The Best Young Adult Nonfiction for Women’s History Month

From scientists to activists to singers, these women changed the world

There are just as many women woven into the fabric of history as men, and Women’s History Month goes overboard in giving these iconic figures their due. Young adult non-fiction books, with narrative styles that read much like a realistic fiction book, are the best ways to teach the next generation their women’s history. From scientists to astronauts, political figures to activists, authors to singers, the world would be a lot less colorful, and certainly a lot more backward, without these women. While publishers originally aimed some of these titles at adults, they proved so popular that they put out young readers’ adaptations.

Radioactive! How Irène Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World, by Winifred Conkling (Algonquin Young Readers)

Don’t confuse Radioactive! with Radioactive (no exclamation point) which is also an Amazon Prime Video film. The latter focuses on Irène Curie’s parents, Marie and Pierre Curie, inarguably the most famous Nobel Prize-winning scientist husband-and-wife team of all time. The science-heavy Radioactive! brings attention to the work of these two women who may not be household names, but to whom we can trace the atom bomb. It focuses on Irène, who clearly inherited both her parents’ smarts. Along with her husband, Curie discovered artificial radioactivity and collected a Nobel Prize. Lise Meitner, another female scientist, faced her own sexist challenges. Through Curie’s discoveries, Meitner unlocked nuclear fission, but the Nobel Committee still passed her for the Nobel prize.

The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor, by Sonia Sotomayor (Delacorte Books for Young Readers)

The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor is the middle grades adaptation of the Supreme Court Justice’s memoir, My Beloved World. The first person of Hispanic origin and third woman to be appointed to the United State Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor’s life story is one of many obstacles. These include severe health issues, financial issues, and parental issues. A woman of Puerto Rican descent, Justice Sotomayor grew up in a housing project in the Bronx, became the valedictorian of her high school, and then went on to Princeton and Yale Law School. This adaptation for young readers comes with an eight-page photo insert and a brief history of the Supreme Court.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip M. Hoose (Square Fish)

Rosa Parks receives the credit, but Claudette Colvin beat Ms. Parks in the segregated bus struggle by nine months. The then 15-year-old Colvin made the active decision attack the the segregated seating on buses head-on, for which kids bullied her at school. Community leaders in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama ignored her cause. When the landmark case Browder v. Gayle, which eventually led to removing the segregation laws went to court, Colvin was once again front and center as a key plaintiff. In recent years Colvin’s face and story are becoming recognized as a crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly by young adults. Prolific author Phillip Hoose levels up his formidable talents in the non-fiction space with this biography, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature as well as being a Newbery Honor Book, and countless other awards and recognitions.

Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America’s Pioneering Woman in Space, by Tam O’Shaughnessy (Roaring Brook Press)

As the first woman in space, Sally Ride has had countless books written about her, particularly ones aimed at K-12 students. Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America’s Pioneering Woman in Space is stands out for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Ride’s partner in business and writing, Tam O’Shaughnessy, put it together. No one knew Ride as well or spent as much time with her. The book gives us a deeply intimate look into Ride as a person. This is a bonus for the all audiences, particularly LGBTQIA, as Ride kept her home life very private. Furthermore, the book is a photobiography, rich with images from throughout Ride’s life, from her formative years through to the end of her life.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai (Little, Brown & Co)

The youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai stood up to the Taliban after that terrorist organization took over her home region, She stood up for her right to an education, and the Taliban was shot her in the head for her troubles. Surviving this attempt on her life, Yousafzai went on to become an international symbol for peaceful protest, and the Nobel committee gave her the Peace Prize at age 16. Yousafzai’s memoir also has a children’s edition with a slightly tweaked title:  I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World, the audiobook version of which won the Grammy Award for Best Children’s Album. There’s also an accompanying documentary on Yousafzai’s life called He Named Me Malala.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama (Crown)

There’s an entire lifestyle built around former First Lady Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. Arguably more popular than President Barack Obama, the First Lady’s down-to-earth yet larger-than-life persona is a winning combination that comes through in Becoming. In addition to earning a Grammy for the original audiobook, the bestseller has an Emmy-nominated Netflix documentary and a brand-new adaptation for young readers with a fun re-imagined cover.

Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein, by Lita Judge (Roaring Brook Press)

Over 200 years since its first publication, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is still a top title, especially in high school libraries. Mary’s Monster is the stunning and tragic biography of the author, written in free verse and visually enhanced with black-and-white watercolor illustrations. Over 300 pages in length, this biography is a love letter from author and illustrator Lita Judge, who puts her all into telling the story of the person behind the timeless novel. Shelley’s difficult life, including being disowned by her family, having an affair with a married man and losing her baby, all by the age of 19, is just as riveting as the tale she created, and just as relatable as a realistic novel that would be written today. The way Judge tells it makes Shelley’s life all the more fascinating, gothic and horrifying.

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing, Ann Angel (Harry N. Abrams)

People have written many books about the life of the iconic and influential singer of the ‘60s who died at 27. This award-winning one by young adult author Ann Angel focuses on Joplin the young girl, her restrictions and limitations, her struggles, and her pain. Well-researched, Janis Joplin includes information gathered from letters and interviews with the singer’s family and friends. as well as more than 60 pictures. It touches upon all aspects of Joplin’s life, including drugs and addiction.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (Crown)

Many medical advancements can be traced to Henrietta Lacks whose immortal “HeLa” cells were instrumental in the development of vaccines, cloning, gene mapping and cancer cures, not to mention the effects of the atom bomb. Lacks, a Black tobacco farmer in the 1950s South, was largely unknown until science writer Rebecca Skloot went deep into her personal history and worked with her descendants to create a bestselling and multiple award-winning science book. The story touches not only on biology and medicine but race, ethics and a painful family history—and led to an excellent, star-studded HBO biopic.

Alice Paul and the Fight for Women’s Rights: From the Vote to the Equal Rights Amendment, by Deborah Kops (Calkins Creek)

Women's History Alice Paul fought for several essential rights for women. First, she fought for women’s right to vote, then she wrote the Equal Rights Amendment, and then she continued by putting in motion an amendment that helps women fight discrimination in the workplace. Deborah Kops uses Paul’s journals and letters (and includes a whole host of archival images) to build her little-known story. She brings the reader into Paul’s world of protests, arrests and stints in jail, all the while keeping her focus on her immense achievements for women.

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly (William Morrow)

Men may have gone to the moon, but women put them there. Hidden Figures (also an Academy Award-nominated film) traces the story of four Black women, whose exceptional mathematics skills were put to work for over 30 years at NASA, calculating—by hand—what it was needed to launch rockets into space. Starting from World War II and working through the Cold War, wartime pulled these women out of teaching math in segregated schools and into the aeronautics lab. NASA admired these women’s brains, but that didn’t stop them from facing racial segregation, sexism and discrimination, and overcoming all of the above.

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, Deborah Heiligman (Sqaure Fish)

The Origin of Species has been divisive since its first publishing over 150 years ago. What’s new in Deborah Heiligman’s biography is the focus is not just on Charles Darwin’s scientific accomplishments but the scientist’s personal life, particularly his relationship with his wife, Emma. It turns out the polarizing nature of Darwin’s work also existed at home where Emma’s deeply religious views clashed strongly with his scientific ones. Still, she read his drafts and made suggestions, which resulted in the final version that is still in circulation today. Heiligman uses letters and journal excerpts, which bring added authenticity to the story, putting the couple in the context of the time period and bringing the reader into their domestic life. This was a National Book Award finalist, Printz Honor candidate, and the winner of the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award.

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Lily Moayeri

Lily Moayeri has been a freelance journalist since 1992. She has contributed to numerous publications including Variety, Spin, GRAMMY, Billboard, NPR, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, A.V. Club, and more. Lily hosts the Pictures of Lily Podcast, a monthly podcast about her interviewing experiences. She has participated as moderator and panelist at numerous music conferences. She has also served as an educator since 2004, focusing on guiding students in navigating the intersection of technology and education in her role as a teacher librarian with LAUSD.

One thought on “The Best Young Adult Nonfiction for Women’s History Month

  • March 3, 2021 at 1:06 pm

    Dear Lily,
    Thank you for including JANIS JOPLIN RISE UP SINGING on this list. The book is a work from my heart.


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