A Book About a Real Person: Picks for the TPL Reading Challenge 2020

January 29, 2020 | Jennifer B

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The TPL Reading Challenge 2020 is here and it is fabulous! This year, we dare you to read outside your comfort zone. Discover new authors, try different genres and reinvigorate your love of reading. 

It has been really exciting to connect with so many readers this past month through our Reading Challenge Facebook group and in-branch at our Reading Challenge Meetups. We love hearing about your progress and talking together about your next great read. 

Throughout the year, we will be sharing recommendations from library staff and readers across the city to help you conquer each challenge category. This post considers what to read for "a book about a real person."

To me, this category is a slam dunk as there are so many really good books about real people. Reading a memoir or a biography is an obvious, but excellent, way to go. Real people also pop up in all genres of fiction, nonfiction, mystery, graphic books, plays, poetry – basically, in every section of the library. When you read about real people, you get to learn about different cultures, beliefs and ways of being. You can get a fresh perspective on the past, satisfy a curiosity, or better understand a complex issue. I love reading about others because it helps my empathy grow and better connect to the people around me.   

Two of 2019’s most popular and borrowed books were Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Tara Westover’s Educated. They are both terrific reads, but really just the tip of the biography iceberg. On our website, you can browse our newest print biographies or, if ebooks and eaudiobooks are your thing, check those biographies instead!

Memoirs that I've recently read and highly recommend:

From the Ashes

From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

Jesse Thistle’s journey through abandonment, addiction and homelessness is told with sharp truth and incredible resilience. The book has just been announced as a contender for CBC’s Canada Reads 2020 where the theme is one book to bring Canada into focus. 

Know My Name

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Chanel Miller’s moving memoir grabbed me from the first page. Dealing explicitly with sexual assault and trauma, it is a difficult but beautiful and necessary read. 

Born a Crime

Northern District’s branch book club just finished Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime and collectively adored it. Noah has written a love letter to his mother that is wise and funny and lends itself to an expansive group discussion.   

Many of my favourite reads about real people are graphic memoirs. I’ve previously recommended Mira Jacob’s amazing Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations as my top read of 2019

Other graphic memoirs you should check out:

In-Between Days

In-Between Days: A Graphic Memoir About Living with Cancer by Teva Harrison 

The late Teva Harrison’s brilliant collection recounts her experience of being diagnosed and living with metastatic breast cancer. Also highly recommended is Harrison’s posthumously published poetry collection, Not One of These Poems is About You.

March Book One

The March trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell

The March trilogy takes readers through the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of U.S. Congressman John Lewis. Written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, these award-winning graphic novels are powerful and as important as ever.

Historical fiction

Historical fiction lovers, rejoice! There are many novels that feature real-life heroes, villains and characters from the past. 

Driving the King

Driving the King by Ravi Howard

This is a fictionalized account of some key events in the life of Nat King Cole as told by his driver and childhood friend, Nat Weary. Alyson also recommends Regeneration by Pat Barker. A large part of the story describes Siegfried Sassoon's letter of protest and his stay at Craiglockhart War Hospital during WWI. Other real people – Wilfred Owen and Dr. W H R Rivers – are woven into the story, as well. 

– Alyson, Department Head


Non-fiction lovers can easily stick to their preferred reading lane for this category, too. True crime, politics, travel, science, philosophy, religion, education – within all these subjects and more, you'll find real people.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

This collection of essays covers Chee's development as both an artist and a person (but of course those are inextricable). Chee manages to share highly actionable writing advice, while also beautifully discussing his personal experiences with childhood sexual abuse, Asian American identity, AIDS activism and other topics. 

– Myrna, Librarian

My nonfiction pick about a real person, or more specifically real people, is:

Tell Me Who You Are

Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture, and Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi

Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi set out in 2017 to ask people across the United States "how has race, culture, or intersectionality impacted your life?" The stories they collect and present here are filled with contrast and courage. The portrait photographs are gorgeous, too.


Ghost Map

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and how it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

This book is about John Snow, a physician considered to be a founder of epidemiology who recognized that illnesses were not spread by the London fog. 

– Catherine, Services Specialist


As the 2020 Reading Challenge main categories are suitable for all ages of readers, here is a recommendation from a great kid I know:


Stargazing by Jen Wang & Lark Pien

This heart-expanding graphic novel for middle graders about family, friendship and identity is loosely based on elements of Wang's childhood. Eleanor especially likes the character of Moon and how she's much more than she first appears.

Also be sure to check out Jerry Craft's New Kid, another excellent semi-autobiographical graphic novel that recently won the 2020 Newbery Medal for Children's Literature.

More staff recommendations

These books were picked by our staff for "a book about a real person."

How should a person be

How Should a Person Be? by Shelia Heti 

It's a work of autofiction. Heti and her friends are real people; some of the dialogue is apparently lifted from real conversations that she recorded. And it's partly set in a very recognizable Toronto of a decade or so ago.  Still, it's shaped like a novel, and you can't be sure that everything that happens in it is true. When it came out in 2010, my friends and I couldn't stop talking about it. 

– Wendy, Digital Content Lead

Acid for the children

Acid for the Children: A Memoir by Flea

I loved it! I'm a big fan of music bios. He writes about growing up first in Australia, then New York and LA, all of it pre-Red Hot Chili Peppers. Short, bursty chapters describing an unstable family life, lots of drug exploits and shenanigans, but always the through-pattern of music and friendship, and some hindsight thrown in for good measure. I didn't know he started out as an accomplished trumpet player, and his fave music has always been jazz! He writes well.

– Sarah, Library Services Manager

Gender Queer

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

This is a coming-of-age story of self-discovery by writer and artist Maia Kobabe. I really related to eir journey and found quite a lot of my personal experience reflected in eirs. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to understand gender identity better - no matter what their personal identity is! - and I also found the illustrations to be clear, bold and beautiful. I'd recommend it for teens as well as adults.

– Amy, Communications Officer

Long live the tribe of fatherless girls

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

It's the debut book and memoir of T Kira Madden who, as you might be wondering, is related to the shoe dynasty. It fuses a couple of my favourite genres: good old family dysfunction and coming-of-age. With grit! She writes about addiction, growing up in "the rat's mouth" of Boca Raton, coming out. And the writing is excellent. T was writing literary essays before tackling this brutally honest and beautifully revealing piece. It shows.

– Jennifer, Librarian


Me by Elton John 

It's his own words on his life and struggles that he went through to get to the great musician he is today.

– Brian, Library Assistant

The island of sea women

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

I know it's not about a specific person, but they [a real-life Korean female diving collective] are real people and I've always wanted to read it! 

– Maddie, Senior Library Assistant

Schulz and peanuts a biography

Schulz and Peanuts : a Biography by David Michaelis

This might be for Peanuts comic strip fans only. It definitely delves into Schulz's psychological hang-ups and doesn't shy away from exposing his flaws, so a word of caution to anyone who places him high on a pedestal!  You'll never look at Charlie Brown the same way after this!

– Cameron, Digital Design Technician

Wolf hall

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My plan is to (finally) read Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to power in the court of Henry VIII. I'm looking forward to first reading the book, and then seeing the stage adaptation this summer at Stratford!

– Chelsea, Librarian

The fearless benjamin lay

The Fearless Benjamin Lay by Marcus Rediker

Benjamin Lay was a person with dwarfism born in 1682. He converted to Quakerism as an adult and while living in Barbados observed the treatment of African slaves and became a radical abolitionist. He published 200 pamphlets and often performing dramatic presentations against slavery – he once kidnapped the child of slaveholders to demonstrate the pain of family separation.

I also recommend A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story. It's an amazing book about the first Black hockey player considered good enough for the NHL although he never got there. You can read more about him in Bill V.'s recent blog post.

– Margaret, Librarian

Lucky man

Lucky Man: A Memoir by Michael J. Fox

I read this many years ago, and still remember how much I was moved by his life story. He shares stories from his life as a child actor, his rise to fame and his diagnosis with Parkinson's disease. I vividly remember reading this book on a bus on my way to class, and basically crying my eyes out. It is beautifully written.

For this year's challenge I plan to read A Good Wife by Samra Zafar. I heard her speak last year about her escape from a marriage that she did not want, and her strength to build a better life for herself and her children.

– Nalini, Branch Head

A talent for murder

A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson

I'm thinking about having some cheeky options in my pocket, such as Shakespeare's Henry VIII, but a more recent example might be Andrew Wilson's "A Talent for Murder" which has Agatha Christie as the main character.

– Michael, Librarian

Ordinary hazards

Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes

A young adult memoir in verse, very beautiful, and very powerful. It touches on some tough stuff, but does so in a way that is sensitive and not too raw for its audience.

I also love the Caldecott-winning, picture book-format biography/story of Snowflake Bentley, which is inspiring and simply gorgeous. Also Robert Cole's The Story of Ruby Bridges, which is beautiful, and hits deep, but on a level accessible for children.

– Alice, Senior Collections Specialist

The gourmands way

The Gourmands' Way by Justin Spring

Technically it's about six people. The story of six American writer-adventurers (A. J. Liebling, Alice B. Toklas, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Alexis Lichine, and Richard Olney) during the 1930s when they crossed paths in Paris. It doesn't read like a biography and it is easy to get swept up in the narrative.

– Pauline, Librarian

North of normal

North of Normal: A Memoir of my Wilderness Childhood, my Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both by Cea Sunrise Person

For memorable memoirs, there are three that will stay with me for a long time. North of Normal by Cea Sunrise Person, Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls and Educated by Tara Westover. Easy to read, hard to forget these women and their stories.

– Fran, Public Service Assistant

The identities of marie rose delorme smith

The Identities of Marie Rose Delorme Smith: Portrait of a Métis Woman, 1861-1960 by Doris Jeanne MacKinnon

This one is good. It's also about a westerner and someone who was half Indigenous. She did everything by herself for her family. Just an amazing story about her life while her husband was off trading and what it took to be a farmer. I would also recommend it to anyone who has children because it does touch on just how hard that was. I think I recall she lost two to World War One.

– Jennifer M, Library Assistant

Love thy neighbour

Love Thy Neighbour: A Muslim Doctor's Struggle for Home in Rural America by Ayaz Viriji  

I just finished the ebook. I hated it when I found out I was at the end. I also recommend My Survival: A Girl on Schindler's List by Rena Finder. It is a great nonfiction read in the children's section.

– Katherine, Library Assistant

The girl with the lower back tattoo

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

I read Amy Schumer's The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.  I was not a huge fan of hers but her book had me laughing and crying. I found it to be a bit of a quick read as well.

– Grace, Branch Head

The woo-woo

For this one I'm going to slot in one of the memoirs I plan to read already:

– Tessie, Librarian


Belonging by Nora Krug

A graphic novel about a young German woman exploring her family's Nazi past. I could not put this down.

– Despina, Branch Head

Free lunch

Regarding books for children in this category, I would recommend Free Lunch by Rex Ogle (a memoir of being a middle-school boy from a poor family on the Free Lunch program), Too Young to Escape: A Vietnamese Girl Waits to be Reunited with her Family by Van Ho (about a Vietnamese child who is a refugee), and, of course, It's Trevor Noah: Born A Crime, Stories from a South African Childhood Adapted for Young Readers by Trevor Noah.

– Jennifer G, Library Assistant

A woman of no importance

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

My absolute favourite book from last year is about a relatively unknown ultra hero, in my view, anyway, Virginia Hall. Hall was a disabled American woman who overcame incredible and overwhelming obstacles during WWII to essentially establish the French resistance, battling not just the Nazi's – who had labelled her their number one enemy, their most dangerous foe – but chauvinism and misogyny by the French people themselves, and the British and American militaries and politicians who sought her failure at every turn. Marvelous writing about the most incredible woman I have ever heard of.

– Joe, Clerk-Caretaker

I am alive and you are dead

I Am Alive and You are Dead: a Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrère

It charts the life of Dick who wrote Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Minority Report. Carrère follows Dick's many marriages, paranoid fantasy and his involvement with drug culture in 1960's California.

– Margaux, Librarian

Something wonderful

Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution by Todd S. Purdum

I did the eaudio read by the author – totally captivating! I also recommend Blowing the Bloody Doors Off by Michael Caine. Again, I listened to the eaudio, read by the man himself. Awesome.

– Marie, Librarian


Recommendations from the Northern District Branch Meetup

Earlier this month, the Reading Challenge Meetup group at Northern District Branch had a fantastic time discussing books about real people. Here are some of our favourites:


Recommendations from the Facebook Group

These are some of the recommendations for “a book about a real person” from our Facebook TPL Reading Challenge 2020 discussion group.

What are you planning to read for "a book about a real person"?  Do you have other recommendations? Share in the comments below!


Corrected on February 4. The Ghost Map is non-fiction, not a historical novel.