A Book that is Narrative Non-Fiction: Picks for the TPL Reading Challenge 2021

July 26, 2021 | M. Elwood

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One of the strangest effects of COVID-19 for me is that I've lost patience for reading fiction. Don't worry, Fiction Authors, I do still read novels but I am more drawn to non-fiction than ever.

What is narrative non-fiction?

Narrative non-fiction is also called creative non-fiction, literary journalism, and literary non-fiction. Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine describes it like this: "Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction".

These are a couple of narrative non-fiction books that fascinated me:

Woman who fooled the world

The Woman Who Fooled the World: Belle Gibson's Cancer Con, and the Darkness at the Heart of the Wellness Industry by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano

Books about fraudsters always captivate me. As much as I'd like to reinvent myself, I have enough trouble being my actual self. Belle Gibson, a young Australian woman, claimed to have cured her cancer with diet, exercise and alternative therapies. She quickly became a wellness guru and social media sensation. She created a popular app and cookbook and raised funds which she said were donated to charity. Journalists Donnelly and Toscano discovered the money Gibson promised to give away was instead paying for her own increasingly lavish lifestyle. As her story unravels, it turns out that almost everything about her has been fabricated, including her cancer diagnosis. 

Other categories this would work for:

  • A book by two or more people
  • A book about fame
  • A book about someone unlike yourself


The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife

This one is a bit more upbeat. When I visited the Tower of London, I was impressed by and slightly terrified of the enormous ravens. In 2011, Chris Skaife became Ravenmaster at the Tower. In this book he describes his life caring for the sometimes difficult birds and talks about the history and folklore surrounding them. 

Other categories:

  • A debut book
  • A book by or about someone you'd like to meet


Staff Recommendations

The 57 bus

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teens and the Crime that Changed their Lives by Dashka Slater

This is a true crime book, based on a horrific event that happened in California in 2013. One day, Sasha — an asexual, transgender, autistic teen — wears a skirt on the bus and falls asleep. And Richard's friends dare him to light the skirt on fire. When the floaty material goes up like a fireball, Sasha is horribly burned. Richard is charged with a hate crime and prosecuted as an adult. His friends are never even interviewed by the police. Issues of race, class, homophobia, transphobia, and the consequences of bad decisions are all present in this heartbreaking book. The author interviews Sasha and Richard's friends and families, uses court records and media accounts, and tries to present the larger picture for how both teens' lives were permanently changed. It's an emotional rollercoaster of a read, and I couldn't put it down. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes to read realistic fiction, and thinks that true crime or non-fiction are not for them.

Other categories:

  • A book about someone unlike yourself (maybe, although Sasha and I have a lot in common!)
  • A book by or about someone you'd like to meet
  • A book in a genre you've never read before (if you don't read true crime)

— Ames, Librarian

Blank canvas

Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist's Journey by Akiko Higashimura

This is an autobiographical manga series which follows the author's journey to becoming a manga author. It has beautiful art and story-telling while also giving reader's insight into the world of manga publishing in Japan.

— Des'ree, Public Service Assistant

Braiding sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

The author of this book is a scientist, specifically a botanist. But she speaks about plants and the land that she lives on through an Indigenous framework; interweaving stories about her children, being a mother, and the importance she places on making sure her children have a relationship to the land. I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and the author's voice has a very meditative quality, I highly recommend it!

Other categories:

  • A book by an Indigenous woman or Two-Spirit Indigenous person
  • A book about STEM

— Nalini, Senior Branch Head

Book of eels

The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World by Patrik Svensson

Patrik mixes his reflections on the afternoons he spent fishing for eels with his father as a young boy with a natural history of the European eel. Before I picked up this book I had no idea that the eel was such a fascinating creature, and we have barely begun to understand it at all! The book also touches on the critically endangered status of eels due to climate change and dwindling habitats.

Other categories:

  • Categories are a little sparse on this one, although it could also be a book about someone unlike yourself

— Emily, Librarian


Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

I read this book this past spring and couldn't put it down. This memoir is about a young woman who is raised by a religious family who prepares for Armageddon and never set foot into a classroom until she was 17 years old. She didn't know anything in terms of what the world had gone through. She becomes an Oxford scholar despite not having any formal education. Truly fascinating!

Other categories:

  • A debut book
  • A book about someone unlike yourself

— Jennifer, Public Service Assistant

Elephants in my backyard

The Elephants in My Backyard by Rajiv Surendra

It is an autobiographical account of how Rajiv prepared to audition for the role of Pi in Life of Pi. I haven't finished it yet but became intrigued when I learned the author worked at Black Creek Pioneer Village. I realized we talked to him there and years later we still remember his peach pie!

Other categories:

  • In my case this book could also be used for the category of someone unlike yourself - the author is Toronto born but of Tamil heritage.

— Carrie, Public Service Assistant

The hot zone

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

This is the most terrifying book I have ever read about viruses. I read this at the beginning of the pandemic, which probably was a bad idea but a friend of mine had recommended it. The book follows several narratives about the origins of the Ebola Virus in the 1990s. The descriptions of the virus are incredibly sensationalized but it was a captivating and thrilling read. 

Other categories:

  • A book about STEM

— Lucas, Librarian

Ill be gone in the dark

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden Gate Killer by Michelle McNamara.

A chilling true crime read detailing the crimes of the Golden State Killer — the serial rapist and murderer who terrorized California for over a decade. A raw, gritty and tragic account of the heinous crimes committed by an elusive, vicious, criminal mastermind. Well-researched and documented by McNamara, a journalist who was determined to uncover the Golden State Killer’s identity up until her abrupt and tragic death in 2016. Not willing to let his wife’s investigative work go unfinished, Patton Oswalt enlisted the assistance of investigative journalist Billy Jensen and researcher Paul Haynes to help complete his wife’s book.

While a difficult read, there is a silver lining: At the time of its publication in February 2018, the cases remained unsolved, until April of 2018, when police apprehended suspect Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. — later confirmed as the Golden State Killer — who is now serving life in prison.

“I think you got him, Michelle.”

— Patton Oswalt, April 25 2018

Other categories:

  • A book that was published posthumously
  • A book about love (not just the romantic kind)

— Christie, Branch Head

Immortal life of henrietta lacks

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Eleven years after its publication, this book is now a classic of the genre. Skloot digs into the story behind HeLa, a culture of "immortal" human cells that have been instrumental in medical applications from the polio vaccine to cloning. She reveals the story of the woman who was the source of the cells; her family, who were subjected to medical experimentation without informed consent; and a long history of medical abuse and neglect of racialized people that underlies near-miraculous scientific advances.

Other categories:

  • A debut book
  • A book about STEM

— Wendy, Digital Content Lead

Intelligent love

Intelligent Love: The Story of Clara Park, Her Autistic Daughter, and the Myth of the Refrigerator Mother by Marga Vicedo

A fascinating memoir about how unconscious bias can affect scientific views and theories in very troubling ways, "After white male psychiatrists and psychoanalysts incorrectly and cruelly called women like her (Clara Park) refrigerator mothers, whose coldness caused their children’s condition, Park wrote a groundbreaking memoir in 1967 documenting her journey with her then nine-year-old daughter." 

Other categories:

  • A book about someone unlike yourself

— Iman, Librarian

Owls of the eastern ice

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght

Jonathan Slaght is one of the world’s foremost experts on Blakiston’s Fish Owl, a large and beautiful owl primarily found in parts of Russia, Japan and Korea. This fascinating novel documents his quest to study and ultimately create a conservation plan in the remote Russian province of Primorye. Slaght manages to make data collection seem exciting, interweaving it with adventures in the wilderness and interactions with eccentric locals. I loved this book. It was compelling and I learned about something new — I spent lot of time searching for Fish Owl calls and videos while reading this.

Other Categories:

  • A book about someone unlike yourself
  • A book by or about someone you'd like to meet

— Emily, Librarian

Say nothing

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

I've always been interested in Northern Ireland and I found Keefe's narrative style was able to weave together a complicated history and tell it in such an engrossing way. There is a pretty unbelievable reveal towards the end of the book that I found really sad and fascinating.

Other categories:

  • Barack Obama put it on his list of favourite books for 2019, so it can also fit the category of "a book that is someone else's favourite"

— Hellen, Librarian

Slaves in the family

Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball

This is an oldie (1998) but a book that still stays with me years afterwards. Edward Ball is a member of a Charleston family who were wealthy and influential plantation owners back in the days of slavery. Ball grew up steeped in family lore about his grand and glorious past, but as a historian, he itches to hear the other side of the story. Thus begins a years-long project to locate, converse with and ask forgiveness of descendants of his family's over 4,000 enslaved people. Members of his own family are outraged, and the people he reaches out to have their own painful family memories of life on the Ball plantations. A fascinating example of history enriched and enlarged by the inclusion of disparate voices.

— Claire, Librarian

 Something beautiful happened

Something Beautiful Happened: A Story of Survival and Courage in the Face of Evil by Yvette Manessis Corporon

The author's family is from a teeny tiny island off Corfu named Erikousa.

During WWII the Corfu Greek Jews were (of course) rounded up by the Nazis and taken to concentration camps. All but one family. This family was hidden on the island of Erikousa and never discovered, although there were some close calls. Nobody on the island gave them up.

After the war some of that family moved to Israel and others to the US. The author, who is a producer for Extra, used all her research skills to try and find the survivors and their extended family 70 years later. Let's see what happens!

Other categories:

  • It may be a book about your heritage or culture
  • A book that made you feel comforted or hopeful

— Despina, Branch Head

Tuesdays with morrie

Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom

A very touching reminder of how quickly life goes by and how special it is to reconnect with a person who has left a lasting impression on your life.

Other categories:

  • A book about growing older
  • A book about love (not just the romantic kind)

— Antonia, Planning Specialist


More Recommendations from the TPL Reading Challenge Facebook Group

You don't need a Facebook account to check out the TPL Reading Challenge group. Here are a few of their recommendations:


Need more recommendations? Check out more suggestions here.


What is your favourite narrative non-fiction book? Let us know in the comments below!