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Biographies, part two
Last week, Mark wondered if teens are still reading biographies — or are they less popular now than when he was a teen?
It’s true that we don’t review very many biographies here. But we do review quite a few autobiographies and memoirs each year. Has the publishing landscape shifted? Are today’s teens simply more interested in the deeply personal?
The readers in my school library (granted, all girls) are clearly more drawn to autobiographies like My Beloved World and I am Malala. The latest Edmund Morris biography or Doris Kearn Goodwin? Not so much, although I buy those too. Graphic biographies like Persepolis and Feynman do move, and biographies with great writing and a sports hook like Swimming to Antarctica and The Blind Side still get noticed. Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (all 656 pages of it) was a hit, and Unbroken circulates regularly.
Some of the shift could be attributed to shorter attention spans, but I also think the majority of teens are most interested in people who are affecting their lives, right now. With today’s first review we offer a biography that involves a phenomenon very popular with teens — Minecraft. Hosting Minecraft programs has become a common way of bringing teens into libraries. Larsson’s book is both a biography of its creator, Markus “Notch” Persson, and about the gaming industry surrounding him. Need I say more?
Our second review is a memoir that we actually reviewed before. Prison Baby was self-published in 2011 under the title Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison. Author Deborah Jiang Stein found a mainstream publisher, Beacon Press, and expanded her book. She shares some of that process on The Huffington Post in “Persist, Above All Else.”
LARSSON, Linus & Daniel Goldberg. Minecraft: The Unlikely Tale of Markus “Notch” Persson and the Game That Changed Everything. tr. from Swedish by Jennifer Hawkins. 256p. bibliog. photos. notes. Seven Stories. Nov. 2013. Tr $21.95. ISBN 9781609805371.
More than 35 million copies of Minecraft have been downloaded, and YouTube is full of videos. In this biography of its creator, the game is explored from pre-inception to the launch of the official version at MineCon in November, 2011. (43,000 people attended MineCon in Las Vegas, even before the game’s official release.) Readers will also learn about the Swedish gaming industry, which is robust and creative. Persson, known as “Notch,” is a programmer who rarely left his computer day or night and began working at gaming companies while inventing Minecraft on the side. As its sole creator, he was at one point pulling in thousands of dollars a day. Minecraft’s simple graphics show that the genius of the game isn’t in its appearance; it’s in the desire and planning of a man who knows how games work and how people like to play them. Readers also learn about Persson’s family (complete with a father and sister who are drug addicts) and the rest of the Minecraft team as it stands today, but it always comes back to the unassuming creator. The book is incredibly readable and delightfully informative. Recommended not only for people who play, but for the librarians and teachers who serve the players.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
JIANG STEIN, Deborah. Prison Baby: A Memoir. 171p. Beacon. Mar. 2014. pap. $14. ISBN 9780807098103. LC 2013039396.
This unique and startling memoir brings together the worlds of prison and closed adoption. When Jiang Stein was 12, she was snooping through her mother’s dresser drawer and found a letter that revealed the secret drama of her birth: she was born in a federal prison in West Virginia to a heroin-addicted mother. While part of her was relived–this discovery explained a lot, including why she looked darker than her white adoptive parents. It also distanced her more from their academic and privileged lives. Spiraling into shame, she became involved in drugs, addiction, crime, and violence. Surprisingly, she never ended up in prison; when she became sober she went back to the prison in which she was born. Ultimately she became a sought after presenter inside women’s prisons everywhere, reconciled with her adoptive parents, and became a loving mother herself. Anyone who knows about the closed adoption or prison system will be amazed at the information Jiang Stein was able to uncover: baby photos, a lock of hair, her “prison mother’s” records, files, and letters, even a yarn toy she made for her daughter. It is this toy that became the cover of the memoir. Prison Baby was originally self published under the title Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus (2011). This version is significantly different in content with a lot more specifics and information about her journey, but it’s just as poetically written. The author’s personal struggles and insights will fascinate and resonate with teens everywhere.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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