The good news is that I seem to be writing more and more columns devoted to nonfiction, indicating that Sarah and I (and our fearless reviewers) are doing a better job of tracking down quality nonfiction for teens. The bad news is that as I write more of these columns, I have less desire to make my polemical points about the virtues of nonfiction—or maybe that’s good news for readers tired of my rhetoric.
In any case, today we have five works of nonfiction, three of which, conveniently enough, also continue my project from February of “Showcasing Marginalized Voices.”
When I wrote that February column, I was disappointed that I didn’t have any books on transgender issues to include along with those on race and women’s rights. So I’m thrilled to be able to introduce you to Laura Erickson-Scroth and Laura A. Jacobs’s “You’re in the Wrong Bathroom”: And 20 Other Myths and Misconceptions About Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People. As I note below, this is perhaps not the ideal text to give to newcomers to the topic. But for teens who are already familiar with the subject, who are simply curious because of the so-called “bathroom bills,” or who may be questioning their gender identity, this is an ideal book to dispel many pernicious myths that prevent otherwise well-intentioned people from fully understanding the trans experience.
Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted, edited by Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger, examines another deeply marginalized group in our culture, prisoners—specifically those who have been falsely imprisoned. The sorry state of America’s criminal justice system is a bit of a pet issue for me. We’ve previously reviewed several titles on the subject, including Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, which received a starred review, and I’ve probably read more on the subject than is healthy for my sanity (if anyone is interested in more suggestions, feel free to contact me). Caldwell and Klinger’s book gives voice to these wrongfully convicted men and women by pairing them with world-class thriller authors such as Lee Child and Sara Paretsky, who give each story an urgency and immediacy that will stay with readers for a long time.
With Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College, which focuses on life after university, author Caroline Kitchener made an impressive effort to cover a range of underrepresented populations as well, following, for instance, the daughter of Cameroonian immigrants and a woman whose Baptist parents refuse to believe that she is gay. Exploring how five different women stake out their postgrad lives, this is important reading for teens.
The last two books fit less easily into the category of marginalized voices than the others mentioned, but they nevertheless have much to teach us about societal differences. Missy Franklin’s Relentless Spirit, for example, is an autobiography of a relatively privileged white woman with five Olympic gold medals. Nevertheless, it reminds us that athletic success is far easier for men than for women. And Franklin is certainly an excellent role model for all readers.
Similarly, Christopher Knight doesn’t look like anyone’s idea of a minority: a middle-aged white American man. And yet his story, detailed by Michael Finkel in The Stranger in the Woods, is almost the definition of being marginalized. Living without human contact in the woods of Maine for nearly three decades, Knight survived through petty theft and the bounty of the woods. The details of wilderness survival in his tale will appeal to teens. But what got to me the most in reading the GQ article on which the book was based was the image of Knight almost literally wasting away in jail—a sign, surely, of his distance from society but also a reminder of the dehumanization at the heart of one of our society’s largest institutions.
CALDWELL, Laura, & Leslie S. Klinger, eds. Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted. 320p. photos. notes. Norton/Liveright. Mar. 2017. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781631490880.
A collection of first-person accounts from individuals who were wrongfully arrested and convicted. Told to mystery and true crime writers such as Lee Child, Sara Paretsky, and Jan Burke, these stories highlight the defects in the police, investigative, and legal system that lead to the prosecution and incarceration of innocent people. Themes such as false confessions, mishandled evidence, and, in highly publicized cases, the desire to quickly finger a suspect rather than find the actual criminal run through the work. Each chapter describes a case (for instance, in 1973, Peter Reilly was arrested for allegedly killing his mother), explains how the individual was exonerated, provides background on the author, and features an editors’ note with statistics on false convictions. The brutal reality of police torture and prison life is addressed matter-of-factly. Information on the Innocence Project and member groups by state is appended. Black-and-white photographs of the people profiled are included, along with an update on their lives since exoneration. VERDICT A valuable resource for students interested in the legal system and social justice.–Tamara Saarinen, Pierce County Library, WA
ERICKSON-SCHROTH, Laura & Laura A. Jacobs. “You’re in the Wrong Bathroom!”: And 20 Other Myths and Misconceptions About Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People. 200p. Beacon. May 2017. pap. $16. ISBN 9780807033890.
The title and subtitle of Erickson-Schroth and Jacobs’s book encapsulate its parameters: on the one hand, this is an excellent selection that examines myths about transgender people; on the other, the confrontational tenor may deter some readers. The tone is fitting, given that the trans community has been marginalized for so long. However, to appreciate this selection, readers will need a certain amount of respect, curiosity, and commitment to learning. With those caveats acknowledged, for the authors’ intended audience, this is an exemplary work that addresses issues in four different categories: identity, sex and relationships, health and safety, and history and community. Erickson-Schroth and Jacobs correct many misconceptions and offer effective advice on how to think about, talk about, and interact with the transgender community. They also provide an impressive list of further materials—from other books to national organizations and conferences to mental health resources. VERDICT An absolutely essential volume for teens who are interested in learning more about the trans community, but readers who have less experience with the topic should start elsewhere (for instance, Susan Kuklin’s Beyond Magenta).–Mark Flowers, Rio Vista Library, CA
FINKEL, Michael. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. 224p. Knopf. Mar. 2017. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9781101875681.
Christopher Knight lived for 27 years in the woods of Maine with almost no human interaction, surviving by pilfering food and supplies. Opening with the account of how Knight was captured by an ex-marine after stealing from a local camp, this book begins on an exciting note, though the pace slows as Finkel weaves in research about the science of isolation along with an exploration of the philosophical and nature writing that might lead someone like Knight to seek seclusion. An extension of Finkel’s 2014 GQ article “The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit,” this title goes into detail about the lengths to which Knight went in order to stay alive. Teens who are drawn to survival stories will appreciate reading about the harsh conditions Knight faced, including freezing weather, isolation, and lack of food, and the problem-solving skills on which he had to rely. This introspective look at the hermit life throughout time focuses on the ethical issues involved in one man’s attempt to break free of society. VERDICT Hand this volume to mature and thoughtful teens who love Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild or are interested in philosophy, science, or nature.–Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ
FRANKLIN, Missy, D.A. Franklin, & Dick Franklin. Relentless Spirit: The Unconventional Raising of a Champion. 304p. photos. Dutton. Dec. 2016. Tr $27. ISBN 9781101984925.
“Relentless” is the perfect title for this engaging, vivid tale of young determination and drive. Swimming prodigy Missy Franklin’s account, cowritten with her parents, of her path to the Olympics is a reach-for-the-stars story that will enthrall adults and teens, who will be eager to see how the young athlete navigated each bump and curve. Missy Franklin explains how the word relentless motivates her to push herself. From early moments where she soared despite fear and uncertainty to her success as a decorated Olympian and celebrity athlete, she never gives up. Some may initially be deterred by the title’s length but will quickly find themselves deeply absorbed. VERDICT An inspiring book that will appeal to sports fans, educators seeking a classroom read, and those looking for an uplifting memoir.–Ashley Selima, Lincoln Public Library, RI
KITCHENER, Caroline. Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College. 320p. HarperCollins/Ecco. Apr. 2017. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780062429490.
Princeton graduate Kitchener turns a sociologist’s eye on herself and four classmates, documenting their first year after college. The author, who is white, with well-off parents, occupies a somewhat privileged existence, which occasionally is reflected in her prose (for instance, she wistfully compares herself with feminist friends who are “heading out for a year alone to save orphans or trafficked women in rural Malaysia or Bangladesh”). However, she has made a laudable effort to follow a diverse group of women: Denise, the daughter of Cameroonian immigrants, who aspires to attend medical school despite doubts; Alex, a computer programmer whose Baptist parents refuse to accept that she is gay; Olivia, who forges her own path instead of taking over the lucrative family business back in Malaysia; and Michelle, a musician discovering that her true passion lies in the less than profitable but wholly fulfilling area of improvisational jazz. Blending her personal musings with more general observations about the experiences of twentysomethings, Kitchener unpacks a variety of issues faced by those making their first forays into adulthood: the struggle to break free from parents, the need to manage expectations (both one’s own and others’), and the rewards and challenges of romantic relationships. Though lucid and accessible, the book feels more like long-form journalism than a more intimate memoir. However, its tendency to move quickly among the different individuals results in easy, absorbing reading. VERDICT Teens curious about what the future will bring will appreciate this thought-provoking look at the first year out of college.–Mahnaz Dar, School Library Journal