“Life! What Inscrutable Card Shall Ye Throw Next Upon the Soft Felt of Our Days?”

― Colson Whitehead, The Noble Hustle

We all love fiction. It’s what we are raised on, taught to read by, and what we studied in school under labels like canon, and classics.  Mystery, romance, young adult, fairy tale, novels in translation and in our native language: this is what we think of when going to the library to pick up a book for fun. Nonfiction historically is a word we think of as synonymous with boring. It might include biographies or how-to books, and in our collective mind we think of these types of reading materials as long in length, stuffy in tone, academic, not fun.

But that was before the rise of narrative nonfiction, and all of the delights that accompany it. That was before populations in the United States began to demand diverse reading material that reflects their life and culture, whether that be racially oriented, reflective of sexual orientation, or just something that reads as true to life. Nonfiction encompasses everything, which allows the genre to speak to or touch every reader, in its own way. And it’s not just the young adults who will benefit, although they are a primary concern. Author Loree Griffin Burns says she’s “thrilled when adults tell me they liked a book, or that they learned from it…I just wish they weren’t so surprised. The nonfiction books being written for children and young adults today are high quality literary works that make a great read for adults, too. I don’t think enough adults realize this!”

This is a proposal to bring narrative nonfiction books to the people of Contra Costa, through the library.

#We Need Diverse Books

A few quick nonfiction facts about Contra Costa county:

Our population, as of the most recent census data from 2010, consists of 58.6% white, 24.4% Hispanic/Latino, 14.4% Asian, 9.3% black, 10.7% “some other race”, and 5.9% mixed race. 18.4% of our total population are 5-17 years old, with 62.7% in the 18-64 age range. And 23.6% of the population are foreign born.

That makes for a diverse population who need their libraries to reflect at least a portion of available literature as reflective of their lives, experiences and histories. That means narrative nonfiction.

That means books in the library, where someone can stop in and find what they’re looking for in a welcoming environment. That means stacking the shelves with books that reflect the population’s experience, so that a young immigrant can find a book to read about how someone else survived the relocation or immigrant experience, and learn how, through the ups and downs, they lived to tell their story. Like Almost a Woman, Esmeralda Santiago’s story about leaving rural Puerto Rico to come to the U.S. and live in a three-room tenement apartment with seven young siblings, her grandmother, a very strict mother who doesn’t allow her to date, and a father still back home in Puerto Rico.

For black young adults, it means giving them books about history like the children who marched on Washington in Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. Or enabling them read background on the story of the civil rights fight, so that today when we talk about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown or Oscar Grant they will get the connection, and understand why four young girls killed in Birmingham Sunday, (a Jane Addams Children’s Honor Book, NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor Book, and Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Book of the Year) is such an important mark on our nation’s history.

And who better to tell the tale of growing up mixed race in America than someone who experienced it firsthand, on a very public level: Rebecca Walker, daughter of literary goddess Alice, who describes herself as Black, White, and Jewish, in her Autobiography of a Shifting Self.

These are just a few nonfiction book titles that can be added to the Contra Costa library collection to better serve the diverse population.

Read What You Like

In their recent study on the reading habits of rural teens, You Are What You Read: Young Adult Literacy and Identity in Rural America, Moeller and Becnel point to an important, research supported note about why teens read, and what they like to read: “Several researchers have described various ways in which teens create, imagine, and play with identities through the readings that they choose. Studies have also shown that teens enjoy reading about characters like themselves and situations similar to their own.”

Susan Kuklin’s Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out is a 2015 Stonewall Honor Book praised for chronicling the lives of six teens as they come out as transgender, and move through their own transition. Sometimes with the support of family and friends, sometimes without. But that each teen is open and willing to share their story is what makes this book so important: it should rest proudly on the shelves of our library, allowing young adults to see it, read it, and and take heart from the teen’s courage. If just one gender questioning teen comes into the library and checks out this book, understands that they are not alone and that there are others like them going through a similar struggle, it will one life changed, possibly saved, thanks to a library book.

There is no better way to address this, giving teens books about themselves in situations similar to their own, than providing it straight from the source through nonfiction. We all love the latest craze series like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight, but most of us don’t have a werewolf for a best friend, or the ability to magick ourselves out of a tight spot. One middle schooler I chatted with even went so far as to glumly proclaim her disdain for “dystopian” fiction books (her actual air quotes) thusly: “I don’t really like those books, because it’s supposed to be based in these worlds that are worse than our own…but are they, really?” Point that girl towards Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, a real life story about growing in this world, and show her it can be rough, but you can make it through.

If You Add Nonfiction: They Will Come to the Library

The inclusion of more nonfiction titles in the library will not only add value to the overall library collection by rounding it out, but it will also bring about more opportunity to invite outstanding nonfiction authors to the library for events. And the library can continue to work closely with local  teachers to fill in gaps in the nonfiction collection, with books suggested by the teachers as well as by students and library patrons.

In addition, nonfiction titles support the new Common Core standards, which place more emphasis on school aged children reading nonfiction. Nonfiction can help students learn how to read and really understand the text more formally, which helps develop their comprehension skills, which will come in useful when testing. This is supported by research which states that “In the Common Core State Standards, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers (2010) cite a compelling research base supporting the shift to more complex, nonfiction texts. They note, for example, that students who are able to answer questions related to complex text have a high probability of earning a C or better in an introductory-level college course in U.S. history or psychology.” (Goodwin & Miller 2012)

Researchers have also found that “students are expected to develop research skills across content areas with a strong focus on nonfiction, including literary nonfiction; essays; biographies and autobiographies….” (Goodwin & Miller 2012) The same study also confirms that there is another benefit of nonfiction reading, already explored through this proposal: “the potential to motivate young children to read by tapping into their interest.”

As Sullivan (2001) wryly suggests, “Because nonfiction is usually regarded in purely utilitarian terms, it does not seem to occur to some educators that a nonfiction work can simply be a “good read”-something entertaining, fun, enjoyable, or just plain interesting.” The Contra Costa library has the opportunity to prove that to the contrary. Nonfiction presents the opportunity to add “good reads” for all age levels-and some of the most interesting books I’ve read this year are science based picture books for children.

Life Imitates Nonfiction

In the news recently in the Bay Area there have been many stories about the increase in great white shark sightings, including one about a swimmer whose record breaking swim from San Francisco to the Farallon islands was cut short when a shark was sighted circling him in the cold waters. If you had a copy of Katherine Roy’s Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands, a picture book rivals any Shark Week production, you would get a simple, scientific based text, with pictures, that explains why the sharks come to this area, and when, and what they’re up to. Any child who’d read it would be able to tell that swimmer why undertaking the record-breaking swim this close to August just isn’t a good idea.  They would become a Citizen Scientist, someone watching the skies, seas and animal patterns, collecting data and sharing it with scientists and amateurs around the world, as outlined in Burns’ book of the same name.

Or if sharks aren’t your thing, you can still explore the motion of the ocean through Burns’ Tracking Trash, and discover where that plastic cup you lost at the beach in Pacifica will end up, and why it’s so important to recycle our plastic, lest one day the great garbage patch swallows the ocean whole.

Books like these serve double duty as educational and fun, and are part of the admirable Scientists in the Field series, which are on a mission to “show people immersed in the unpredictable and dynamic natural world, making science more accessible, relevant, and exciting to young readers.”  As Erica Zappy notes in an article in praise of the series, “The amazing thing about science books is that the reader is generally being transported somewhere real, with real people, doing real (scary, gross, thrilling, innovative) things. Things that the reader could maybe do.” (Zappy 2011)

And it’s not just picture books that provide such good reads. Happily for everyone, but particularly for readers who are not engaged through a regular old, text-heavy book: narrative nonfiction books no longer need be limited to just novel form. For a reluctant reader to see the fun in books, to really get into reading, the genre has exploded into graphic form, with the graphic memoir taking center stage. Two that stand out are Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, describes in graphic text and comic-panels the story of Marjane Satrapi, who watches her home country, Iran,  go through war and revolution, from open free educated state to Islamic rule; from doing and wearing what she likes to being forced into hijab; watching her friends and families lives torn apart-all in the name of revolution.

And Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home introduces readers to a wacky family and Bechdel’s childhood experiences and coming-of-age as a woman and lesbian. It’s really not all fun and games, but like the tagline confirms, it gets better. And young adults, more than ever, really need to know that.


In his plea for educators and libraries to turn more to nonfiction books for teens, Sullivan cites an earlier study that concludes: “What we know about teenagers and nonfiction, we’ve known for years: They read it, they find pleasure in it, and for many it is the literature that puts them on the path to lifetime reading.”

Narrative nonfiction written for children and young adults is just a good addition to any library, but it need not be limited to young adults. In Citizen Scientists, Burns comments that “Young people see the world differently than older people do,” adding that an adult’s focus on the world is much different than a child’s. We see the world differently, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to understand it through the same good reads.
A happy goal of educators and librarians in particular is to set young adults on the path to lifetime reading. Let’s give them what they need, and want: nonfiction.


Kelsey, M. (2011). Compel students to read with compelling nonfiction. Knowledge Quest, 39(4), 34-39.

Moeller, Robin A. and Becnel, Kim E. . You Are What You Read: Young Adult Literacy and Identity in Rural America. Journal of Research on Libraries & Young Adults 6 (2015): n. page. Web accessed 7.28.15

Sullivan, E. (2001). Some teens prefer the real thing: The case for young adult nonfiction. The English Journal, 90(3), 43-47.

Goodwin, B. & Miller, K. (2012). Research Says Nonfiction Reading Promotes Student Success. Common Core: Now What? 70(4), 80-82.

Zappy, E. (2011). Sing a song of science: Scientists in the field. The Horn Book, 87(2), 33-38.

Black White and Jewish by Rebecca Walker

Black White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, by Rebecca Walker. 2001. New York, NY: Riverhead Books. 288 pages. ISBN 1573221694.

Summary: Beloved African American author Alice Walker and lawyer Mel Leventhal survived the tumultuous civil rights movement, married, and had a baby: Rebecca. This is her story of growing up in the middle of three worlds, black, white, and Jewish.

My thoughts: I wanted to love this book so, so badly. Alice Walker is #1 on my list of personal heroes, for her writing, for her activism, for the way she lives her life. And this is not to knock her daughter, because, imagine being the daughter of Alice Walker, and also a writer, and named one of Time magazine’s fifty future leaders of America, “one of the most influential leaders of her generation”: the spotlight is on you and the haters can’t wait to hate. And also, personally, as another copper-skinned woman I’m often forced to navigate between black and white, find where I fit in, how to present myself, how to explain who and what I am and why I’m here. It’s rough, and so I was looking forward to hearing how Rebecca (I feel like we can be on a first name basis) handled all of this.

But instead I get a book that pretty much bashes Alice Walker for putting herself, her writing, her activism (the very things that make her Alice Walker!) over keeping her family together, keeping her daughter happy and safe and feeling loved. I get it: but it’s not what I expected to read, and I’m just not sure if that’s why I don’t love the book, or if it’s the writing, needs more editing – I’m just too close to the subject to be objective. (And maybe that’s the key to the book, BW & J, too.)

I’m hoping that mixed race young adults who read this book will identify and take heart from Rebecca’s experience, and that other folks reading it will begin to understand the difficult place mixed race children can be shoved into in our society. I’m going to have to read more of Rebecca Walker’s work, in hope that I find something that resonates with me.

Black White and Jewish is a NY Times Bestseller & Alex Award-Winning Nonfiction Title.


Front Matter: praise for the book & Walker; Also by Rebecca Walker; title page; dedication (For my parents); TOC, sort of prologue.

Back Matter: Acknowledgements, About the Author.

Brooklyn Bridge by Lynn Curlee

Brooklyn Bridge by Lynn Curlee. 2001. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster/Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 40 pages. ISBN 0689831838

Summary: Proclaimed The 8th Wonder of the World, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883 after 16 years of hard work. Take a journey to meet the people behind the bridge, through beautiful acrylic paintings and text by author Lynn Curlee.

My thoughts: I’ve walked the Brooklyn Bridge as a tourist and never even took the time to learn about its creation and interesting history. Shame on me! This is a great book, and it looks like the author has also written similar about Mt. Rushmore, the Parthenon & the Statue of Liberty, which I’ll also have to check out. This type of children’s picture book on history/landmarks is a wonderful way for the busy adult person to learn (or re-learn) about things at the same time as their children (or, just on their own.) It’s much more engaging than any Cliff’s Notes or “..For Dummies” version, and in this case the pictures, diagrams and specs do justice to this “8th Wonder”.

And you’ve got to check out the author’s website, which is full of his very striking art (not necessarily for children) and the rest of his picture books.


Brooklyn Bridge was named an Atheneum Books for Young Readers 2001, Robert F. Sibert Honor Book 2002, ALA Notable Books for Children 2002, Capitol Choices 2001, Junior Library Guild Selection, Nest Literary Classics Selection.

Front Matter: Intro (“Suspended in midair…”); lovely locket-shaped illustration of John Roebling (the architect/engineer), maps of the bridge, the approach, roadway, and suspension.

Back Matter: Appendix with bridge specifications; timeline; title page with dedication (“For Douglas”), bibliography.

Sequoyah, by James Rumford

Sequoyah: The Cherokee Man Who Gave His People Writing, by James Rumford. Translated into Cherokee by Anna Sixkiller Huckaby. 2004. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company. 34 pages. ISBN 0618369473.

Summary: The story of the man the graceful Sequoia trees are named for: a man as giant in spirit as the trees are in life: Sequoyah, who gave the Cherokee people a written language, and allowed the rest of us to read their story.

My thoughts: I love this book. I love the sequoia trees, Sequoyah the man, and the whole, beautifully illustrated, bi-lingual book that should be on the required reading list for every California school child (at a minimum, California!) – around the time when they’re getting the whole indoctrination to the missions. In classic oral tradition friendly language, with illustrations and Cherokee translations of the text-what a wonderful teachable moment.

Sequoyah is a Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Honor award winner.


Front matter: title pages, dedication (To my father…); trees.

Back matter: Picture of the author, age 8; more about the author & translator.

Counting Coup, by Larry Colton

Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn, by Larry Colton. 2001. New York, NY: Warner Books. 434 pages. ISBN 0446677558.

Summary: One high school basketball team battling opponents across the Montana plains; one star player with the weight of the championships, and her world, on her shoulders; one compelling story about love and basketball, in Crow Indian style.

Counting Coup is an Alex Award-Winning Nonfiction Title, a 2000 Frankfurt eBook Award winner for non-fiction, and was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2000 in nonfiction.

My thoughts: I’ve become hooked on the Walt Longmire mystery novels, where the fictional sheriff in Wyoming regularly interacts with the local Cheyenne and Crow indian populations. It’s piqued my interest in reading more about Indian culture (not Native American, a less descriptive term only used in PC circles). Counting Coup has helped fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of current Indian culture: race relations with white neighbors, familial relationships, and what really goes on on the rez. It’s not all pretty.

As difficult as it can be for an outsider to paint an unbiased story of another culture, Larry Colton has done an admirable job; spending over a a year with the Hardin High girls basketball team, their families, the high school itself, and, key to developing this compelling story, Sharon LaForge: star player, Indian, and the one you hope makes it to a very happy ending. I love that Colton references an Indian term in the title of the book, and, through telling the story, keeps the Indian oral history tradition alive: counting coup refers to warriors winning prestige by acts of bravery in the face of the enemy. This is something the girls of the Hardin High basketball team experience with regularity.

(As ps: I’m also planning on getting my young nephew to read this one too. 13, his entire life focus is basketball, and his dream is to skip college altogether and just play in the NBA. Without crushing those dreams, I’d like him to understand a bit more about the struggle, how it’s not all fun & games and Lebron James. It’s like a scared-straight for young black basketball playing boys.)

Front Matter: praise and reviews for the book & author, title pages, author’s note (“Indian”; not “Native American” background) acknowledgements, map of Montana & Indian reservations.

Back Matter: Epilogue (get your tissue ready); Index, Q&A with Colton; Questions for Discussion; Also Available by Warner Books.


Videoing yourself is an experience I hope you’ve all been able to enjoy! (In unrelated musings: why does my mouth look so weird when I talk?)

Today I join the ranks of Book Talking bibliophiles everywhere by sharing my very first Book Talk, where I discuss three of my favorite nonfiction titles, suitable for adults & young adults.

Get to know Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi; Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett; and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach.

Read on! Or, you know, watch:

The Hive Detectives, by Loree Griffin Burns

The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe, by Loree Griffin Burns. 2010. New York: NY. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 80 pages. ISBN 0547152310.

Summary: Imagine you’re babysitting two million sweet charges, and wake up to find they’ve disappeared! Find out the history of honey bee colony collapse, why these fuzzy insects are important to the world, and what you can do to protect them.

The Hive Detectives is winner of: SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books, National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Recommended book, Notable Children’s Book in English Language Arts (NCTE), ALA Notable Book for Children, The John Burroughs List of Nature Books for Young Readers, Junior Library Guild Selection, 2010 Children’s and YA Bloggers’ Literary Award Finalist, Young Hoosier Book Award Nominee, 2012 Flicker Tale Children’s Book Award Nominee.

My thoughts: As a DIY weekend gardner in California, colony collapse disorder (CCD) has been on my mind for some time now, as I read about honey bees disappearing, and the devastating effects to farmers across the world. It’s something I observe in my own garden too: so it’s fantastic for me to get an easily understandable, scientific book on this from an expert talking to other experts. 

I really appreciated getting the ‘notes’ from scientists, as if taken from their field notebooks; the breakdown of the body, hives and life cycle of the bees; cool facts about bees; pictures; and a vast index and sources for more reading. (I also really like how these “Scientists in the Field” books jump right into the subject with little preamble; I don’t know if that’s for the attention span of young adults, but it works great for not-so-young-adults too.)

Reading this is going to make my weekly trips to the honey lady at the farmers market that much more enjoyable, now that I can discuss her world on learned terms!

Front Matter: Photos, note on photography copyrights; Dedication (To my sister, Karin).

Back Matter: Appendix “Bee”; Glossary; Materials to Study; Acknowledgements; Select References; About the Author; About the Photographer.


The Family Romanov- Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming. 2014. New York, NY: chwartz & Wade. 304 pages. ISBN 0375867821

Summary: One family: Tsar, Empress, five beautiful, beloved children and their pet dog, all shot dead in July 1918. Read what you don’t know: the who, what, when and why behind an Imperial massacre that chills to this day.

My thoughts: Being an 80s baby, it seemed like every other book or movie of the week for quite some time had to do with the murder of the Russian Imperial family. Being an 80s baby, that might also indicate why the focus was on the riches, the beloved Anastasia (is she still alive?) and the horror of the massacre itself: not the extreme poverty, horrifying working conditions and cold that the average Russian suffered through while the royal family paraded around layered with furs and jewels.

It’s good, but a bit sad, to get the whole story, to understand why the people were so unhappy with the Romanovs (their pet elephant ate, slept and generally lived better than most people!), how the family lived so far above everyone else, and the political dramas at play well before that well publicized horrifying day.

This is a well researched, well rounded book that includes details that an adult historian would love, but that are packaged and use language that a an adult or young adult will appreciate. All of the details are simply wonderful: the interspersed “Beyond the Palace Gates” peasant stories contrast harshly with the goings-on of the Romanovs: such as the story of shop girls, only hired if they’re attractive, then at the mercy of the shopkeepers, working 15 hour days for roughly $2 per month. They make for a great bit of perspective and more in depth history, and work really well told in narrative voice.

You can’t get bored reading this book-there’s too much going on, too much to see-including all the pictures. What a benefit to history, and to this book in particular, that the Romanov’s were such fans of photography: Fleming notes that every single member of this family, in the early 1900s, had their own Kodak camera, and that every night they updated their photo albums with new shots. This book is well researched and sourced, well written, and just a balanced, thorough telling of an old story. I’m glad to add it to my library.

The Family Romanov is a national bestseller; a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist, & Winner of the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction.

Front Matter: Contents; Before You Begin (including note on names & Russian calendar dates); Nicholas & Alexandra’s Family Tree; map of the Russian Empire, c. 1900; Russia 1903, Beyond the Palace Gates: Peasant Turned Worker.

Back Matter: Acknowledgements, Bibliography (extensive), The Romanovs Online, Notes, Index, Pictures grouped by chapter.


What I’ve learned from reading books aimed at children/young adults vs the ‘regular’ novel-length stuff: length is not an indicator of superior content.

Into Thin Air and Endurance are both lengthy novel-length books covering science, nature, man’s forays into nature, and human desire. Both include pictures, personal accounts, and long lists of bibliographic references.

Tracking Trash and Neighborhood Sharks are picture books aimed at a younger reader (children): both are entertaining, educational, and just plain good reads. I learned more from reading these two books, both well under 100 pages, than I ever expected. (And certainly more than I leaned from tv’s celebrated Shark Week!)

In my own writing I tend to ramble on: I just love words. Let this then be a lesson: page count ain’t nothing but a number. It’s the content that counts.

Neighborhood Sharks, by Katherine Roy

Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands, by Katherine Roy. 2014. New York, NY: Roaring Press Books. 48 pages. ISBN 596438746

Summary: Off the Pacific shores of San Francisco the Farallon Islands lay in wait each year for the return of the seals, and the Great White Sharks. They’re not after us, after all.

My thoughts: My nephew is a self-proclaimed shark fan, so I picked up this book to tempt him with. Instead, I ended up learning a whole lot about sharks, their habitats and habits, their importance to the marine ecosystem, and just why they’re such fearsome predators of the deep. The illustrations that accompany Roy’s text are dramatic and accurate, giving you a healthy example of what awaits just below the surface of the ocean. And I appreciate the explanatory notes at the end of the book, including what the author chose to leave out of the narrative.

Poor sharks. Just misunderstood. But I do understand that I won’t be surfing off the San Francisco coast any time from August through the end of the year, just to be safe.

Neighborhood Sharks is an ALSC Notable Books nonfiction title and Robert F. Sibert Honor Book for 2014 nonfiction in children’s literature.


Front Matter: Illustration of a deceptively peaceful Golden Gate Bridge; bloody title page.

Back Matter: Shark Up! A Note from the Author; A Few Words on Smell; Selected Sources; Further Reading; Films: Books; Online Resources; Acknowledgements; map of the Farallones; illustration of the Farallones.


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