Can you believe it’s already almost the end of September? I think I must do a lot of my Hub posts at the end of the month because by the time I’m writing them I’m astounded at how it’s suddenly the end of the month.
Anyways. Hubbers! Exciting news! Nonfiction for teens is getting better and better. I had my whole month filled to the brim with great nonfiction that totally read like fiction. I was on the edge of my seat; I wanted to learn more about each topic as soon as I was finished with each book I read. I was excited (for lack of a better word) about typhoid fever, WWII Russia and WWI Russia.
Teens may think that nonfiction is dull and boring (I’m pretty sure that I did when I was a teen), but I think that nonfiction for teens and adults has come a long way. Instead of rote recitation of facts and figures, nonfiction is including stories of hope, triumph, will, starvation, cannibalism (we’ll get to that later), and more in a way that is lyrically beautiful and hooks readers from the very first page.
I actually wanted to read most of these books because I participated in School Library Journal’s annual FREE all-day virtual conference, SummerTeen. If you haven’t participated in the SummerTeen experience, you totally should. It’s a fun day of presentations (Jason Reynolds’ keynote speech was so unbelievable; I’m still thinking about it 2 months later) that you can attend from your desk or in your pajamas – what could be better than that? So, at SummerTeen, I “attended” a great session on new nonfiction for teens that featured some of the books I’ll be spotlighting today. I’ll also be featuring a couple of additional nonfiction books that I loved that I just know the teens in your life will grab up and absorb knowledge from. Join me, won’t you – on this journey through the world of extraordinary nonfiction.
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (2015 YALSA Nonfiction for Young Adults Finalist): This book is the oldest of all the ones I’ll be talking about today; it came out in 2014 and was a finalist for the 2015 YALSA Nonfiction for Young Adults award as well as a 2015 Siebert honor book. And, it’s well deserved – this book was so engaging and entertaining, I wanted it to never end.
Now, I’m sure most of us know the story of the Romanovs: Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, Empress Alexandra, and their 4 daughters and 1 son loomed over Russia from 1868-1918, and through their policies created mass inequity between classes while living in decadence. When you first open the book and see that huge family chart with names and dates and all the lines connecting them and theirs, you might feel like “I’m not going to understand one thing in this book” (and “you” was actually me) – but, fear not – this book is so easy to read that first chart will be long forgotten after the first chapter. Fleming does a great job of incorporating not only accounts from those high in power in the government, but also accounts from everyday workers and those so poor they could not afford to eat; it provided a nice balance to the Romanovs who thought that everything was perfectly fine in Russia, and that everyone just wanted to complain. When it finally comes to the end that we all know about, I still ended up learning things that I’m still thinking about many months later (just remember the jewels under their dresses when you get to that part of the story. Good grief.).
Plus, Rasputin. People. That could have been a story all to itself. The book ends with the death of Lenin and the realization that Stalin is now coming into power. I was so mad when this book ended. I wanted to know what happened when Stalin came into power! But, guess what? Then I picked up this next book, and my wishes were granted…
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson (2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Longlist): So, short personal note first: I was listening to Here & Now on NPR Monday morning, and all of a sudden they started talking about this book! I yelped out loud, and my husband thought I had spotted a bug. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the interview here it is: NPR Symphony for the City of the Dead, and they play pieces of Shostakovich’s symphonies, too! Outstanding!
This book is so good, people. So good. It’s the story of Dmitri Shostakovich and his Symphony No. 7 – the Leningrad Symphony which he wrote during the ravages of WWII when Hitler’s army surrounded his beloved city and separated it from the whole world. No food, no fuel, no one coming in or out. Everyone was doomed to die within the city limits, but you know what? Not everyone did – and this symphony that was born out of starvation and fear and terror and sadness might have been a part of that city’s resilience and determination to survive. It’s broken into three parts: telling the early story of Shostakovich, the invasion and surrounding of Leningrad that also includes the composition of the symphony and its eventual performances, and what happened afterward. Plus, you get a whole history lesson on Stalin’s rise to power, and all the horrible things he did that made it so easy for Hitler to invade.
It picked right up where The Family Romanov left off, so it’s great as a stand-alone or paired with that book to provide the history of Russia over 2 World Wars. M.T. Anderson described his book (and I’m paraphrasing here) as a horrific dystopian novel where there’s cannibalism (there it is), espionage, murder, intrigue and more…but, IT’S ALL TRUE. If that doesn’t sell this awesome book to teens, I don’t know what will. I’ve included a link to the Leningrad Symphony below. Since I’ve read this book, it’s all I’ve wanted to listen to.
Terrible Typhoid Mary: a True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti: I really loved Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s other nonfiction works; Hitler Youth and They Called Themselves the KKK. They both are just really great nonfiction books if you’re looking for other titles by her to try. And, I think that this book on Typhoid Mary is just as interesting as her previous works. It’s well-researched, full of “OMG!” moments, and just an overall fascinating and engaging read. Susan gives readers the full story (as best she can with spotty records. Oh, and Typhoid Mary wasn’t big on writing about herself or giving interviews) on the woman history has deemed the deadliest cook in America. Everywhere she was, people contracted typhoid fever, and many people died as a result. But, she never admitted responsibility, never admitted that she had ever even had typhoid. She was held for many years in a prison on an island, but was eventually released…and you won’t believe what happened after that. I didn’t know much about Mary Mallon, so this story definitely piqued my interest in learning more about her.
As I mentioned, there isn’t a lot of information about Mary available besides testimonials from the few people who pursued her over miles and time; Mary was very private, gave no interviews, and hardly ever spoke of herself. But, Susan did a great job at finding all the hidden sources of information and anecdotes to write a book that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. And, also make them deathly afraid of eating homemade ice cream with fresh peaches ever again.
Extraordinary People: a Semi-Comprehensive Guide to Some of the World’s Most Fascinating Individuals by Michael Hearst; illustrated by Aaron Scamihorn: Sometimes I just don’t have the time to read all the nonfiction books or biographies on all the people I want to know about (or on the people that I don’t know that I want to know about). That’s why I really liked Extraordinary People – it’s a book of single page stories of different people – some famous, some not – that gives readers a taste of a certain person’s extraordinariness. For example – did you know that Charlie Chaplin’s body was dug up and held for ransom? Have you ever heard of Jeanne De Clisson, the “Lioness of Brittany” (I hadn’t!)? There’s tons more information to be had in this fun and fast read that will engage readers with interesting stories and beautiful illustrations. I wanted to think that I’d read a story here and there, but once you get started, you just want to keep seeing who is going to pop up next. This book reminded me of a nonfiction book I enjoyed a few years back – How They Croaked: the Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg, illustrated by Kevin O’Malley – it’s a fun nonfiction title of all the weird ways famous people have died. Also, with fun illustrations!
Well, that’s it for this month! I had 2 more nonfiction books to read for this post, but I got so caught up in M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead, that I lost track of time! I’ll do another nonfiction post soon, I promise! And, next month: a post on the books featured on the Longlist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. As you can see, nonfiction books can be just as exciting and awesome as fiction titles. So, the next time you have a teen asking for a book about disease or scary stuff or beautiful music or they just want an interesting read, make sure to include a nonfiction title in that stack of books you pass along. Until next month, Hubbers! Oh! And, if you have any fun nonfiction you’ve read lately, leave it in the comments.
— Traci Glass, currently reading, Foodprints: the Story of What We Eat by Paula Ayer