When I was a school librarian, I noticed that many of the kids their parents perceived as “reluctant readers” were, in fact, extremely avid readers—if only one regarded 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), winner of the 2021 Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature. Science journalist Amanda Baker eloquently paid tribute to young readers’ passion for nonfiction—and the great options available today—in her Scientific American part, “Non-fiction is cool, and our kids know it† Below are some excellent teen nonfiction books: 2021 releases that may have slipped under your radar and 2022 titles to look forward to.
Adolescence is a time of reflection, making thoughtful consideration of the lives of others a natural fit. These works intriguingly venture away from the usual familiar names. War Close-Up: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam by Mary Cronk Farrell (Amulet/Abrams, February 22) follows a fearless young Frenchwoman who captured scorching images of soldiers and civilians during the Vietnam War. A largely forgotten mastermind who made huge contributions to national security during both World Wars is the subject of: The Woman All Spies Fear: Codebreaker 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: the story of a refugee (Beyond Words Publishing, Feb. 15) tells the traumatic story of Turke’s childhood: Trapped in Hitler’s Germany when borders closed during a family visit to relatives, and finally returned to the US alone at age 15, she ponders identity and responsibility .
Contemporary nonfiction often serves as a guide to action for passionate and informed young readers. Both Know your rights and claim them: a guide for young people 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, January 18), discuss serious topics honestly and clearly, but also offer hope and practical advice to young activists.
Poetry is perennially popular with young adult readers for its frugality and ability to get to the heart of great emotions, making it ideal for sharing deeply personal stories, as in the following titles. Respect the Microphone: Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry from a Chicagoland High School edited by Hanif Abdurraqib, Franny Choi, Peter Kahn and Dan “Sully” Sullivan (Penguin Workshop, February 1) is a moving collection created over twenty years by young members of a spoken word club. Poetry by detainees and former detainees is supplemented with 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). The most famous 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 a meaning that requires paragraphs of text to come across with the same immediacy. Two graphic memoirs—Passport† written and illustrated by Sophia Glock (Little, Brown, 2021), and little dancer† by Siena Cherson Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel (Atheneum, 2021) – presenting fascinating stories. Glock grew up in Central America as the daughter of CIA agents, a circumstance that made adolescence harder than usual. Siegel explores her changing and complicated relationship with dance after she left Puerto Rico for a ballet career in New York City.
Laura Simeon is an editor for young readers.