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Bio-Hazard: The Best Biographies for Young Adults

With young adult fiction undergoing something of a renaissance in the last few years, there’s more and more available for fiction-inclined young adult readers. For those who have more of an interest in history, it might seem at first glance as though there’s less out there, but the reality is that biographies offer an excellent window into the lives and times of people from distant times and places, living in conditions entirely unrecognisable to us now.

Too often, biographies can be seen as boring, but they often offer an intimate look at civilisations and cultures that are far from our own experience.

Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla

There is an immediate and fundamental appeal to biographies of audacious scientists. Tesla is a particularly fascinating case, not least because of his travels from Europe to America and his drive for spectacle. What is most interesting for young adult readers is perhaps Tesla’s approach to ownership, his apparent lack of greed, and his relaxed attitude to his own patents. He is also almost the perfect “mad scientist,” and many of his experiments and inventions are tinged with an undercurrent of danger.

Where Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla really succeeds is in its depiction of Tesla, not as some superhuman engine for the generation of incredible ideas, but as a man. It also gives a window into Tesla’s strangeness, his eccentricities and his intense rivalries with other scientists.

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Running with Scissors

Running with Scissors is the strange “memoir” of Augusten Burroughs, documenting his early life and childhood relationships. This is a bit of a polarising book, and much of your enjoyment will hinge on whether or not you can take any pleasure from the style in which it was written.

“We were young. We were bored. And the old electroshock therapy machine was just under the stairs in a box next to the Hoover.”

For those of you who are sticklers for “reality” in your biographical works, then Augusten Burroughs is likely to stick in your craw. The simple fact is that an awful lot of the book reads as spectacular or bombastic, and that the author has been challenged on the truth of its content is perhaps unsurprising. Still, none of that detracts from the fact that it’s oddly compelling, and replete with echoes of long-forgotten childhood feelings.

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Robert Moses

As the title indicates, Robert Moses is often considered to have been the “master builder” of New York in the mid-20th century. His work had profound effects on the city’s planning and infrastructure, though whether those effects were for better or worse remains a subject of some contention. Beyond contention are Moses’ drive and ambition, as well as his ability to use politics to achieve his goals.

We were a little hesitant to include a graphic novel in this list, but the combination of stark artwork and touching glimpses of Robert Moses’ humanity is so endearing that we couldn’t help it. That said, Moses was not without his critics, and this is a book that paints him in a far more flattering light than it might otherwise have, but the artwork and production both demand a recommendation beyond any of its shortcomings.

The Power Broker

For those who want to see a more comprehensive, and indeed critical look at Moses work, The Power Broker stands in stark contrast to the above. Where Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City is almost reverential, this Pulitzer-prizewinning write-up criticises Moses’ use of unelected positions to reshape the infrastructure of New York City.

While this monumental book might seem less immediately engaging for young adult readers, there is such a stark contrast between the two that it is difficult not to recommend them in the same breath. Moreover, given that The Power Broker has also been critiqued for its portrayal of Moses, the combination of the two books offers young adult readers an excellent opportunity to read the two critically and determine their own viewpoint.

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I Am Malala

I Am Malala is the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, perhaps best known for her status as the youngest Nobel laureate after she was awarded the Nobel peace prize at 16. In 2012, the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, leading Yousafzai to stand up for her right to education, a campaign for which she was eventually and famously shot in the head.

Written after her spectacular recovery, I Am Malala examines some of the local culture and political history that shapes life in the Swat Valley. More specifically, it offers a look Yousafzai’s own life, day to day, before the events that led her to the public eye. Being a young adult herself at the time of writing, it’s an excellent autobiography for young adults.

For those looking for something suitable for younger readers, the book is also available in a young readers’ edition, under the title, I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World.

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"Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman"

Richard Feynman is better known for his role in the Manhattan project than as a writer, but his autobiographical Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman is a hilarious jaunt through his life from early childhood onward. Throughout, Feynman’s insatiable curiosity and his quiet subversion of ordinary human interactions keep the reader amused.

While there are occasional dalliances into the details of the physics of anything he happened to be working on at the time, the overwhelming majority of this book is focussed on the strange practical jokes and curious happenstances that Feynman found himself caught up in. Often, interesting events just seem to unfold around him, and while there is an unavoidable sense that Feynman may diminish his own importance in the proceedings, it’s hard not to enjoy the sense of adventure he espouses.

Feynman’s impulsiveness, infectious sense of humour, and his genuine love for teaching mean that this serves as an excellent counterpoint to the biography of Nikola Tesla recommended above.

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A former military man, Rick would say that he specializes in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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