I’m always on the hunt for great YA nonfiction, and over the last half decade or so, we’ve been presented with so many incredible collective biographies. Most of those have highlighted women or folks who identify as trans, nonbinary, or something beyond the cis binary. It’s been a treasure trove of discovery. But in a lot of ways, it also seems to have made finding biographies of individual women of note through history harder to find. YA biographies of women are challenging to find in their own right.
What is exciting, though, is that the YA biographies of women that are being published now are so much more fascinating, immersive, and readable than those published in years past. Too often, these were biographies meant to help with book reports or research, as opposed to leisure reading. We all know teens and YA readers will go to the adult nonfiction section, but why is it finding biographies in YA nonfiction still challenging?
There are a few reasons, of course. Sexism is likely one that’s a broad stroke across all books. But another is that nonfiction for YA readers is still seen as lesser than its fictional counterparts. Biographies fall even further into the “lesser” category, making finding books that hit all three notes rare. Publishers don’t put the same kind of money into promoting these books because they’re destined to sell fewer copies than their fictional counterparts. Whether fair or not, it’s reality, and it means they don’t have the sex appeal coming out of the gate.
It’s not going to be surprising to hear how even among one of the most diverse subsets of YA — nonfiction — biographies of women tend toward white women more than women of color.
Something else worth thinking about when it comes to YA biographies is this: who gets their story told over and over again? There’s an outstanding piece on Tablet Magazine about how some girls and women through history have been written about ad nauseam. It’s not that they didn’t do remarkable things, but it’s a reminder to pause and think about what stories aren’t given shelf space in the same capacity (or at all).
Let’s take a look at a number of YA biographies of women throughout history. I’m sticking to books in the last ten years or so, and this will not be comprehensive. I’m not including those series biographies sold to libraries. Those are fine for what they are, but leisure reading isn’t their intent.
I’d love to hear of titles in the works or those which might be of particular interest that I overlooked or did not include. I’m not looking for memoirs or autobiographies. I want stories of historic women told by someone other than them.
As always, finding those YA nonfiction books is in and of itself a challenge, so going deeper increases the difficulty. Descriptions come from Goodreads. Though this list looks lengthy, remember this is 10+ years worth of books, and with that in mind, it’s shockingly short and narrow. It’s also narrow when you consider the liberal application of “YA” here, as many of these fall into middle grade (or in that wiggly 10-14 age range).
I’ve added a “*” beside the ones I’ve read and recommend.
YA Biographies of Women Through History
In alternating chapters, Fleming moves readers back and forth between Amelia’s life (from childhood up until her last flight) and the exhaustive search for her and her missing plane. With photos, maps, and handwritten notes from Amelia herself—plus informative sidebars tackling everything from the history of flight to what Amelia liked to eat while flying (tomato soup).
Here is the story of leader Alice Paul, from the women’s suffrage movement—the long struggle for votes for women—to the “second wave,” when women demanded full equality with men. Paul made a significant impact on both. She reignited the sleepy suffrage moment with dramatic demonstrations and provocative banners. After women won the right to vote in 1920, Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would make all the laws that discriminated against women unconstitutional. Passage of the ERA became the rallying cry of a new movement of young women in the 1960s and ’70s. Paul saw another chance to advance women’s rights when the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 began moving through Congress. She set in motion the “sex amendment,” which remains a crucial legal tool for helping women fight discrimination in the workplace.
Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a modern feminist icon—a leader in the fight for equal treatment of girls and women in society and the workplace. She blazed trails to the peaks of the male-centric worlds of education and law, where women had rarely risen before.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has often said that true and lasting change in society and law is accomplished slowly, one step at a time. This is how she has evolved, too. Step by step, the shy little girl became a child who questioned unfairness, who became a student who persisted despite obstacles, who became an advocate who resisted injustice, who became a judge who revered the rule of law, who became…RBG.
Before she became the legendary Mama Cass—one quarter of the mega-huge folk group The Mamas and the Papas—Cass Eliot was a girl from Baltimore trying to make it in the big city. After losing parts to stars like Barbra Streisand on the Broadway circuit, Cass found her place in the music world with an unlikely group of cohorts.
The Mamas and the Papas released five studio albums in their three years of existence. It was at once one of the most productive (and profitable) three years any band has ever had, and also one of the most bizarre and dysfunctional groups of people to ever come together to make music. Through it all, Cass struggled to keep sight of her dreams—and her very identity.
“When it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’” – Claudette Colvin
On March 2, 1955, an impassioned teenager, fed up with the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation, refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Instead of being celebrated as Rosa Parks would be just nine months later, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin found herself shunned by her classmates and dismissed by community leaders. Undaunted, a year later she dared to challenge segregation again as a key plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that struck down the segregation laws of Montgomery and swept away the legal underpinnings of the Jim Crow South.
Based on extensive interviews with Claudette Colvin and many others, Phillip Hoose presents the first in-depth account of an important yet largely unknown civil rights figure, skillfully weaving her dramatic story into the fabric of the historic Montgomery bus boycott and court case that would change the course of American history.
The life and career of the fiercely principled Supreme Court Justice, now a popular icon, with dramatic accounts of her landmark cases that moved the needle on legal protection of human rights, illustrated with b/w archival photographs.
Dramatically narrated case histories from Justice Ginsburg’s stellar career are interwoven with an account of RBG’s life—childhood, family, beliefs, education, marriage, legal and judicial career, children, and achievements—and her many-faceted personality is captured. The cases described, many involving young people, demonstrate her passionate concern for gender equality, fairness, and our constitutional rights.
The riveting story of the most influential first lady in American history: Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt, Fighter for Justice shows young readers a different side of the former first lady. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) was a politician, activist, diplomat, and the longest-serving first lady of the United States. But she was more than that. She was a protector and advocate for those without a voice, speaking out on the labor movement and civil rights. Though now seen as a cultural icon, she was a woman who was deeply insecure about her looks and her role in the world. She recognized her own prejudices and constantly strove to overcome them. Eleanor Roosevelt set the standard for the role of the first lady, and this biography gives young readers a fresh perspective on her extraordinary life. It includes an excerpt of one of her speeches, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.
Most people know Florence Nightingale was a compassionate and legendary nurse, but they don’t know her full story. This riveting biography explores the exceptional life of a woman who defied the stifling conventions of Victorian society to pursue what was considered an undesirable vocation. She is best known for her work during the Crimean War, when she vastly improved gruesome and deadly conditions and made nightly rounds to visit patients, becoming known around the world as the Lady with the Lamp. Her tireless and inspiring work continued after the war, and her modern methods in nursing became the defining standards still used today.
There was never anything calm about Vincent. Her sisters used to say that she had a bee chasing her. Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950), known as Vincent, was an acclaimed American poet who came to embody the modern, liberated woman of the Jazz Age. From the fiery energy of her youth to the excitement and acclaim of her early adulthood in New York and Paris, to the demands of living in the public eye, Vincent’s life was characterized by creativity, hard work, and passion. A Girl Called Vincent traces her incredible journey from a unique and talented girl to an international celebrity and Pulitzer Prize–winning poet.
Raised in poverty in rural Maine, where she was often the sole caretaker of her two younger sisters, the rebellious, creative, red-haired Vincent always found time for writing, acting, singing, and playing piano. She became a sensation in young adulthood, bewitching audiences with her words, voice, and luminous appearance. She mixed with the literary figures of her time and broke many hearts. Her volumes of poetry were enormous bestsellers and audiences nationwide went wild when she recited her works onstage. In addition to poetry, Vincent’s body of work includes plays, translations, and an opera, and ranges from love sonnets to antiwar propaganda.
Hillary Rodham Clinton is a true leader. Growing up in Park Ridge, Illinois, Hillary was inspired by the philosophy of John Wesley, who urged his followers to “do all the good you can.” Rising to prominence in 1992 as the First Lady of the United States, Hillary captured the world’s attention with her bold ideas and political forcefulness.
From her time at Wellesley to her life at the White House and beyond, Hillary has been at the forefront of huge change—and despite setbacks and political scandals, she has worked for good in the world.
Acclaimed author Cynthia Levinson creates a compelling and personal portrait of Hillary’s historic journey from her childhood to her service as secretary of state and beyond. Includes a timeline of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life and an eight-page photo insert.
As a young girl growing up in the fifties, Hillary Diane Rodham had an unusual upbringing for the time-her parents told her, “You can do or be whatever you choose, as long as you’re willing to work for it.” Hillary took those words and ran. Whether it was campaigning at the age of thirteen in the 1964 presidential election, receiving a standing ovation and being featured in LIFE magazine as the first student commencement speaker at Wellesley, or graduating from Yale Law School-she was always one to stand out from the pack.
And that was only the beginning. Today, we have seen Hillary in many roles. From First Lady of the United States to the first female Senator of New York and most recently as the United States Secretary of State. An activist all her life, she has been devoted to health care reform, child care, and women’s rights, among others. And she’s still not done.
Critically acclaimed author Karen Blumenthal gives us a sharp and intimate look at the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, American politics, and what the future holds in store. Illustrated throughout with black and white photographs, this is the must-have biography on a woman who has always known her public responsibility, who continues to push boundaries, and who isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes in.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most widely read novels in American literature. It’s also a perennial favorite in high school English classrooms across the nation. Yet onetime author Harper Lee is a mysterious figure who leads a very private life in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, refusing to give interviews or talk about the novel that made her a household name. Lee’s life is as rich as her fiction, from her girlhood as a rebellious tomboy to her days at the University of Alabama and early years as a struggling writer in New York City.
Charles J. Shields is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, which he has adapted here for younger readers. What emerges in this riveting portrait is the story of an unconventional, high-spirited woman who drew on her love of writing and her Southern home to create a book that continues to speak to new generations of readers. Anyone who has enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird will appreciate this glimpse into the life of its fascinating author.
The story of Irena Sendler the female Oskar Schindler who took staggering risks to save 2,500 children from death and deportation in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II now adapted for a younger audience.
Irena Sendler was a young Polish woman living in Warsaw during World War II. Irena smuggled thousands of children out of the walled Jewish ghetto in toolboxes and coffins, snuck them under overcoats at checkpoints, and slipped them through the dank sewers and into secret passages that led to abandoned buildings, where she convinced her friends and underground resistance network to hide them
Forty years after her death, Janis Joplin remains among the most compelling and influential figures in rock-and-roll history. Her story—told here with depth and sensitivity by author Ann Angel—is one of a girl who struggled against rules and limitations, yet worked diligently to improve as a singer. It’s the story of an outrageous rebel who wanted to be loved, and of a wild woman who wrote long, loving letters to her mom. And finally, it’s the story of one of the most iconic female musicians in American history, who died at twenty-seven.
Janis Joplin includes more than sixty photographs, and an assortment of anecdotes from Janis’s friends and band mates. This thoroughly researched and well-illustrated biography is a must-have for all young artists, music lovers, and pop-culture enthusiasts.
Born into an African American family a few years after the end of the Civil War, the woman who became known as Madam C. J. Walker entered a world where slavery was still a very raw wound in American society. Although she was orphaned at a young age, C. J. Walker quickly learned about the world around her and how to adapt. The children of sharecroppers, she and her sister worked in cotton fields until Walker married at the age of fourteen. Eventually, she settled in St. Louis, Missouri, near her brothers. There, she started her own hair-care company, which grew into an empire and took her around the world. This is the story of Walker’s inspiring perseverance on her journey to entrepreneurial success, filled with highs and lows which culminated in her becoming one of the wealthiest women in the twentieth century.
With determination and audacity, Josephine Baker turned her comic and musical abilities into becoming a worldwide icon of the Jazz Age. The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy provides the first in-depth portrait of this remarkable woman for young adults. Author Peggy Caravantes follows Baker’s life from her childhood in the depths of poverty to her comedic rise in vaudeville and fame in Europe. This lively biography covers her outspoken participation in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, espionage work for the French Resistance during World War II, and adoption of 12 children—her “rainbow tribe.” Also included are informative sidebars on relevant topics such as the 1917 East St. Louis riot, Pullman railway porters, the Charleston, and more. The lush photographs, appendix updating readers on the lives of the rainbow tribe, source notes, and bibliography make this is a must-have resource for any student, Baker fan, or history buff.
In 1921, four men ventured into the Arctic for a top-secret expedition: an attempt to claim uninhabited Wrangel Island in northern Siberia for Great Britain. With the men was a young Inuit woman named Ada Blackjack, who had signed on as cook and seamstress to earn money to care for her sick son. Conditions soon turned dire for the team when they were unable to kill enough game to survive. Three of the men tried to cross the frozen Chukchi Sea for help but were never seen again, leaving Ada with one remaining team member who soon died of scurvy. Determined to be reunited with her son, Ada learned to survive alone in the icy world by trapping foxes, catching seals, and avoiding polar bears. After she was finally rescued in August 1923, after two years total on the island, Ada became a celebrity, with newspapers calling her a real “female Robinson Crusoe.”
*Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge
Mary Shelley first began penning Frankenstein as part of a dare to write a ghost story, but the seeds of that story were planted long before that night. Mary, just nineteen years old at the time, had been living on her own for three years and had already lost a baby days after birth. She was deeply in love with famed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a mad man who both enthralled and terrified her, and her relationship with him was rife with scandal and ridicule. But rather than let it crush her, Mary fueled her grief, pain, and passion into a book that the world has still not forgotten 200 years later.
Dark, intense, and beautiful, this free-verse novel with over 300 pages of gorgeous black-and-white watercolor illustrations is a unique and unforgettable depiction of one of the greatest authors of all time.
Gloria Steinem was no stranger to injustice even from a young age.
Her mother, Ruth, having suffered a nervous breakdown at only 34, spent much of Gloria’s childhood in and out of mental health facilities. And when Gloria was only 10 years old, her father divorced her mother and left for California, unable to bear the stress of caring for Ruth any longer.
Gloria never blamed her mother for being unable to hold down a job to support them both after that, but rather blamed society’s intrinsic hostility toward women, and working women in particular. This was the spark that lit a fire in her that would burn for decades, and continues to burn brightly today.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become an icon to millions. Her tireless fight for equality and women’s rights has inspired not only great strides in the workforce but has impacted the law of the land. And now, perfect for a younger generation, comes an accessible biography of this fierce woman, detailing her searing dissents and powerful jurisprudence.
This entertaining and insightful young readers’ edition mixes pop culture, humor, and expert analysis for a remarkable account of the indomitable Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Heroine. Trailblazer. Pioneer.
Graciela Iturbide was born in México City in 1942, the oldest of 13 children. When tragedy struck Iturbide as a young mother, she turned to photography for solace and understanding. From then on Iturbide embarked on a photographic journey that has taken her throughout her native México, from the Sonora Desert to Juchitán to Frida Kahlo’s bathroom, to the United States, India, and beyond. Photographic is a symbolic, poetic, and deeply personal graphic biography of this iconic photographer. Iturbide’s journey will excite readers of all ages as well as budding photographers, who will be inspired by her resolve, talent, and curiosity.
*Radioactive: How Irène Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World by Winifred Conkling
In 1934, Irène Curie, working with her husband and fellow scientist, Frederic Joliot, made a discovery that would change the world: artificial radioactivity. This breakthrough allowed scientists to modify elements and create new ones by altering the structure of atoms. Curie shared a Nobel Prize with her husband for their work. But when she was nominated to the French Academy of Sciences, the academy denied her admission and voted to disqualify all women from membership. Four years later, Curie’s breakthrough led physicist Lise Meitner to a brilliant leap of understanding that unlocked the secret of nuclear fission. Meitner’s unique insight was critical to the revolution in science that led to nuclear energy and the race to build the atom bomb, yet her achievement was left unrecognized by the Nobel committee in favor of that of her male colleague.
Radioactive! presents the story of two women breaking ground in a male-dominated field, scientists still largely unknown despite their crucial contributions to cutting-edge research, in a nonfiction narrative that reads with the suspense of a thriller. Photographs and sidebars illuminate and clarify the science in the book.
*Sachiko:A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson
This striking work of narrative nonfiction tells the true story of six-year-old Sachiko Yasui’s survival of the Nagasaki atomic bomb on August 9, 1945, and the heartbreaking and lifelong aftermath. Having conducted extensive interviews with Sachiko Yasui, Caren Stelson chronicles Sachiko’s trauma and loss as well as her long journey to find peace. This book offers readers a remarkable new perspective on the final moments of World War II and their aftermath.
A tantalizing biography for teens on Sarah Bernhardt, the first international celebrity and one of the greatest actors of all time, who lived a highly unconventional, utterly fascinating life. Illustrated with more than sixty-five photos of Bernhardt on stage, in film, and in real life.
Sarah Bernhardt was a French stage actor who became a global superstar in the late nineteenth century—the Lady Gaga of her day—and is still considered to be one of the greatest performers of all time. This fast-paced account of her life, filled with provocative detail, brilliantly follows the transformation of a girl of humble origins, born to a courtesan, into a fabulously talented, wealthy, and beloved icon. Not only was her acting trajectory remarkable, but her personal life was filled with jaw-dropping exploits, and she was extravagantly eccentric, living with a series of exotic animals and sleeping in a coffin. She grew to be deeply admired around the world, despite her unabashed and public promiscuity at a time when convention was king; she slept with each of her leading men and proudly raised a son without a husband. A fascinating and fast-paced deep dive into the world of the divine Sarah. Illustrated with more than sixty-five photos of Bernhardt on stage, in film, and in real life.
Arguably one of the most prominent US Supreme Court Justices at the moment, Sonia Sotomayor has paved her own way to enact profound changes and reforms, despite the obstacles that stood in her way. And she certainly has had her share of adversity: she was diagnosed with diabetes when she was just eight years old, lived in housing projects in the Bronx in her youth, and fought (and still is fighting) against blatant discrimination throughout her career. Now in her early 60s, Justice Sotomayor has already made history in being appointed to the Court as the first Latina justice, the third woman justice, and one of the three youngest justices in this position.
In this new biography, journalist Sylvia Mendoza chronicles the true story of Sotomayor’s incredible journey in a narrative format. Readers will follow along to see how this powerhouse of a woman came to be who she is today, from growing up as a young girl reading Nancy Drew mysteries and learning to give herself insulin injections to attending school at Princeton, and finally to wearing the black robes of a Supreme Court Justice. Through courage, perseverance, and an indomitable spirit, Sotomayor proves that anyone can take hold of her own destiny if she works hard and stays true to herself.
*Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of The Original “Girl” Reporter Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes
Work for a New York newspaper
Fall in love
Marry a millionaire
Change the world
Young Nellie Bly had ambitious goals, especially for a woman at the end of the nineteenth century, when the few female journalists were relegated to writing columns about cleaning or fashion. But fresh off a train from Pittsburgh, Nellie knew she was destined for more and pulled a major journalistic stunt that skyrocketed her to fame: feigning insanity, being committed to the notorious asylum on Blackwell’s Island, and writing a shocking exposé of the clinic’s horrific treatment of its patients.
Nellie Bly became a household name as the world followed her enthralling career in “stunt” journalism that raised awareness of political corruption, poverty, and abuses of human rights. Leading an uncommonly full life, Nellie circled the globe in a record seventy-two days and brought home a pet monkey before marrying an aged millionaire and running his company after his death.
With its sensational (and true!) plot, Ten Days a Madwoman dares its readers to live as boldly as its remarkable heroine
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 by the Sibert medalist and Newbery Honor winner Susan Bartoletti 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.
How did her name become synonymous with deadly disease? And who is really responsible for the lasting legacy of Typhoid Mary?
This thorough exploration includes an author’s note, timeline, annotated source notes, and bibliography.
Victoria woke one morning at the age of eighteen to discover that her uncle had died and she was now queen. She went on to rule for sixty-three years, with an influence so far-reaching that the decades of her reign now bear her name—the Victorian period. Victoria is filled with the exciting comings and goings of royal life: intrigue and innuendo, scheming advisors, and assassination attempts, not to mention plenty of passion and discord. Includes bibliography, notes, British royal family tree, index.
This lyrical biography explores the life and art of Yoko Ono, from her childhood haiku to her avant-garde visual art and experimental music. An outcast throughout most of her life, and misunderstood by every group she was supposed to belong to, Yoko always followed her own unique vision to create art that was ahead of its time and would later be celebrated. Her focus remained on being an artist, even when the rest of world saw her only as the wife of John Lennon.
Yoko Ono’s moving story will inspire any young adult who has ever felt like an outsider, or who is developing or questioning ideas about being an artist, to follow their dreams and find beauty in all that surrounds them.