probably outside the scope of this blog due to their gargantuan sizes and/or specialized topics. I don’t, for example, expect any teen I know to pick up a copy of Robert A. Caro’s 736-page Passage of Power (let alone the previous three equally enormous entries in Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson) except to browse through for a quote or two in a research paper. Similarly, Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food seems just a bit too specific to offer to any but the most discerning of teens.

Still, I was surprised at the number of titles on the Times‘s list that I immediately wanted to look into for teen appeal. Keeping in mind that I haven’t read any of these yet, here are the titles that look worth pursuing:

  • Carpenter, Dale. Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas: How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans. (Norton)
  • Hirshman, Linda. Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. (Harper)

It seems possible at this point that today’s teens may be one of the last generations to be aware of widespread, blatant disapproval of homosexuality: together these books should help them understand how our culture got so far so quickly.

  • Luhrmann, T.M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. (Knopf)

A topic perhaps for another post sometime, but it seems to me that religion is all to little discussed in fiction or nonfiction for teens, except in the most factual of manners. I’d like to take a look at this one to see how respectfully it treats Evangelical believers.

  • Holt, Jim. Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. (Liveright/Norton)

Need I say more?

  • Murphy, Paul Thomas. Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy. (Pegasus)

A possible tie-in with the film The Young Victoria?

  • McLane, Maureen N. My Poets. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

In my experience, public school students are exposed to far too little real literary criticism. This book promises an easy entre into the world of criticism by means of memoir(!)

  • Witt, John Fabian. Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History. (Free Press)

This one looks to be the most heavy-duty of the titles I’ve listed here, but it is exactly the sort of book that I might have read in my AP American History class.

  • Trivers, Robert. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. (Basic Books)

Another one whose title says it all to me.

  • Stott, Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. (Spiegel & Grau)

For teens intrigued by the historical sections of Heigelman’s Charles and Emma, this books looks at the precursors to Charles Darwin in the fight over evolution.

  • Smith, RJ. The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. (Gotham)
  • Byrne, David. How Music Works. (McSweeney’s)

When I was a teenager, I was one of many of my peers who spurned much of the contemporary music scene and looked to the music of older generations to define my tastes. I can only assume these teens still exist, and if so, they could do a lot worse that reading RJ Smith on James Brown or David Byrne from the Talking Heads on music in general.

Has anyone read any of these titles? Any teen appeal there? What other kinds of nonfiction books should we be recommending to teens? Please chime in in the comments and help us up our game.

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


  1. I think when you’re dealing with an award that speaks to teen appeal, part of the reason non-fiction doesn’t show up as often is because committees shy away from books that will be seen as homework or something to be read in order to write a paper. I think the committees look for books that teen readers will both relate to and want to read.

    That being said, I haven’t read any of the books cited above. But a nonfiction book is going to have to be something very special to have the broad teen appeal I believe most committees are looking for. While all of us know a certain teen or class that would devour a book about literary criticism or the history of evolution, there are just too many great books that will have more widespread teen appeal.

  2. Mark Flowers says

    Hmm. Interesting points. I’m reluctant to agree with the characterization of nonfiction as “homework” for a variety of reasons, not least among them that for many people (including many teens) nonfiction is the primary type of reading them do (the old cliche used to be that women/girls read fiction and men/boys read nonfiction but I don’t like those sorts of generalizations).

    I’m also not entirely sure I agree with the point about broad appeal. I personally loved TALK FUNNY GIRL and didn’t like SALVAGE THE BONES, but I can’t see either one of them appealing very broadly even to adults, let alone teens. Whereas something very light like STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST has incredibly broad potential appeal to teens.

    In general, I think the thrust of your argument is pointing to fiction as the default mode of reading for teens, and as I stated above, I just don’t believe that is the case.

  3. My own experience as a public librarian has shown it’s easier to get teens to read fiction. I’m not saying that’s true for every librarian, teacher, or parent. The non-fiction that my teens read is also generally True Crime, memoirs, or biography. Statistically, Alex has given awards to memoirs and biographies which, I think, reflects the experiences of committee members working with teens. In my opinion, Alex is a list of books teens will want to read and not books *we* want them to read. In my experience, it’s the rare teenager who is going to pick-up a book about religion or philosophy for pleasure reading.

    I agree that STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST is an excellent example of non-fiction with appeal to teens. Since we don’t know what the 2013 committee has nominated, we won’t know whether or not they agree.

    Finally, I think most Alex committees try not to have a “quota” in mind when creating their 10 winners. So, if there is non-fiction that rises to the top – great. If the excellent books with teen appeal are overwhelmingly fiction, then that will be reflected in the list of winners. I don’t think we should expect a certain number of any kind of book on list of adult books with teen appeal. If you look at the vetted lists, I think you will find non-fiction.