13 Biographies and Memoirs for Older Readers That Amplify Unheard Voices

Biographies and memoirs get to the heart of subjects’ lives and are often a gateway for readers who aren’t naturally drawn to nonfiction. These titles provide sliding doors that teens can step through—entryways into lives that have often gone unsung and untold.

Once upon a time, school libraries were limited to collecting expository biographies appropriate for social studies assignments, and public libraries directed their teen patrons to upper-middle grade or teen-friendly narrative memoirs in the adult section with crossover appeal.

We are truly in a golden age of YA nonfiction. Today’s offerings prove that works about real people and events are as immersive and gripping as the best novels. They come in any genre or format imaginable, from poetry to graphic novels to prose.

Biographies and memoirs get to the heart of subjects’ lives and are often a gateway for readers who aren’t naturally drawn to nonfiction. They offer windows into others’ experiences and mirrors of one’s own experiences, and as Dr. Rudine Sim Bishop posits, these titles provide sliding doors that teens can step through—entryways into lives that have often gone unsung and untold.

Single-subject Memoirs and Biographies

Sometimes the best way to make sense of and fully appreciate big things is by being immersed in one person’s experience of that major event or formation of a community or movement.

ANDERSON, Laurie Halse. Shout. Viking. 2020. ISBN 9780670012107.
Gr 8 Up –In verse, the best-selling and critically acclaimed author of Speak and other middle grade and YA novels weaves together two major threads in one memoir—the first, her experience of sexual assault and the second, studying abroad—and shows that it’s not just trauma that can shape a person’s identity, but it’s impossible for trauma not to shape a person’s identity.

GANSWORTH, Eric. Apple: Skin to the Core. illus. by author. Levine Querido. 2020. ISBN 9781646140138.
Gr 7 Up –These verses, accompanied by photos and illustrations, don’t only tell the author’s life story but also explore Native identity on and off the Tuscarora reservation. Central to Gansworth’s self-portrait is an examination of Indigeneity and its relationship to whiteness—the book’s title is a common slur for Native people.

GLOCK, Sophia. Passport. illus. by author. Little, Brown. 2021. ISBN 9780 316458986.
Gr 9 Up –In comics, Glock describes her youth in Central America and the curious nature of her parents’ jobs there, which turned out to be a little less diplomatic and a little more spooky—they worked for the CIA. While their reticence to give details is frustrating, like any other teen, Glock is concerned with friends and frenemies, foreign versus local students, and learning where she fits in socially.

MEZ-COLÓN, Salvador. Hurricane: My Story of Resistance. Norton. 2021. ISBN 9781324016656.
Gr 6 Up –In hi-lo–friendly prose, the author describes the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria and the subsequent near-total abandonment of the Puerto Rican people and the island itself. In response to the decimation and lack of emergency response, the author founded an organization and raised funds to distribute solar- and hand-powered essential devices to families in need.

HENLEY, Ariel. A Face for Picasso. Farrar. 2021. ISBN 9780374314071.
Gr 8 Up –Born with Crouzon syndrome, a condition in which the bones of the skull fuse too early and prevent proper growth or adequate space for the brain, Henley and her twin sister grew up undergoing multiple surgeries year after year and endured bullying and discrimination from peers and adults. Exploring art, the golden ratio, and the misogynist painter Picasso helps Henley make sense of her experience.

JOHNSON, George M. All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto. Farrar. 2020. ISBN 9780374312718.
Gr 8 Up –It all started when, the day George was born, people thought George was a girl and only minutes later realized they were not. Johnson uses this birth story to frame a conversation about gender essentialism and then goes into a chronological narrative of their life and the formation of their identity as Black and queer.

QUIN, Sara & Tegan Quin. High School. Farrar/MCD. 2019. ISBN 9780374169947.
Gr 9 Up –This crossover title is a dual-perspective memoir of the twin sisters known by their band name, Tegan and Sara. The sisters’ relationship is alternately complicated and smoothed over by their parallel discoveries of drugs, music, and queerness. Personal photos are scattered throughout.

YOO, Paula. From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement. Norton. 2021. ISBN 9781324002871.
Gr 8 Up –This extensively researched documentation of the 1982 hate crime that led to the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American young adult, and the grassroots Asian American movement that grew out of the miscarriage of justice combines biography with true crime and social history.

Collective Biographies

Many of these browsable and visually engaging collective biographies are ostensibly aimed at middle grade readers, but their expansive nature make them excellent jumping-off points for older teens to discover new historical and contemporary people of note, and dive into individual figures who most interest them.

AHUJA, Masuma. Girlhood: Teens Around the World in Their Own Voices. Algonquin. 2021. ISBN 9781643750118.
Gr 7 Up –This chatty collection includes narrative and photo snapshots of the lives of 31 young women, including Q&As, real diary entries, and selfies. Everything from political violence to standardized tests to crushes is represented and unfiltered, which goes to show that no place on Earth is exclusively war-torn or exclusively well-off and that all teens, regardless of their location, share similar thoughts, hopes, and dreams.

BAPTISTE, Tracey. African Icons: Ten People Who Built a Continent. Algonquin. 2021. ISBN 9781616209001.
Gr 4 -8–Challenging the U.S. education system’s singular focus on African American stories during Black History Month, Baptiste presents biographical sketches of 10 Black Africans, ranging from pharaohs to diplomats. The book also gives readers insight into the continent’s history itself, extending beyond the cursory information typically given to students or museumgoers about Egypt, pyramids, and mummies.

KEENE, Adrienne. Notable Native People: 50 Indigenous Leaders, Dreamers, and Changemakers from Past and Present. illus. by Ciara Sana. Ten Speed. 2021. ISBN 9781984857941.
Gr 8 Up –Keene, the founder of Native Appropriations—a forum for discussing representations of Native peoples, including stereotypes, cultural appropriation, news, and activism—and a professor at Brown University, highlights members of federally recognized tribes as well as Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities. Explanations of terms and concepts like “settler colonialism” are interspersed among the one-page biographies of politicians, artists, athletes, and educators.



Extrapolated Histories

As the fiction world plods in the right direction with regard to more diverse representation, nonfiction has been even slower to adapt, with innovative formats like comics and verse gaining in popularity, but with the subjects remaining fairly homogeneous. Part of the problem is that biographies rely on historical record and memory, and when people or communities are silenced or subjugated, those records are lost or hidden. In these books, which I’ve dubbed “extrapolated histories” for want of another term, authors extricate true stories from fragments of records, aided by their own skills as archivists, historians, or subject experts to tell stories readers have never had access to before.

HALL, Rebecca. Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. illus. by Hugo Martínez. S. & S. 2021. ISBN 9781982115180.
Gr 8 Up –This history inside a memoir doesn’t just attempt to describe historical events; through the comics drawn by Martínez, scholar Hall’s story takes on the near-impossible task of retelling a history based on incomplete or dismissive records and primary documents. Ultimately, using archival documents and her own knowledge of history, Hall pieces together a best approximation of revolts and attempted revolts as well as the enslaved women’s personal lives.

MARTIN, Erica. And We Rise: The Civil Rights Movement in Poems. Viking. 2022. ISBN 9780593352526.
Gr 7 Up –Rather than another simplistic story about not ceding a seat on a bus, Martin’s history invites readers into an immersive experience, using sparse free verse in the second person so that teens feel like they are a part of the events. Photographs further vitalize the text.

Sarah Hannah Gómez is senior sensitivity editor at Kevin Anderson & Associates, the first position of its kind in the publishing industry. She is a doctoral candidate in critical theory of children’s and YA literature at the University of Arizona.

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