Nonfiction Pleasures from a Nonfiction Editor

In preparing for the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference in New York this weekend, I’ve been asked by the facilitator of one of the publishing panels on which I’ll be sitting to turn the mirror on myself to answer the question, “What nonfiction do you enjoy reading?” In making a list for myself, it turns out that I read a lot of adult nonfiction, which spurs ideas for much of the planning I do for TFCB as a YA nonfiction imprint. Here are some of the adult titles I have loved recently.

sonia sotomayor (Auto)Biography—This is generally not my favorite genre, but Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World was riveting. An amazing story of dedication, hard work, drive, and family support. I loved it. I love her.

cadillac desert Geography/American History—This, on the other hand, is a favorite genre. I love anything by Bruce Catton about the Civil War, and Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the American West is a classic. I recently reread Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. It dates to the early 1990s but couldn’t be more timely.


double helix Science—Another favorite genre. I loved the way Rebecca Skloot merged a very personal story with hard science–while also exposing a gross medical injustice–in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I’d call that one a must-read. One of my all-time favorites, however, is James Watson’s story of the discovery of the structure of DNA in The Double Helix. It reads like a riveting detective novel.




sicilian odysseyAnd, of course, as a world traveler, I enjoy travel writing, albeit selectively. I’m a big fan of Freya Stark, who traveled extensively in the Middle East and wrote about it in the 1940s and 1950s. A nice overview of her thoughts on travel can be found in Perseus in the Wind. When I traveled with my father recently to visit the family homeland in Sicily, I ran across two treasures, Francine Prose’s Sicilian Odyssey, and Lawrence Durrell’s much earlier Sicilian Carousel—both accounts focused on trips to the island. I find it intriguing that, as writers who made their careers from their fiction writing, these two bring an extra touch of magic, nostalgia, and wonder—all in a marvelous literary style—that is often not present in the great majority of travelogue. They capture what it is that makes us want to rove and learn about other cultures and meet other people. 

Tell us about your nonfiction pleasures. What is on your list for this summer?