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Venturing into New Territories: High Interest Adult Nonfiction for YA Readers

by Jennifer Brannen

*This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of RA News.*

I have a goodly number of teens who come into the library looking for something to read, and the RA path doesn’t always lead where you might think. As teens minds grow, so too do their reading interests and needs. Adult nonfiction can be full of interesting possibilities for the curious teen reader. Keep your mind open as you read nonfiction for topics or titles that could have especially high appeal for these readers -- excitement, adventure, and social justice are all good entry points. With so much to choose from, I'm going to focus on a handful of especially high-interest areas: Memoirs and biographies, science, and adventure.

That's the Story of My Life: The Power of Memoirs and Biographies

Teens look for reflections of their lives and aspirations as well as inspiration in the lives of others. Memoirs and biographies of people both famous and not, historical or current can be thought provoking, empathy inducing, and on occasion, even inspirational. Vicarious living can be a powerful tool for understanding the world and some of the stranger or scarier things that it can throw at you. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is, of course, a classic example, but Reyna Grade's The Distance Between Us is likewise disturbing and moving as it shines a light on a family broken by distance and the stresses of being undocumented immigrants. Other popular options include the inspirational story of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba, the grittier tales of life of the streets of Newark in The Pact by Sampson Davis, and the lighter tone of Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas.

Your older teens might appreciate edgier fare in their reading. Classics such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Basketball Diaries still have an audience. (I have put both of those books into teen hands recently and I read them myself in high school.) The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls about her incredibly dysfunctional family is another option as is My Friend Dahmer by Derf (a graphic novel memoir about attending high school with the titular serial killer).

And speaking of which, no discussion of high appeal memoirs for teens would be complete with acknowledging the power of the graphic memoir (the graphic novel medium put to good use telling personal stories). Classics like Maus and Persepolis both turn up regularly on reading lists. March, Book 1, by Rep. John Lewis is sure to join them there soon as he brings history full circle in this Civil Rights memoir. (A comic book about MLK and the Montgomery protests was used to spread the word at the early sit-ins that Lewis participated in and writes about). Fun Home by Alison Bechdel explores sexual identity and family weirdness (and it's now an award-winning musical!). Alex-winning Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley charms using her relationship with food and cooking as its hook even as it adroitly depicts all of the awkwardness and complexity of growing up. (And if you enjoy Relish, give French Milk, her memoir of spending her 21st birthday in Paris a read.)

Taking the Blinders Off with Science

Some of my favorite nonfiction recommendations to teens have been books about science -- physics, space travel, and genetics are all hot topics. Science is a portal to a larger understanding of our place in the world and in the universe with the added bonus of trying to figure out how it all fits together. Science moves from the microcosm of genetics to the macrocosm of astronomy. You might pick up a hint here that I love science and you'd be correct, especially when it's written with verve, wit, and clarity.

Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon is the book I wish I'd had when I was tangling with the Periodic Table in high school. His second book, The Violinist's Thumb does for genetics what his first book did for chemistry. Mary Roach has a knack for interesting topics (death, sex, space travel, and eating) and the gift of pursuing logical questions to their weirdest extremes. Packing for Mars (figuring out the nitty-gritty of long-term space travel) is a frequent favorite, but Bonk (guess what that's about?) and Gulp (you'll never think about saliva the same way again) are also good choices. For the budding neuroscientist, Oliver Sacks is still a winner; try his more recent title Musicophilia or his classic, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat for thoughtful but entertaining stories of all the strange things that the human brain is capable for good and for ill.

Ever wanted to know why Pluto got demoted from the solar system? Both Neil deGrasse Tyson's The Pluto Files and Mike Brown's How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming both provide insight into the mechanics -- and politics -- of astrophysics. And Jim Ottaviani's graphic format biography Richard Feynman, titled aptly enough, Feynman is rich with primary source material and does a wonderful job of humanizing the Nobel Prize winner while opening up his science to the curious neophyte.

Rising Up to the Challenge: The Illuminating Thrills of Adventure

Adventure in nonfiction can take many forms, and its appeal factors are varied ranging from fast pacing and the excitement of vicarious danger to the pleasure of arm chair exploration and the opportunity to ponder, "What could I do if I really had to? What am I capable of?" YA readers can explore these topics even as geography, history, and science sneak into the mix. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Deep by James Nestor are both good examples of this phenomenon. Want to provoke a discussion with your teen readers (or most readers, really), then hand them a copy of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild.

Not surprisingly, survival stories are perennial favorites. Classic titles include Jon Krakauer's story of an extremely ill-fated Everest expedition in Into Thin Air, Sebastian Junger's tale of equally ill-fated fishermen in The Perfect Storm, and the rather luckier rock climbing author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place. (Just because there are movies, don't count these books out!) For more historical takes on survival-adventure stories, try Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King (sailors shipwrecked of the edge of a massive desert in 1815), In the Heart of the Sea by Nathanial Philbrick (man vs. whale in the 1800s), and Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff (148 days of post-plane crash survival in the Arctic in 1942). Escape from the Deep by Alex Kershaw is the story of the sinking of the American submarine the USS Tang in WWII, whose survivors endured brutal captivity by the Japanese; it's a good read-alike for Unbroken. As an exercise in comparison, try Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson and The Last Dive by Bernie Chowdhury. Both investigate the discovery and eventually fatal exploration of a WWII German U-boat wreck off the coast of New York though they have different perspectives on how things went wrong and who’s to blame. Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad and Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado both detail surviving plane crashes in snowy mountains. The former features an 11-year-old boy who is the lone survivor of the wreck that killed his father and two others, while the latter is a thoughtful and humane memoir of surviving a rather more notorious crash in the Andes in 1972 by a Uruguayan rugby team. And if your readers want to get to crux of who survives and why, try Deep Survival by Lawrence Gonzales.

I've just barely scratched the surface of all of the fascinating and entertaining options adult nonfiction has for YA readers. Steal Like an Artist, Moonwalking with Einstein, Nothing to Envy, Double Cross, Dead Wake -- there are so many options on so many wonderful topics. History, social justice, psychology, and popular culture are other great potential topics to be aware of and explore in your own reading with this audience in mind. I got the idea for this article from talking with the teens who come into my library looking for something new to read. Do the same and you might be surprised what you find for them -- and yourself -- in the nonfiction stacks.

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Jennifer Brannen  is a Teen and Adult Services Librarian for Durham (NC) County Library. She  writes and presents about readers' advisory for adults, teens, and tweens, and contributed a chapter to Integrated Advisory Service: Breaking Through the Book Boundary to Better Library Users. Recently she has been a member of YALSA's Outstanding Books for the College Bound selection committee.