10 Contemporary Biographies, Autobiographies, and Memoirs for Teens

Real-life personal stories to inspire today's teens

Girl reading book next to a coffee mug

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For some teens, reading the life stories of others—whether they're famous authors or victims of a civil war—can be an inspiring experience. This list of highly recommended contemporary biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs written for young adults includes life lessons about making choices, overcoming monumental challenges, and having the courage to be a voice for positive change.

01
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Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Jack Gantos on a stoop

 

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In his autobiographical memoir, "Hole in My Life" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004), award-winning children’s and young adult author Jack Gantos shares his compelling story about making a single choice that altered his destiny. As a young man of 20 struggling to find direction, Gantos seized an opportunity for quick cash and adventure, signing on to help sail a 60-foot yacht with a cargo of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City. What he hadn’t anticipated was getting caught. Winner of the Printz Honor Award, Gantos holds nothing back about his experiences with prison life, drugs, and the consequences of making one very bad decision. (Due to mature themes, this book is recommended for ages 14 and up.)

While Gantos clearly made a huge mistake, as evidenced by his critically acclaimed body of work, he was able to turn his life back around. In 2012, Gantos won the John Newbery Medal for his middle-grade novel "Dead End in Norvelt" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011).

02
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Soul Surfer by Bethany Hamilton

Bethany Hamilton surfing

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"Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board" (MTV Books, 2006) is Bethany Hamilton's story. At 14, competitive surfer Bethany Hamilton thought her life was over when she lost her arm in a shark attack. Yet, despite this obstacle, Hamilton found the determination to continue surfing in her own creative style and proved to herself that the World Surfing Championships were still within reach.

In this true account, Hamilton chronicles the story of her life before and after the accident, inspiring readers to overcome obstacles by finding and focusing on an inner passion and determination. It's a wonderful story of faith, family, and courage. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

A movie version of ​​"Soul Surfer" was released in 2011. Hamilton has since written a number of inspirational books spun off from her original memoir.

03
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The Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara

Mariatu Kamara speaking on stage

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Brutally attacked by rebel soldiers who cut off both her hands, 12-year-old Mariatu Kamara from Sierra Leone miraculously survived and found her way to a refugee camp. When journalists arrived in her country to document the atrocities of war, Kamara was rescued. Her tale of survival as a victim of civil war to becoming a UNICEF Special Representative, "Bite of the Mango" (Annick Press, 2008) is an inspiring story of courage and triumph. (Due to mature themes and violence, this book is recommended for ages 14 and up.)

04
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No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin

Young man in handcuffs

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In their own words, four young men sent to death row as teenagers speak candidly with author Susan Kuklin in the unflinching nonfiction book, "No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row" (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2008). The youthful offenders talk openly about the choices and mistakes they made, as well as about their lives in prison.

Written in the form of personal narratives, Kuklin includes commentary from lawyers, insights into legal issues, and the backstories leading up to each young man’s crime. It's a disturbing read, but it offers teens a perspective on crime, punishment, and the prison system from people their own age. (Due to mature subject matter, this book is recommended for ages 14 and up.)

05
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I Can't Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous and Obscure

Teenager writing at home

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“He said goodbye with YouTube links.” What happens when you ask teens ranging from high-profile to just your average kid to summarize their hopes, dreams, and troubles in just six words? That's just what the editors of Smith Magazine challenged teenagers across the nation to do. The resulting collection, "I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous and Obscure" (HarperTeen, 2009), contains 800 six-word memoirs ranging in emotion from comical to profound. These fast-paced, intuitive takes on adolescent life, written for teens by teens, read like poetry and just might inspire others to think up their own six-word memoirs. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

06
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Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Glamour magazine celebration of
Ashley Rhodes-Courter is third from the right in the back row.

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Reminiscent of heart-tugging characters like Gilly Hopkins ("The Great Gilly Hopkins" by Katherine Paterson) and Dicey Tillerman ("The Tillerman Series" by Cynthia Voigt), the life of Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a series of real-life unfortunate events that are the everyday reality for too many children in America. In her memoir, "Three Little Words" (Atheneum, 2008), Rhodes-Courter recounts the 10 harrowing years she spent in the foster care system, poignantly giving voice to children trapped in circumstances beyond their control. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

07
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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah on stage

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In the early 1990s, 12-year-old Ishmael Beah was swept up in Sierra Leone’s civil war and turned into a boy soldier. Although gentle and kind at heart, Beah discovered he was capable of horrific acts of brutality. The first part of Beah’s memoir, "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008), depicts the frighteningly easy transformation of a typical child into an angry teen with the ability to hate, kill, and wield an AK-47. The final chapters of Beah’s story are about redemption, rehabilitation, and ultimately, coming to the United States, where he attended and graduated college. (Recommended for ages 14 and up.)

08
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I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda

Hand writing in spiral notepad

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"I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives" (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2015) is a true-life tale that begins in 1997 when “typical 12-year-old American girl” Caitlin Alifirenka is tasked with a pen pal assignment at school. Her correspondence with a 14-year-old boy named Martin Ganda from Zimbabwe will eventually change both of their lives.

In the letters that go back and forth, readers learn that Alifirenka leads a life of middle-class privilege, while Ganda’s family lives in crushing poverty. Even something as simple as sending a letter is often beyond his means, and yet, Ganda makes “the only promise that I knew I could keep: that I would always write back, no matter what.”

The narrative takes the form of a dual pen-pal autobiography told in alternating voices and woven together with the help of writer Liz Welch. It covers the six-year period from Alifirenka's first letter to Ganda’s eventual arrival in America where he'll be attending college, thanks to a full scholarship arranged by Alifirenka's mom. Their inspiring long-distance friendship is a testament to just how much two determined teens can accomplish when they put their hearts and minds to it. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

09
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I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai

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"I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliba" written by Malala Yousafza and Christina Lamb (Little, Brown and Company, 2012) is the autobiography of a girl who more than anything, wanted to learn—and was nearly put to death for her efforts.

In October 2012, 15-year-old Yousafzai was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school in her native Pakistan. This memoir traces not only her remarkable recovery but the path that led her to become the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s an account of a family touched first-hand by the brutality of terrorism, and the indomitable will of a girl who will not relinquish her education at any cost.

In a society dominated by males, it is also the heartening story of unconventional and courageous parents who bucked convention by encouraging their daughter to be all that she could be. Yousafzai's revelations are a bittersweet homage to all the remarkable accomplishments she’s achieved—and the price both she and her family have had to pay for her to achieve them. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

10
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Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain-Hill and Ariel Schrag

Hand holding a paper sheet with transgender symbol and equal sign inside

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"Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition" by Katie Rain-Hill and Ariel Schrag (Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014) is the story of a 19-year-old transgender teen who grew up as a boy, but always knew she was a girl. Bullied and suicidal, Rain-Hill finds the courage to follow her truth, and with her mom’s help, is able to transform both her body and her life.

This first-person memoir not only explores what it means to identify as transgender and what it takes undergo gender reassignment surgery but also gives a non-sugarcoated account of the challenges Rain-Hill faced once the body she was living in finally aligned with her gender identity.

It’s all told with self-deprecating humor and disarming candor that draws readers in, while at the same time, reinventing the standard teen coming-of-age tale and the meaning of what it is to be “normal.” (Recommended for ages 14 and up.)