Archive for Autobiographical

Booktalk: Popular: A Memoir by Maya Van Wagenen

Popular cover

Since most of the YA books I read are fiction and many of those are dark and depressing, I’m always on the lookout for nonfiction titles and for books that are sweet and uplifting at their core.  Popular: A Memoir by Maya Van Wagenen succeeds on both counts!


This is the true story of a girl who tried to do something brave.  She tried to come out of her shell and become popular.  In order to transform herself, she used a book called Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide.  Betty Cornell wrote that book in 1951, and Maya’s father had bought a copy of that book at a thrift store before Maya was born.

Maya decided to see if advice that was over 60 years old would still work today, and if it could help her transform into something she definitely wasn’t.  Because up until now Maya had been quiet and shy, she only had a few friends, and she hated talking to strangers.  But when she was in 8th grade Maya used this book to learn how to use Vaseline instead of makeup on her eyes, how to brush her hair 100 times before she went to sleep at night, how to close her pores with ice cubes, how to wear pearls, how to stand tall, how to talk to strangers, and how to transform herself into a whole new person.





Booktalk: Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me by Jerry McGill

Dear Marcus cover

I first checked out Dear Marcus by Jerry McGill because I’d heard it referred to as “the #1 book in juvie,” and I wondered what kind of book could entice kids in juvenile detention centers. As soon as I started reading it, I was swept up in the universal questions that it raised about forgiveness, about anger and grief, and about how often each of us look back on our lives and wonder “what if?”

Many library systems including mine have this book shelved in their adult collections.  That’s understandable because it’s written from an adult perspective, but it’s also understandable that it would have lots of crossover teen appeal because so much of it focuses on the author’s youth.  This would make a great book to share with older teens who are fans of real-life survivor stories, and it would also make a great topic for a book discussion.


Jerry McGill was 13 years old when he was shot in the back by a stranger.  He had been a smart kid with a promising future.  He was great at sports, he could dance, and he was popular.  But then one bullet changed everything.

Jerry spent a lot of time thinking about the “what ifs.”  What if he hadn’t been out on the street that night?  What if he and his friends hadn’t stopped to play video games on the way home?  What if they had walked home a different way?  Jerry and Eric had been walking next to each other — what if the man had decided to shoot Eric instead?

What if, what if, what if?

But all the what ifs in the world don’t matter, because Jerry was shot and his life changed forever.  When he wasn’t thinking about the what ifs, he was thinking about the person who did this to him.  Was it a boy or was it a man?  Why did he shoot him?  Was it accidentally or on purpose?  Was he proud afterwards, or did he regret it?  Is he still alive, or is he dead?  Is he in prison, or is he free?

Jerry has no idea, because they never caught the person who did this to him.  But he can imagine that person.  He imagines that the person who shot him is named Marcus, and that whether he was a boy or a man on the day he pulled the trigger, he’s definitely a man by now.  This book is a letter from Jerry to Marcus, filled with all the things he wants to say to the man who ruined and transformed his life.

Booktalk: Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose

Dear Nobody cover

Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose is a powerful and painful story about a girl who was plagued by bad luck and bad choices.  Give this book to your teens who are looking for real-life tragic stories.  As the editors say in this interview about the book in School Library Journal, Dear Nobody is “the authentic version of Go Ask Alice.”


Mary Rose kept a diary where she wrote about all the things that were going wrong with her life.

She wrote about how her mother kept getting back together with Joe, even though they fought all the time and even though he’d been violent with both of them.  About how they moved to a new place to get away from Joe, but how Mary Rose was lonely because all the other kids already knew each other and none of them wanted to be friends with her.  About how drinking made her feel better, even if it made her sick.  About how taking drugs made her forget how unhappy and lonely she was, even though they made her forget things sometimes, like who she could trust or how she woke up in this strange place.  About falling in and out of love with different boys.  About going to rehab to try to break her addiction to drugs and alcohol … and failing.

Mary Rose is a real person who kept a diary.  THIS is that diary.

Nonfiction For Teens, Up Close and Personal: Memoirs, Autobiographies, and More

NOTE: My apologies for the slight decline in audio quality of this episode.  My favorite microphone was acting weird (or perhaps was possessed by gremlins?) and I had to switch to my second-favorite microphone instead.  Needless to say, it’s my second-favorite microphone for a reason.

When I noticed the growing trend of internet users searching for information about nonfiction for teens, I had to decide whether to follow up my previous episode on teen nonfiction with a “part 2” episode or if I should focus my attention on one particular area of nonfiction instead.  I decided to narrow my focus to autobiographies and memoirs, based on the popularity of books like A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer (which I somehow managed not to mention during this episode).

Here’s the list of all of the books I mentioned on this episode:

King of the Mild Frontier by Chris Crutcher [booktalk HERE]
Tyranny by Lesley Fairfield [booktalk HERE]
Dear Diary by Lesley Arfin [booktalk HERE]
Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories ed. by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones [booktalk HERE]
The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon [booktalk HERE]
The Pregnancy Project by Gaby Rodriguez [booktalk HERE]
Stitches: A Memoir by David Small
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
Everything Sucks: Losing My Mind and Finding Myself in a High School Quest For Cool by Hannah Friedman
The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeanette Walls
Smile For the Camera by Kelle James
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali
Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self by Lori Gottlieb
Hungry: A Young Model’s Story of Appetite, Ambition, and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves by Crystal Renn.
Marni: My True Story of Stress, Hair-Pulling, and Other Obsessions by Marni Bates
Emily: My True Story of Chronic Illness and Missing Out on Life by Emily Smucker
My Thirteenth Winter: A Memoir by Samantha Abeel
Epileptic by David B.
My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Booktalk: The Pregnancy Project by Gaby Rodriguez

For those of you looking to connect teens with nonfiction books, especially memoirs of people who had to cope with uphill battles, this book is an excellent candidate for you.  Gaby Rodriguez wrote this book about her controversial decision to fake a pregnancy as part of a senior project, and that book then inspired a Lifetime movieThe Pregnancy Project will definitely inspire readers to discuss the topic of teenage pregnancy, as well as how expectations and stereotypes can affect everyone.

Please Note: I’ll be out of town on vacation next week, so Be a Better Booktalker will take a brief hiatus.  Tune in for a new episode in two weeks!


You might have seen a news report about her.  You might have seen a TV movie about her.  You might have heard about her story through a friend or family member.  And when you heard the story, you probably thought I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE DID THAT!

The Pregnancy Project: A Memoir by Gaby Rodriguez with Jenna Glatzer is a nonfiction book about a girl who always heard that she would probably be a teen mom.  Even though her mother and her older sisters got pregnant when they were teenagers, Gaby didn’t want to follow in that family tradition.  She wanted to be a good student, graduate with honors, and go on to college.  She wasn’t ready to start having children yet.  But she wondered what it would be like if she lived down to other people’s expectations.  Would people think she was just another statistic?  Would they be disappointed in her?  Or would they just think, “Like mother, like daughter” and that would be the end of it?

And that’s how she came up with the idea for her senior project.  Gaby was going to fake her own pregnancy, and then see how everyone around her reacted to the news.

Gaby learned what it was like to have people look at her stomach before they looked at her face.  She learned what it was like to disappoint people.  She learned who her true friends were.  And most importantly, she learned about herself.

Booktalk: The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon

A few weeks ago, several colleagues and I conducted a presentation for an audience of school librarians.  After we finished the booktalking portion of our presentation we had a Q&A session, and we answered some questions about booktalking techniques (length of booktalks, favorite subject matter, etc.)  Once the discussion of the booktalks themselves was over, the most popular topic quickly became nonfiction books for teens.  Our audience specifically wanted recommendations of autobiographical books for teens who were fascinated by “true survivor” stories like A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer.  Whenever I get a request for a nonfiction book for teens about someone who suffered through trauma and lived to tell about it, The Burn Journals is ALWAYS at the top of my list.  Brent Runyon started his writing career with this book, but since then he has gone on to write several novels.  Visit his website to learn more about him and this powerful book.


When Brent Runyon was fourteen years old, he set himself on fire.  This wasn’t the first time he tried to kill himself, but it was supposed to be the last.  The other times were small compared to this — but then again, this time he was in real trouble.  This time he had set a fire in one of the school lockers, and everyone knew that he was guilty.  He told some of his friends that he was going to kill himself.  He told them that he was going to set himself on fire.  They didn’t believe him.  But Brent was very serious.  He had the bathrobe, the gasoline, and the matches all ready.  He went into the bathroom, he locked the door, and he stepped into the bathtub.  He poured the gasoline on the bathrobe.  He lit the match.  He caught on fire.  But then something happened that he didn’t expect; he survived.

When Brent Runyon was fourteen years old, he set himself on fire.  But that isn’t the end of the story; it’s only the beginning.

Booktalk: Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories

I first became aware of the nonfiction essay collection called Dear Bully when I got an advance reader’s copy shortly before October, which was National Bullying Prevention Month.  Reading this book made me think about how bullying affected my life when I was a kid and how much it influences the lives of the teens I see every day.  Think about all the times that you ever bullied someone, how many times you were a victim, and how many times you watched it happen to someone else.  Now think about the kids growing up today and how new technologies like social media and texting can spread insults and rumors like wildfire, increasing that humiliation and frustration even further.  This is a book that teens, teachers, and parents should be reading, or at the very least they should know that it exists.  Usually this is the point where I plug the author’s website, but since this is a collaborative effort by so many authors I’ll point you to the book’s website instead.  There you can learn about the book and the authors, and also read new essays every week.


Ellen Hopkins.  Carolyn Mackler.  Lauren Oliver.  Mo Willems.  R.L. Stine.  These are just a few of the people who contributed to this book, and they all have two things in common.  The first thing they have in common is that they all grew up to be writers.  The second thing they have in common is that they all have strong memories of bullies from when they were growing up.  Some of these authors were bullies.  Some of them were victims.  And some of them were bystanders who stood back and watched what happened to other kids.  But they didn’t say anything because THEY didn’t want to become the next targets.

All of the stories in this book are true.  All of these stories were remembered by young people who grew up, and learned how to share their voices with the rest of the world.  And each of these authors needed to share their stories with you.  They wanted to tell you that even though they lived with depression, confusion, and anger, they struggled … but they survived.

And so can you.

Selecting Great Nonfiction Books For Teens

I mentioned a lot of different titles in this episode, and I’m going to list them here if you’d like more information about these books.  Unfortunately, some of them are no longer in print, but I mentioned them anyway because this way you would get a better sense of what kinds of books I like to use with my classes.  And besides, since many of you already work in these libraries, even if a book is out of print it might be on your shelves!

A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
Dear Diary by Lesley Arfin [booktalk HERE]
King of the Mild Frontier by Chris Crutcher [booktalk HERE]
The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon
Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy by Katherine Tarbox
My Thirteenth Winter by Samantha Abeel
Somebody’s Someone by Regina Louise
The Pregnancy Project by Gaby Rodriguez [booktalk HERE]
The Story of Diamonds by Jean Milne
Don’t Try This at Home by Hunter S. Fulghum
The Emperor’s Silent Army by Jane O’Connor
From Altoids to Zima by Evan Morris
It Came from Bob’s Basement by Bob Burns
Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing by Paul Janeczko
Curse of the Pharaohs: My Adventures With Mummies by Zahi Hawass
Secrets of a Civil War Submarine by Sally M. Walker
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester [booktalk HERE]
Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History by Bryn Barnard
The Executioner Always Chops Twice by Geoffrey Abbot
Epidemic! The World of Infectious Disease by The American Museum of Natural History
How to Keep Dinosaurs by Robert Mash
My Life as a Furry Red Monster by Kevin Clash
Mommy Knows Worst: Highlights From the Golden Age of Bad Parenting Advice by James Lileks

Booktalk: Dear Diary by Lesley Arfin

You might be wondering why I wrote a booktalk for Dear Diary, when the cover is going to sell it to even the most reluctant readers without me even saying a word.  Yes, but … this book is shelved in the nonfiction section, where many teens who should read this book will never know to look for it.  Also, I wanted to booktalk it because many teens are dying to read real-life survivor stories.  There are so many teens out there who’ve read books like Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It and who want more books like that — books about people who went through terrible ordeals and managed to survive them — but the books have to be REAL.  I’ve spent a lot of time scouring through my autobiographies and my 300’s section looking for books that will fit the bill.  FWIW, I’m recommending Dear Diary for older teens rather than younger ones because of the mature language and subject matter, so you might want to read it yourself before sharing it with your favorite teen readers.

If you’re interested in learning more about Lesley Arfin and Dear Diary, you can visit her website, read an interview she did with Gothamist, and even check out a “mix tape” of music that Lesley recommends as a Dear Diary soundtrack.


If you read the back cover of this book, you’ll find the description that this is “a collection of a girl’s funniest diary entries from 12 to 25 years old.”  But I don’t entirely agree.  Some of these entries are laugh-out-loud funny, and some are “Oh my God” funny … but a lot of them aren’t funny at all.  Lesley Arfin’s life was a mess during most of her teenage years.  She spent a lot of time trying to fit in and a lot of time worrying about what other people thought of her.  When she was a teenager, Lesley experimented with alcohol, marijuana, crystal meth, special K, ecstasy, acid, cocaine, Xanax, and mescaline.  But it was heroin that led to her becoming an full-blown drug addict.  She was high at her college graduation.  She was high before, during, and after her Narcotics Anonymous meetings.  She was high on September 11th, 2001 when her primary concern wasn’t the people in the towers, or even if World War III was starting.  Her main concern was, with cell phone service not working, how was she going to contact her drug dealer?

Lesley was a mess for most of her teenage years going into her early twenties.  When she was twenty-three years old, she went to rehab for the second time and finally beat her addiction to drugs.  Now that she’s twenty-eight and clean, she’s looking back at her life by looking back at her old diaries.  After each entry, Lesley gives updates on the people she wrote about.  Sometimes she contacts them by phone or email and talks to them about why they fought, or why they fell in love, or why they got high together.  Some of her friends had life-changing experiences.  One became a Jehovah’s Witness.  One is in jail for dealing drugs.  One murdered his parents and then set fire to the house to cover his tracks.  One combined alcohol, cocaine, and Oxycontin and went into a coma.  But many of the people she mentions in her diary aren’t updated at all.  Some of these people refused to talk to her.  Some of them moved away and she couldn’t find them.  Some of them are dead, either by accident or by overdose.

Lesley Arfin survived her childhood.  Find out how, and find out why.

Booktalk: Tyranny by Lesley Fairfield

As soon as I finished reading Tyranny, I knew that every library that serves teenagers should own multiple copies of this book.  It’s an excellent graphic novel, it explores the topic of eating disorders in a very unique way, and it’s a fictional story that author/illustrator Lesley Fairfield created based on her own real-life battles with anorexia and bulimia.


Anna has a secret.  She has a personal demon called Tyranny that only she can see.  Tyranny tells her what to eat and how to think.  Tyranny tells her that she’s ugly, and that the girl she sees in the mirror is too fat.  Tyranny tells her that she should starve herself, and tells her that if she eats too much that she has to get that food out of her system as soon as possible.  And in any way possible.  Anna thinks that being thin is the answer, and that losing weight can’t hurt her.  But as time passes and Anna gets thinner and thinner, her health begins to fail, until she is finally hospitalized.  Anna needs to turn her life around before it’s too late.  The more weight she loses, the more likely she is to lose her hair, damage her teeth, and put so much strain on her heart that it could kill her.  But every time Anna starts eating again and begins to feel normal, Tyranny returns to tell her that she’s fat, bloated, and ugly.  Anna’s only chance of survival is to break Tyranny’s hold over her once and for all.