Best YA Nonfiction of 2015

bestbooks2015My recent post focused on the Best YA Fiction of 2015 — now I’ll take a look at the Best YA Nonfiction of the year.

This list is much shorter, and easier to compile, because a) there are fewer nonfiction titles published for teens than fiction titles, and b) fewer year-end best of lists include YA nonfiction. Of the 30 year-end lists I reviewed, 23 included teen fiction, but only 13 included teen nonfiction. More than 160 fiction titles were named across those 23 best of lists, but only 17 nonfiction titles were highlighted. Bottom line: there is a LOT more quality teen fiction to choose from than there is quality teen nonfiction.

The most-recognized YA nonfiction book of 2015 was M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, which appeared on 9 best YA nonfiction lists. Next was Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (8 lists) and The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose (6 lists).

Here are our Top 12 Nonfiction Books for Teens for 2015:

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson (9 lists) — In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens — the Leningrad Symphony. “This ambitious and gripping work is narrative nonfiction at its best” (School Library Journal).

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (8 lists) — A tense, narrative nonfiction account of what the New York Times deemed “the greatest story of the century”: how whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg transformed from obscure government analyst into “the most dangerous man in America,” and risked everything to expose years of government lies during the Nixon-Cold War era. “Sheinkin has done again what he does so well: condense mountains of research into a concise, accessible, and riveting account of history” (Publishers Weekly).

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose (6 lists) — At the outset of World War II, Denmark did not resist German occupation. Deeply ashamed of his nation’s leaders, fifteen-year-old Knud Pedersen resolved with his brother and a handful of schoolmates to take action against the Nazis if the adults would not. Naming their secret club after the fiery British leader, the young patriots in the Churchill Club committed countless acts of sabotage, infuriating the Germans, who eventually had the boys tracked down and arrested. “Hoose brilliantly weaves Pedersen’s own words into the larger narrative of Denmark’s stormy social and political wartime climate” (Horn Book).

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown (5 lists) — On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s monstrous winds and surging water overwhelmed the protective levees around low-lying New Orleans, Louisiana. Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water, and more than 1,800 people lost their lives. The riveting tale of this historic storm and the drowning of an American city is one of selflessness, heroism, and courage—and also of incompetence, racism, and criminality. “This astonishingly powerful look at one of America’s worst disasters is a masterful blend of story and art” (School Library Journal).

Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx by Sonia Manzano (4 lists) — Set in the 1950s in the Bronx, this is the story of a girl with a dream. Emmy award-winning actress and writer Sonia Manzano (Maria from Sesame Street) plunges us into the daily lives of a Latino family that is loving — and troubled. This is Sonia’s own story rendered with an unforgettable narrative power. “In stark and heartbreaking contrast to her Sesame Street character, Manzano paints a poignant, startlingly honest picture of her youth” (Kirkus Review).

My Seneca Village by Marilyn Nelson (4 lists) — Drawing upon history and her exquisite imagination, award-winning author Marilyn Nelson recreates the long lost community of Seneca Village, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic neighborhood in the center of Manhattan which thrived during the middle years of the 19th century. “This rich and diverse (a variety of poetic forms, including ones invented for certain speakers, are featured) piece of American literature belongs in every collection” (School Library Journal).

March: Book Two by John Lewis (3 lists) — Congressman John Lewis, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement, continues his award-winning graphic novel trilogy with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, inspired by a 1950s comic book that helped prepare his own generation to join the struggle. Now, March brings the lessons of history to vivid life for a new generation, urgently relevant for today’s world. “This insider’s view of the civil rights movement should be required reading for young and old; not to be missed” (School Library Journal).

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (3 lists) — What happens when a person’s reputation has been forever damaged? With archival photographs and text among other primary sources, this riveting biography of Mary Mallon looks beyond the tabloid scandal of Mary’s controversial life. How she was treated by medical and legal officials reveals a lesser-known story of human and constitutional rights, entangled with the science of pathology and enduring questions about who Mary Mallon really was. “Expertly weaving together both historical background and contemporary knowledge about disease and public health, Bartoletti enlivens Mallon’s story with engrossing anecdotes and provocative critical inquiry while debunking misconceptions” (Booklist).

Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash (2 lists) — At once romantic and devastating, brutally honest and full of humor, this graphic-novel memoir is a debut of the rarest sort. Maggie Thrash has spent basically every summer of her fifteen-year-old life at Camp Bellflower for Girls, set deep in the heart of Appalachia. She’s from Atlanta, she’s never kissed a guy, she’s into Backstreet Boys in a really deep way, and her long summer days are full of a pleasant, peaceful nothing . . . until one confounding moment. “Thrash writes with an intoxicating mix of candor, irony, and fresh passion. This is the kind of memoir that stays with readers for days” (Publishers Weekly).

Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights by Ann Bausum (2 lists) — In 1969 being gay in the United States was a criminal offense. It meant living a closeted life or surviving on the fringes of society, and there were few safe havens. The Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-run, filthy, overpriced bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, was one of them. Police raids on gay bars happened regularly in this era. But one hot June night, when cops pounded on the door of the Stonewall, the crowd refused to go away. Anger and frustration boiled over, and the raid became a riot, the riot became a catalyst, and the catalyst triggered an explosive demand for gay rights. “Comprehensive in its coverage, filled with important information, and compassionate in its tone. [Bausum] sheds welcome light on a subject that deserves greater coverage in YA literature” (Booklist).

Tommy: The Gun That Changed America by Karen Blumenthal (2 lists) — John Taliaferro Thompson had a mission: to develop a lightweight, fast-firing weapon that would help Americans win on the battlefield. His Thompson submachine gun could deliver a hundred bullets in a matter of seconds―but didn’t find a market in the U.S. military. Instead, the Tommy gun became the weapon of choice for a generation of bootleggers and bank-robbing outlaws, and became a deadly American icon. “Blumenthal breathes life into this seemingly off-putting subject…will hold the attention of reluctant readers and history buffs alike” (School Library Journal).

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March by Lynda Blackmon Lowery (2 lists) — As the youngest marcher in the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Albama, Lynda Blackmon Lowery proved that young adults can be heroes. Jailed eleven times before her fifteenth birthday, Lowery fought alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. for the rights of African-Americans. In this memoir, she shows today’s young readers what it means to fight nonviolently (even when the police are using violence, as in the Bloody Sunday protest) and how it felt to be part of changing American history. “Vivid details and the immediacy of Lowery’s voice make this a valuable primary document as well as a pleasure to read” (Kirkus).

Honorable Mentions:

Ebola: Fears and Facts by Patricia Newman

The Prisoners of Breendonk: Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp by James M. Deem

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland

This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain


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