With storytelling ease and pitch-perfect pacing, the following works of narrative nonfiction for older readers bring their subjects to brilliant life, elevating the sometimes-staid genre of biography to literary art form.
Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming is so immediate that readers will feel they are experiencing the author’s childhood right along with her. Born in Ohio in 1963, Jackie moved with her family to Greenville, South Carolina, to live with her maternal grandparents. We see young Jackie grow up in historical context alongside the contexts of extended family, community (Greenville, later Brooklyn), and religion — and we trace her development as a nascent writer to her realization that “words are [her] brilliance.” The poetry sings in this extraordinary portrait of a writer as a young girl. (Penguin/Paulsen, 10–14 years)
Emily Arnold McCully creates a multilayered biography of a crusading early-twentieth-century journalist in Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business — and Won! Readers meet young Ida growing up in Pennsylvania oil country. A curious child, Tarbell’s lessons learned from scientific inquiry led to her dogged determination to get to the bottom of an issue. McCully engagingly re-creates the era’s social context for women (famously, Tarbell didn’t believe in women’s suffrage) as well as the culture and importance of print media, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about Tarbell’s positions and her times. (Clarion, 10–14 years)
Candace Fleming’s riveting book The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia appeals to the imagination as much as the intellect. Her focus is not just the Romanovs (the last imperial family of Russia), but the Revolutionary leaders and common people as well, showing how each group was the product of its circumstances and how they all moved inexorably toward the tragic yet fascinating conclusion. An epic, sweeping historical narrative. (Random/Schwartz & Wade, 12–18 years)
Demonstrating warmth, ease, and a sense of humor about herself, Katherine Paterson relates tales from her life, and from her parents’ and grandparents’, too, in Stories of My Life. The author gently ambles from story to story, looping through her youthful experiences in China and Japan, her marriage and children, and her writing. Throughout all there is a strong connection to Paterson’s childhood: “By the time I was five I had been through war and evacuation, but nothing had prepared me for the American public school system.” (Dial, 12 years and up)
From the August 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.