Best Books of 2009 – Non-Fiction

So the parade of books continues. Did I mention that barely any of these books were actually published in 2009? Well, until I have read every good book written before the current calendar year (and until I get a lot of money to buy new books at my leisure), this is just how I roll. If I limited myself to just 2009 releases, I’d have a very short list, devoid of little or any suspense or the delight in choosing.

1. John Lennon: All I Want is the Truth by Elizabeth Partridge

John Lennon was different and he knew it.

You guys, the whole concept of young adult nonfiction is really quite delightful. It’s not all “What’s Happening to My Body?” books and shoddy reference texts on cigarettes, euthanasia, and every other research topic you might choose in high school. All the other books in the YA NonFic section at your library, the ones that don’t fall into those two categories, are pretty stellar because… well… teens don’t read as much as publishers would like, especially nonfiction books designed for them. Why not just go read some adult nonfic and get it over with?

My point is: theses books try HARD to be great, because they have to, and they are pretty cool. Because of this book, I am completely in love with John Lennon, and am extremely upset that he wasn’t not around to stir up shit in my lifetime.

And there’s not really much to say about the book other than that: it’s a biography of John Lennon, starting from childhood and ending when he died. So it’s also a biography of The Beatles. The photos are extensive and exquisite (another bonus of reading YA nonfic: there’s this requirement that the book must be “visually interesting”). And despite the world-wide hooplah that accompanies any discussion of the man, the book really centers in on the man, leaving the reader to evaluate his idolization on his or her own.

I think this would be a great read, even for a Beatles fanatic. It’s a great story in an appealing package. What more could you ask for?

2. Necessities: Racial Barriers in American Sports by Phillip Hoose

That’s not a book cover. I know. There is absolutely no internet evidence that this book has a cover. I have seen it though! It’s an okay cover. It’s kind of 80s. But the book does exist, and you can even buy it used on Amazon for cheap-cheap-cheap. And if you are at all interested in the history of sports or the enigmatic racial situation in America, please do buy it. I am not particularly interested in sports, and moderately interested in racial issues, and I found this book so difficult to put down.

The picture I chose is a screencap from Pride, a movie about an all-black, competitive swim team in Philadelphia, a team which Phillip Hoose writes about in Necessities. EDIT: Phillip Hoose actually wrote about the Philadelphia team in the NY Times, and a Cleveland team in Necessities. Whups! You can read the NYTimes article here. That particular chapters details the many ways that African Americans are restricted from competing in many “fringe” sports (aka, not baseball, basketball, football). This is the kind of book that spells out the obvious, but the obvious you were too completely self-fixated to consider. There aren’t very many black swimmers, or gymnasts, or competitive hockey players, lacrosse champs, et cetera. It’s not because they aren’t athletic enough – in fact, the sports media is very invested in the racist idea that African Americans were born for sports but need white Quarterbacks to tell them what to do to win the game, as Hoose discusses at length in ANOTHER chapter. But there are many factors keeping black kids from getting into competitve swimming or tennis, the biggest of which is cost. Duh. Being a competitive swimmer means access to an Olympic-sized pool (membership fees), practices multiple times a day (parents with flexible job hours and a car), private coaching (big $$$$), and you have to start YOUNG (even more cumulative $$$$). These sports are prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy American children… most of whom just happen to be white.

Anyway, this book is chock full of stories like these, asking tough questions about who gets to own baseball teams, who gets to be quarterback, why so many Latin Americans end up on American baseball teams. Positively riveting. Unfortunately, the book was published in 1989, which means you’ll read and probably be horrified about how little has actually changed in 10 years.

3. Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

In the summer of 1838, in his rented rooms on Great Marlborough Street, London, Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper.

In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.

Books have been written about this. Lots.

In 1839, Charles Darwin got married.

This is probably the only book on this particular topic. But I’m not sure why NOT! Full confession: I’m only on page 110. Perhaps the last half of the book will go swiftly downhill. But we’ll give Heiligman the benefit of the doubt. So far, I’m finding it delightful.

The book begins with that line, drawn on a piece of paper, dividing two columns: To Marry and To Not Marry. After deliberation, SPOILER ALERT! the To-Marry’s win. Shortly after, he finds a bride (oh, to be a somewhat wealthy MAN, huh?), Emma Wedgewood. His first cousin. Cause that’s how the 1800s roll. Emma is smart and charming, lovely, plays the pianoforte. However, she has recently lost her favorite sister, a trauma that sent dear Emma directly to the church. She is religious.

And Darwin, just returned from his revelatory trip down on the Beagle, has visions of evolution dancing in his head.

But the moral of this tale, or so I’ve heard, is that the conflict didn’t drive the two apart. They had a very happy union. And his devout love for such a devout lady shaped his Theory of Evolution in an undeniable way.

This is the kind of historical non fic that I can get behind.

4. Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

I read a disturbingly small number of memoirs in 2009. Shame, shame. Not a lot of young adult/juvenile memoirs out there, are there? There are a lot published by/for adults that could easily sit in the Y nonfic section… oh… like this one, for example. I think I’ve read quite a few with crossover potential… anyway, that is a discussion for ANOTHER day.

Today, I just want to tell you that you probably have to read this book. If you’ve read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, then you will have a good idea of the tone and artwork of Small’s work – but only about 3% of the horror. This book, as memoir, is horrifying. One of those “how did you not end up a criminal/in a mental ward/permanently scarred” kind of childhoods. But he’s not. He’s a successful illustrator, and plenty of my former library patrons in southeast Michigan told me he is a very nice man.The artwork – bleak, blue and gray and black – is haunting. The story – unforgettable. And somehow, by the end of the text, it doesn’t feel indulgently sentimental. It’s not a sob story. Just a story.

Yeah, I need to read more good memoirs. Any suggestions for 2010?

5. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose

Claudette Colvin was 15 when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Police dragged her from the bus, talked about what a whore she was while she sat in the back of their cruiser, and was thrown in jail. She was charged with violation of the segregation law and assault against an officer.

9 months later, Rosa Parks became the woman who would go down in history.

A very dramatic story, including Supreme Court testimony, civil rights violence, and even a teen pregnancy, but also another example of those YA nonfic books that are in a league of their own. Photos. Sidebars. And Hoose interweaves Colvin’s own words – culled over days and days of interviews – with his own historical context. Hoose did an excellent job of capturing a story that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks of time.

Runners Up


5 Responses to “Best Books of 2009 – Non-Fiction”

  1. David Small is coming to JDL-Fall 2010

  2. Dear Miss Shortskirt,
    How amazing that you found Necessities! The photo you put up of the African-American swimers comes from a movie called Pride. It’s about the efforts of a coach named Jim Ellis to build a first-class competitive swim team–one that could produce olympians–from the resources available to the Philadelphia Department of Recreation, for whom Jim worked. He did it, and it’s a great story. The story I wrote in Necessities is similar, but about a group from Cleveland. Here is a link to a story I wrote in the New York Times Magazine some years ago about Ellis and the Philidelphia team. It became the basis for the movie, and is a better story. Thank you so much for noticing my work and commenting on it in your great and lively blog. Phillip Hoose.
    Yours, Phillip Hoose

    • Oh, thank you for the comment! I have made the proper corrections, and my isn’t it a shame that Necessities is so hard to find even a picture of the cover!!

      We have actually met before, last October or so at Simmons College – so you have Susan Bloom to thank for me finding and reading Necessities! The book was definitely a class favorite, if I recall correctly. I did a little write-up of your visit here – – although I am now embarrassed wondering what other mistakes might be hidden in THERE!

      Anyway, thanks for writing such awesome books. Can’t wait to read your next one!


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