These nonfiction books for teens are excellent. Real-life stories, biographies, memoirs, and informational texts inspiring and educational. I suspect you’ll read them and then want to share them with all your friends and family. I know I did.
Because you’re reading about people who really did amazing things. Usually despite great odds. There’s hope-giving power in these nonfiction true-life stories. For teens, and for us not-teens, too.
Excellent Nonfiction Books for Teens
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin
You don’t have to be a football fan to be mesmerized by this incredible underdog story of grit with the history of football and racism as a backdrop. Jim Thorpe was clearly one of the greatest athletes in the world of all time but his life exemplified the racism and abuse toward American Indians starting with his time in the abusive Carlisle Indian white-run boarding school where he started playing football. He would go on to play baseball and go to the Olympics. But it was a complicated, challenging life that you MUST read to understand.
Hidden Figures (Young Readers’ Edition) by Margot Lee Shetterly
Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal
Well-written, well-researched, and completely fascinating. I read this book from start to finish in one sitting. I like how at the beginning of each chapter, Blumenthal quotes from the poem written by Bonnie herself called “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde.” It sets the tone as she traces the lives of these two notorious criminals starting with childhood and ending with their deaths. What struck me was the dichotomy between how much these two valued their families but not any other human lives…they killed a lot of people and yet became immortalized through the media as sympathetic vigilantes. This biography doesn’t take a side of who is right and wrong but shows the facts as best can be known.
I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers Edition) by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick
Never Caught, The Story of Ona Judge: Young Readers Edition by Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve
This is not just an important story based on the true-life of an escaped slave of George Washington’s, it’s also a cautionary tale about idealizing historical icons. Because people, as it turns out, are deeply flawed… George Washington included. At age 10, Ona becomes Martha Washington’s personal slave. After 13 years of this thankless work with no pay, no days off, no freedom to have a feeling,…many of those years in Philadelphia, Ona learns that Martha plans to send Ona as a wedding gift to Martha’s cruel granddaughter. With the help of freed slaves, Ona escapes north which results in an angry George Washington who tries to capture her back without a trial. Luckily that doesn’t happen and Ona lives free until her death.
An Invisible Thread: A Young Readers Edition by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski
A true story with messages of kindness, trust, and friendship that will renew your faith in humanity. Laura first meets Maurice when he’s 11-years-old and begging on the street corner, eventually spending a meal a week with him at McDonald’s. For YEARS. Laura treats Marice with respect and friendship — never, ever pity and she makes their time together educational, too — cooking from a recipe, sharing a Christmas experience for the first time, and things like that. The end of the book shows Marice as an adult with his own family who is still close friends with Laura.
Bomb: The Race to Build –and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
Another knock-out nonfiction book from the talented Steve Sheinkin! I’m so impressed by how Sheinkin makes this story come ALIVE like it’s an adventure/mystery/thriller and not real life. Well, they do say truth is stranger than fiction. But usually, it’s written like it’s duller than dirt. This book is a great exception — mesmerizing. I wasn’t even interested in the topic until I started reading.
The Making of America: Susan B. Anthony by Teri Kanefield (ages 12+)
You’ll admire the perseverance and dedication of Susan B. Anthony who worked tirelessly to advocate for women’s rights and the rights of African Americans. Women now days can own property, vote, divorce abusers, have custody of their children, and are citizens because of the efforts of Susan B. Anthony and others. I hope this book becomes required reading for middle schoolers — both boys and girls. It’s also beneficial for kids to know how much one person can do to make a difference in the world.
Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartlett
I love how the author writes this using the facts and clearly stating when there are gaps in the accounts, making conjectures very clear. It’s a great book — and frankly, fascinating to understand the details of solving and then proving that Mary was the common thread of illnesses. It also asks the questions of Mary’s rights weighted with the rights of the public. This would be a great book club selection!
Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist by Sylvia Acevedo
Sylvia Acevedo’s story shows her incredible intelligence, drive, and determination. She grows up poor in New Mexico greatly impacted by her Mexican-American heritage, Head Start, and the Girl Scouts. Sylvia credits the Girl Scouts with not just teaching her life skills but showing her that she could do hard things and that her life could be more than being a housewife. She is an amazing woman who becomes a rocket scientist and influential leader. I highly recommend this well-written chapter book memoir.
Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela DePrince and Elaine DePrince
An orphan who was thought never to be adopted due to her skin condition, Michaela was adopted from an orphanage in West Africa. Even at the orphanage, she wanted to be a ballerina — and her determination and hard work paid off. Her hard work paid off. Now she’s the youngest principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Everything You Need to Ace Geometry in One Big Fat Notebook
A MUST-OWN book for high school geometry! It’s easy to read, beautifully designed, and the concepts are explained in step-by-step directions with illustrations.
Everything You Need to Ace Chemistry in One Big Fat Notebook
Another exceptional book from Big Fat Notebooks, this one is for high schoolers taking Chemistry. I really wish this existed when I took Chemistry. Two tutors later, I barely passed. Like the above book, it’s easy to read, sequentially written, and informative.
Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts by Susan Cain with Gregory Mone and Erica Moroz
Learn how to make the most of being an introvert at school, with friends, in your family, and with extracurricular activities with this remarkable guidebook.
Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron by Mary Losure
Based on a true story, this is a historical recounting of a wild boy in the early 1800s found in France. I found the life fascinating as the author takes us on the journey of his life. He’s studied as a beast, less than a person. In fact, scientists of the time believed he was not a human but something other. This book will make you think.
Elon Musk and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (Young Readers Edition) by Ashlee Vance
Elon’s story is fascinating. His unique history, intelligence, and vision are unique and worth knowing. The ins and outs of his businesses give readers insight into the mind of Musk, a mind that is quite extraordinary. Anyone, teen or adult, interested in being an entrepreneur should read this book. Musk shows that it’s not a straight line to success; that vision, hard work, failures, and perseverance are the basic ingredients. As far as the writing goes, the book is dense with many details you may or not find as interesting as me. But for those of you who are interested in Tesla and the SpaceX project, you’ll devour these details.
Rad American Women A – Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
I learned a ton from this book because many of these inspiring women aren’t well known. Each woman gets a full-page bio with information about what makes her a role model and “rad.” Ladies like Wilma Mankiller, Nellie Bly, Lucy Parsons, and Hazel Scott.
The Faithful Spy: A True Story! Deitrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hilter by John Hendrix
Bonhoeffer was a Christian minister who believed, unlike most of his peers, that he should not go along with Hitler who put himself above God in the church. I am endlessly fascinated by why people do what they do in their lives which is why I loved reading about Bonhoeffer, seeing his journey as not just an outspoken critic of Hitler but someone who decided that he must also act to try to stop Hitler. This biography is illustrated with several colors in an appealing visual layout. Some of the font sizes were uncomfortably small for me to read but I think kids will be fine.
Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves & Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Rebecca Guay
This book has an interesting premise — so I wasn’t sure if I would like it. But I liked reading about each of the 26 women. And, I liked that after each woman, the authors debated whether or not the person was “bad” — and how it depended on your perspective. For example, Anne Boleyn. Was she smart or manipulative or both? Each of the authors takes on opposing perspectives so one thinks Catherine the Great was a good queen for expanding her countries territory while the other author says that the deaths of her enemies (Peter and others) made her a ruthless queen.
Whoppers: History’s Most Outrageous Lies and Liars by Christine Seifert
I read this nonfiction book aloud to my kids — it was SO fun because it prompted great discussion and interaction. They couldn’t believe that people would make up such outrageous lies. Learn these incredible wild whoppers — from people you’ve heard of like Charles Ponzi to people you’ve never heard of like George Psalmanazar who convinced people he was a native from his made-up island of Formosa. It’s book best for middle grade to YA readers.
Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science by Jeannine Atkins
Three girls’ lives, Maria Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell, are showcased in this beautiful verse. Each girl’s interest is explained and elaborated. We see how these interests grew into something more, into the passions and discoveries that become their life’s work. I love the flow of the poems and the celebration of these ground-breaking women.
365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts by R. J. Palacio
If you’re like us and love quotes, this is the book for you. Even if you haven’t read the book Wonder, you will still find the quotes here (precepts) meaningful and thought-provoking from Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr., Confucius, Goethe, Sappho—and over 100 readers of Wonder who sent R. J. Palacio their own precepts.
National Geographic Why’d They Wear That: Fashion as the Mirror of History by Sarah Albee
Once my 13-year old and I started this book, we were engrossed from front to back. Albee writes fantastic chapter titles and headings: (Notice a theme? Nonfiction is getting GOOD, people!) “Caulk like an Egyptian,” “Putting the “Protest” in Protestant,” and “Hazardous Hemlines.” The book is formatted so that you can pick and choose interesting sections such as Corsets, Dressed to Compress because the corset photo is so intriguing or the inset of information has such a tantalizing title, “Why Did Napoleon Always Have His Hand in His Coat?”
Untamed The Wild Life of Jane Goodall by Anita Silvey, forward by Jane Goodall
This is not your average biography for kids with small font and ugly black and white photos. No, it’s so much better! Untamed is an excellent depiction of Jane Goodall’s life with kid-friendly language using kid-appealing layouts of colorful photos. Interesting insets throughout describe tips for kids and information such as sign language. I love the Gombe Family Scrapbook at the end with some of the significant chimps in Jane’s life. I also found it really interesting to learn how this English girl read about Africa as a child and fell in love with it.
Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods by Rick Riordan, illustrated by John Rocco
My kids can’t stop reading and rereading this enormous volume of Greek myths, retold Riordan style — I’m talking laugh-out-loud style. Remember all the hilarious chapter titles in Riordan’s Percy Jackson books? And the witty, sarcastic voice of Percy? Yup. All here.
Genius! The Most Astonishing Inventions of All Time by Deborah Kespert
A visually appealing graphic layout makes it easy to access the invention information — in fact, it’s down-right enticing! Who knows I’d care about the Archimedes Screw and want to read all about it. Or the Elephant Clock — yes, that was a real thing which was super cool. You’ll learn about these early inventions and more modern inventions such as the space rocket. This is a well-done, readable nonfiction book.
Treasury of Norse Mythology: Stories of Intrigue, Trickery, Love, and Revenge by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrations by Christina Balit
This is a large, kid-friendly collection of Nordic myths with colorful illustrations and informative insets explaining more about subjects such as the Berserkers and the Norse diet. Excellent!