Given the choice between fiction and nonfiction, as much as I do love a good novel, I would have to pick nonfiction. I think especially for children and young adults, reading nonfiction about other kids and teens around the world can be incredibly inspiring and encouraging. Whether they’re reading about someone else going through something similar to what they are experiencing, reading about a historical experience, or reading about someone who did something completely unfamiliar to them, reading nonfiction about other people can be a beneficial learning experience and can help build empathy. Reading nonfiction books about girls isn’t just for girls, either.
Everyone, no matter how you identify, can enjoy these stories. Even if the target age range isn’t for you, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised if you pick up the book — I know that after I’ve read certain nonfiction picture books with my son, I’ve found myself googling for more information and doing further reading. If you’re interested in reading nonfiction about girls around the world, here are some good places to start, in a variety of age groups.
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
Though this is the adult version of her memoir, there is also a young reader’s version of this, and many children’s books, including her picture book Malala’s Magic Pencil. When the Taliban took over her village, Malala Yousafzai fought for her right to go to school — and was shot in the head for it. The book not only gives readers a history of her culture and of her family to provide more context, but also traces her recovery and path of activism. As the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Yousafzai’s story is one you shouldn’t miss.
Little People, Big Dreams: Greta Thunberg by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara and Anke Weckmann
If you’re not familiar with this series, you’re in for a treat. The series covers a variety of scientists, teachers, musicians, activists, scientists — you name it, they likely have covered someone in the field. The picture books are informative while capturing children’s attention. This book is about Greta Thunberg, the environmental activist who started skipping school to protest at the Swedish Parliament after learning more about the climate crisis. This is a good starting point to introduce younger children to Thunberg — and maybe even inspire them to take action where they can.
Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings
Jazz Jennings is one of the youngest activists in the transgender community, and in this memoir, she talks about all the challenges of being a teenager, but also about life as a transgender teenager. Jennings transitioned at age five, and a year later did an interview with Barbara Walters — and has been speaking about her experiences and educating others ever since. She is an honorary co-founder of the Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation, a youth ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign, and is the youngest person ever to be recognized in the annual “Top 40 under 40” in The Advocate. In this memoir geared toward middle grade and YA readers, she talks about both her public experiences and activism, as well as her private and everyday life as a teenager in this memoir.
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle and Edel Rodriguez
In this illustrated memoir-in-verse, Engle takes the reader on a journey that takes place more than 50 years ago. She transports us to her time spent in Cuba during summers, through the Cuban Missile Crisis and travel ban. Her mother was Cuban, and though she lived in Los Angeles, Engle regularly visited Cuba to see her family and spent extended periods of time there. After the Bay of Pigs Invasion, she grapples with what she knows of Cuba and what she hears on television and at school in L.A. The memoir illustrates her two selves: Cuban and American, and how she explores her identity in the context of politics, social issues and attitudes, and personal experiences.
Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ryan Estrada, Hyung-Ju Ko
Kim Hyun Sook started college in 1983, during South Korea’s Fifth Republic. This was a military regime that used censorship and torture, and killed anyone who protested. After turning to books for comfort and escape, Hyun Sook is invited to a reading group by the editor of her school paper…except it turns out the group is an underground banned book club. And in a dictatorship where protest and breaking the rules are punishable by death, reading the wrong thing can have devastating consequences. Reading and literature have always been political, and this graphic novel tells one story of the role it can play in resistance and activism.
The civil war in Syria started in 2011, and since then, more than 500,000 civilians have been killed. It is an ongoing humanitarian crisis, and Abouzeid, a journalist who has covered Syria in depth, follows two sets of sisters on opposite sides of the conflict in this YA book. Ruha and Alaa are Sunni Muslims and live in rebel-held territory, under constant attacks by the government; Hanin and Jawa are Alawaite (a sect of Shia Islam) and live in an area controlled by the existing regime that functions as a police state. Covering nearly nine years, the book follows the sets of sisters, giving the reader glimpses into their lives and the realities of war from the perspective of children.
All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans With Disabilities Changed Everything by Annette Bay Pimentel, Nabi Ali, Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins
When Jennifer Keelan was a little girl she wanted to be able to do simple, everyday things like go to school or eat lunch in the cafeteria. But the way the school was built made it hard for her to do these things because she used a wheelchair. Even as a little kid, she knew that everyone should be able to do these things and that people should be heard. She started speaking up and going to activist groups for disability rights, and eventually took part in the Capitol Crawl to support the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is her story.
This is Your Time by Ruby Bridges
This book for upper elementary/early middle schoolers tells the story, in the form of a letter, of Ruby Bridges. Bridges was the first Black child to integrate into an all-white school in New Orleans, and not only does she tell her story in this book, but also encourages others to become activists. She talks about her childhood experiences, as well as meeting children from around the country as an adult, and how we can work to dismantle systemic racism and effect positive change. The prose and pictures from the 1960s and today work together to create an inspiring, informational story for kids (and adults) of all ages.