Biographies and Memoirs

Grade Level Interest
M
: Middle School (defined as grades 6-8).
S: Senior High (defined as grades 9-12).
A/YA: Adult-marketed book recommended for teens.

 

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

This is how wars are fought now: by children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them. Now twenty-five years old, he tells a riveting story: how at the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts. (A/YA)

 

All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg

Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize–winning correspondent, didn’t start out to be a writer. In fact, he sort of fell into it. He recalls this personal journey in a rags-to-riches memoir, which begins in 1959 in Alabama, where “white people had it hard and black people had it harder than that, because what are the table scraps of nothing?” In vivid prose, by turns comic and affecting, he recalls growing up white and poor in the South, his difficult relationship with his abusive, alcoholic father, and his love for his courageous mother, who raised him and taught him what really mattered. (A/YA)

 

Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year by Esme Raji Codell

Fifth-grader Melanie instinctively knows what Codell finds out when she begins as a 24-year-old first-year teacher in an inner-city Chicago school: “You got to know everything.” And that doesn’t mean just what the textbooks say. As Codell gamely reveals in her forthright diary entries, it means fighting lazy teachers and unsupportive administrators; it means dealing with violence and racism; it means marshalling energy, imagination, and wit enough to ensure her students the best possible education. Teens who have been through “the system” can’t help but recognize the landscape. (A/YA)

 

King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher

Candid and casual, best-selling author Crutcher shares stories from his childhood and adolescence in Cascade, Idaho. Reminiscences of some of his youthful rites of passage are laugh-out-loud funny, such as his humiliating initiation into his high-school athletic club. On a more serious note, he discusses his occasionally rocky relationships with his parents and siblings. He talks openly about his struggles with a bad temper that constantly got him into trouble, how he came to terms with questions about God, how he confronted intolerance, and how he found his own place in the world. (M, S)

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Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring young writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a boat loaded with hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City. But federal agents were waiting. Gantos was caught and, for his part in the conspiracy, sentenced to serve up to six years in prison. (S)

 

Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory

From early childhood, Julie Gregory was continually X-rayed, medicated, and operated on—in the vain pursuit of an illness that was created in her mother’s mind. Munchausen by proxy (MBP) is the world’s most hidden and dangerous form of child abuse, in which the caretaker—almost always the mother—invents or induces symptoms in her child because she craves the attention of medical professionals. Many MBP children die, but Julie Gregory not only survived, she escaped the powerful orbit of her mother’s madness and rebuilt her identity as a vibrant, healthy young woman. (A/YA)

 

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates. (M, S)

 

Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Philip M. Hoose

On March 2, 1955, an impassioned teenager, fed up with the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation, refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Instead of being celebrated as Rosa Parks would be just nine months later, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin found herself shunned by her classmates and dismissed by community leaders. Undaunted, a year later she dared to challenge segregation again as a key plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that struck down the segregation laws of Montgomery and swept away the legal underpinnings of the Jim Crow South. (M)

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John Lennon: All I Want is the Truth by Elizabeth Partridge

Award-winning biographer Elizabeth Partridge dives into Lennon’s life from the night he was born in 1940 during a World War II air raid on Liverpool, deftly taking us through his turbulent childhood and his rebellious rock’n’roll teens to his celebrated life writing, recording, and performing music with the Beatles. She sheds light on the years after the Beatles, with Yoko Ono, as he struggled to make sense of his own artistic life—one that had turned from youthful angst to suffocating fame in almost a split second. (S)

 

This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life & Songs of Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge

Before Springsteen and before Dylan, there was Woody Guthrie. With “This Machine Kills Fascists,” scrawled across his guitar in big black letters, Woody Guthrie brilliantly captured in more than three thousand songs the experience of twentieth-century America. Whether he sang about union organizers, migrant workers, or war, Woody took his inspiration from the plights of the people around him as well as from his own tragic childhood. ( S)

 

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison

Ever since he was young, John Robison longed to connect with other people, but by the time he was a teenager, his odd habits—an inclination to blurt out non sequiturs, avoid eye contact, dismantle radios, and dig five-foot holes (and stick his younger brother, Augusten Burroughs, in them)—had earned him the label “social deviant.” It was not until he was forty that he was diagnosed with a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. That understanding transformed the way he saw himself—and the world. (A/YA)

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True Notebooks by Mark Salzman

While teaching writing to 17-year olds detained in the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall, Salzman was surprised by the boys’ talent. Their heartwarming and funny voices are included in this irresistible and provocative memoir. (A/YA)

 

 

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

In graphic novel format, the author describes her youth in revolutionary Iran. From the overthrow of the Shah to the establishment of the new regime, she witnesses heartbreak and struggle as life changes in her country. (A/YA)

 

 

Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference by Warren St. John

Clarkston, Georgia, was a typical Southern town until it was designated a refugee settlement center, becoming the first American home for families in flight from the world’s war zones. Suddenly Clarkston’s streets were filled with women wearing the hijab, the smells of cumin and curry, and kids of all colors playing soccer in any open space they could find. The town also became home to Luma Mufleh, an American-educated Jordanian woman who founded a youth soccer team to unify Clarkston’s refugee children and keep them off the streets. These kids named themselves the Fugees, and Outcasts United follows a pivotal season in the life of the Fugees and their coach. (A/YA)

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