Inspiring Biographies

This study guide collection celebrates the life stories of fascinating and inspirational figures. Read on to discover insightful analyses and discussion starters for an array of uplifting biographies, including the award-winning A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming, Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt, and Strength in What Remains by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder.

Publication year 1998Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Natural World: Appearance & RealityTags Mental Illness

John Nash is born and raised in Bluefield, West Virginia. As a child, he is introverted and quiet, preferring reading and performing experiments to playing with other children. He is obsessed with codes and patterns and enjoys playing pranks on his sister and schoolmates. Intending to become an engineer like his father, Nash secures a scholarship to study at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. After a year, he abandons engineering to major in mathematics. He... Read A Beautiful Mind Summary

Publication year 1983Genre Biography, NonfictionTags History: U.S., American Civil War

This study guide references the 1990 Oxford University Press edition of James M. McPherson’s Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. The book is a collection of seven essays originally delivered as lectures, all on the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, and his role in the Civil War (1861-1865). The book calls the Civil War era the “Second American Revolution” because, with Lincoln’s help, it brought about a fundamental transformation in the... Read Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution Summary

Publication year 2017Genre Biography, NonfictionTags Immigration / Refugee, History: Middle Eastern

A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea is a 2017 book by Melissa Fleming, telling the true story of a young girl named Doaa who fled the Syrian civil war. Made a refugee by the conflict, she travels to Egypt and then attempts to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. The book has won numerous awards.Plot SummaryThe story opens with Doaa Al Zamel floating in the sea amid the wreckage of a ship. Her husband is... Read A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea Summary

Publication year 2004Genre Biography, NonfictionTags Colonial America, History: U.S., American Revolution

Alexander Hamilton is a 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, written by Ron Chernow. Beginning with Hamilton’s birth in the Caribbean, the book traces Hamilton’s story from his childhood, to his early years in America, to his rise as one of the most admired—and reviled—politicians and statesmen that the country would ever see. The popular music Hamilton is based on the story told in Chernow’s book, and shows the development of both America, and one of its... Read Alexander Hamilton Summary

Publication year 2013Genre Autobiography / Memoir, NonfictionThemes Values/Ideas: Fate, Relationships: Family, Emotions/Behavior: Memory, Society: Community, Emotions/Behavior: Fear, Emotions/Behavior: HopeTags Poverty

A Long Way Home is a 2013 memoir by Saroo Brierley, an Indian-born author who was accidentally separated from his biological family at the age of five and adopted by an Australian couple. The memoir traces Saroo’s remarkable journey from India to Australia and back again 25 years later. The book inspired the 2016 film Lion and became a New York Times Best Seller after the film’s release. This guide refers to the 2015 edition published... Read A Long Way Home Summary

Publication year 1975Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Society: EconomicsTags Business / Economics

Harold Livesay’s 1975 biography, Andrew Carnegie and the Rise of Big Business, follows the life of entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie as he builds one of the biggest manufacturing companies in 19th-century America. As Livesay narrates Carnegie’s life, he also describes the many societal shifts occurring throughout the 19th century, during which life in America and around the globe transitioned to a modern, industrial society.In the opening chapters, Livesay focuses on Carnegie’s humble beginnings. Carnegie is born... Read Andrew Carnegie And The Rise Of Big Business Summary

Publication year 2022Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Society: WarTags History: U.S., Politics / Government, Military / War, American Civil War

Publication year 2000Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Natural World: Nurture v. Nature, Values/Ideas: Trust & DoubtTags Health / Medicine

John Colapinto’s 1999 book As Nature Made Him is an expansion of his award-winning 1997 Rolling Stone article on the medical scandal surrounding David Reimer. David, raised as Brenda under the auspices of famous sexologist and child psychiatrist Dr. John Money, transitions back to a male gender identity during his teenage years. After Dr. Milton Diamond reveals the failure of Money’s theory of gender neutrality at birth, David’s story raises serious questions in the medical... Read As Nature Made Him Summary

Publication year 2015Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Identity: Sexuality, Values/Ideas: Safety & Danger, Values/Ideas: Trust & DoubtTags LGBTQ

Becoming Nicole, a nonfiction book by Washington Post journalist Amy Ellis Nutt, tells the story of Nicole Maines, a transgender girl who fights for acceptance in her family, at her school, and beyond. Published in 2015, the book chronicles Nicole’s early years as a boy named Wyatt, her adoption of a female name, a lawsuit involving her right to use the girls’ restroom at school, and her relationships with family and friends. Nutt also shows how... Read Becoming Nicole Summary

Publication year 2020Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Identity: Race, Values/Ideas: Loyalty & Betrayal, Values/Ideas: Truth & LiesTags Race / Racism, Arts / Culture, History: U.S., Philosophy, Post-War Era

Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own is a non-fiction book by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a Princeton University professor specializing in race and religion in the US. The title gestures to a passage in James Baldwin’s last novel, Just Above My Head (1979), which stresses the importance of new beginnings in the quest to rebuild the US as a truly multiracial democracy. A New York Times bestseller, Begin Again... Read Begin Again Summary

Publication year 2014Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Identity: Gender, Identity: Sexuality, Society: Community, Life/Time: Childhood & Youth, Relationships: Family, Identity: Masculinity, Identity: Femininity, Self DiscoveryTags LGBTQ, Coming of Age / Bildungsroman

Publication year 2010Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Identity: Femininity, Society: Politics & Government, Values/Ideas: Power & Greed, Society: WarTags History: World, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome

Publication year 2015Genre Biography, NonfictionTags Politics / Government, History: World, WWI / World War I, History: European

In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, writer Erik Larson traces the Lusitania’s final journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The Lusitania is a British passenger liner owned by the Cunard Steamship Company. First sailing in 1907, the Lusitania quickly sets records for the fastest journey across the Atlantic Ocean, stealing the coveted Blue Riband away from Germany.Dead Wake follows the Lusitania’s final journey, which took place during the first week of May 1915... Read Dead Wake Summary

Publication year 2010Genre Biography, NonfictionTags History: U.S.

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne, published in 2010, is a work of historical nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. The book narrates a history of the Comanche Nation, and also follows the fates of the Parker family, from whom the book’s central figure, Quanah Parker, descends.The Comanches... Read Empire of the Summer Moon Summary

Publication year 1959Genre Biography, NonfictionTags Action / Adventure, History: World

In 1914, after several years of fundraising efforts, Ernest Shackleton leaves England bound for exploration in Antarctica on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The purpose of the expedition is to traverse Antarctica from west to east by use of dog sleds. He purchases a sturdy wooden boat designed for hunting polar bears and changes the boat’s name to the Endurance. Against the advice of experienced whalers whom he meets in South Georgia en route to his... Read Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage Summary

Publication year 2005Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Relationships: Family, Relationships: Mothers, Society: ImmigrationTags Politics / Government, Social Justice, History: U.S., Immigration / Refugee

Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother is a best-selling nonfiction book by Sonia Nazario, an American journalist best known for her work on social justice. Originally published in 2006, the book is based on Nazario’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Enrique’s Journey” series, which was written in six parts and published in The Los Angeles Times.The book, which has been published in eight languages and adapted for young adults in... Read Enrique's Journey Summary

Publication year 2012Genre Biography, NonfictionTags Asian Literature, Immigration / Refugee, History: Asian, Korean Literature

Escape from Camp 14 is the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who is the only known person to have been born in and escape from a North Korean labor camp. The book’s author, Blaine Harden, interviewed Shin many times and has also spoken with former camp guards and North Korean traders. His book details Shin’s life both inside and outside the camp, as well as the political landscape in North Korea.As Shin was born in the... Read Escape from Camp 14 Summary

Publication year 2018Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Identity: Race, Society: War, Values/Ideas: Religion & SpiritualityTags Race / Racism, History: U.S., Civil Rights / Jim Crow, Politics / Government, American Civil War, Reconstruction Era

Publication year 2022Genre Biography, NonfictionTags History: U.S., Politics / Government, Crime / Legal

Publication year 2017Genre Biography, NonfictionTags Politics / Government, History: U.S., American Civil War

Publication year 2020Genre Autobiography / Memoir, NonfictionThemes Life/Time: Coming of Age, Values/Ideas: Fame, Identity: MasculinityTags Arts / Culture, Philosophy

Publication year 2016Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Identity: GenderTags Gender / Feminism, History: U.S., Women's Studies (Nonfiction)

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is a 2016 nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly. Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where her father worked at Langley Research Center, on which the book is centered. Thus, she knew firsthand both the story and many of the people involved. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the business school at the University of... Read Hidden Figures Summary

Publication year 2020Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Identity: Mental Health, Values/Ideas: Science & Technology, Relationships: Siblings, Relationships: FamilyTags Psychology, Mental Illness

Publication year 2004Genre Biography, NonfictionTags History: U.S., American Revolution

Historian Joseph J. Ellis was fascinated by George Washington ever since Ellis’ boyhood in Alexandria, Virginia, where Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, is located and his historical presence was strongly felt. By the time Ellis wrote His Excellency: George Washington in 2004, he had already produced several popular books about early American history. His Excellency is a more intimate biography of Washington than many previously written, focusing as much on the subject’s character as on his... Read His Excellency: George Washington Summary

Publication year 1861Genre Autobiography / Memoir, NonfictionThemes Identity: Race, Society: Class, Values/Ideas: Power & GreedTags Inspirational, Race / Racism, Trauma / Abuse / Violence, History: U.S., African American Literature, American Civil War

The memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) is an account of the life of Harriet Ann Jacobs, who calls herself “Linda Brent” in the narrative. Written in the tradition 18th-century writer Olaudah Equiano, Jacobs’s work joins that of her American contemporaries and fellow anti-slavery activists Solomon Northrup and Frederick Douglass. It is a key text for understanding the conditions of the lives of the enslaved in the Southern United States in... Read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Summary

Publication year 2011Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Emotions/Behavior: GuiltTags Holocaust, Politics / Government, History: European, WWII / World War II

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson is a non-fiction book published in 2011. It recounts the early years of Germany's Nazi regime from the perspective of the American ambassador, William Dodd, and his family. In Berlin, the family watches with growing horror as Hitler increases his dictatorial control over Germany, rearms the country in preparation for war, and conducts a national campaign of violent... Read In the Garden of Beasts Summary

Publication year 1996Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Values/Ideas: MusicTags Action / Adventure, American Literature

Into the Wild is a nonfiction book written by Jon Krakauer. It was first published in 1996 and turned into a feature film directed by Sean Penn in 2007. It has been classified as outdoor writing, travel writing, and biography.In 1993 Krakauer published “Death of an Innocent” in Outside magazine, an article that detailed the death of Christopher McCandless. The article generated an enormous response from readers, and Krakauer spent a subsequent year tracing McCandless’s... Read Into The Wild Summary

Publication year 2023Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Identity: Race, Values/Ideas: Equality, Society: NationTags Politics / Government, Race / Racism, History: U.S.

Publication year 2011Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Values/Ideas: Religion & SpiritualityTags Christian literature

Kisses From Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption, published in 2009, is a Christian memoir that follows the life of Katie Davis as she moves from the suburbs of Nashville to Uganda after high school to care for abandoned and orphaned children. This study guide refers to the 2011 First Howard Books hardcover edition.  Kisses From Katie is broken into 21 chapters that linearly tell the story of how Katie moved from Tennessee... Read Kisses from Katie Summary

Publication year 2005Genre Book, NonfictionThemes Values/Ideas: Truth & Lies, Values/Ideas: Science & TechnologyTags Science / Nature, Education, History: World

Dava Sobel’s best-selling book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time tells the story of the 18th-century contest to find a precise way to locate a ship at sea, the clockmaker who built the first timepiece that could do so, and his battle with the astronomers whose alternate method competed for the winning prize. Replete with sea disasters, brilliant scientists, and scheming politicians, Longitude won... Read Longitude Summary

Publication year 2003Genre Biography, NonfictionTags History: African

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (2003), by French journalist Jean Hatzfeld, presents ten accounts of ordinary contributors to the Rwandan genocide, which killed 800,000 Tutsis in just two months in 1994. Each survivor is from the same relatively small city and goes into depth about the neighbors they murdered (or helped murder). The work was first translated into English by Linda Coverdale.Its themes include personal responsibility, the horrors of groupthink, and mass dehumanization... Read Machete Season Summary

Publication year 2013Genre Graphic Novel/Book, NonfictionThemes Society: Education, Society: Politics & Government, Values/Ideas: Religion & Spirituality, Identity: Race, Values/Ideas: Justice & Injustice, Values/Ideas: Equality, Emotions/Behavior: Determination / PerseveranceTags History: U.S., Politics / Government, Race / Racism, Social Justice, Auto/Biographical Fiction, Inspirational, Civil Rights / Jim Crow, Black Lives Matter

Publication year 2017Genre Biography, NonfictionTags History: U.S.

In Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Erica Armstrong Dunbar traces the life of enslaved woman Ona Judge from shortly before her birth to just after her death. This tracing is bookended by details about the circumstances into which Judge was born and the effect her life had on her family after her passing. To highlight additional historical aspects of the narrative, Dunbar includes an Author’s Note explaining how she became... Read Never Caught Summary

Publication year 1983Genre Book, NonfictionThemes Society: Colonialism, Values/Ideas: Religion & Spirituality, Society: Community, Life/Time: Coming of Age, Life/Time: Childhood & Youth, Life/Time: The Past, Relationships: Family, Emotions/Behavior: Shame & Pride, Emotions/Behavior: HopeTags History: U.S., Coming of Age / Bildungsroman, Religion / Spirituality, American Literature

Publication year 1997Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Identity: Disability, Society: Education, Life/Time: Coming of Age, Identity: LanguageTags History: World, Disability

Publication year 2004Genre Biography, NonfictionTags History: U.S.

Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004) is a history of Pocahontas’s role in the early stages of English colonialism in the Americas. Its author, Camilla Townsend, is a Professor of History at Rutgers University who has earned multiple awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, for her work. This guide refers to the 2005 Hill and Wang paperback edition.In Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, Townsend reconstructs a biography of Pocahontas, a figure so wrapped up in legends... Read Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma Summary

Publication year 1991Genre Biography, NonfictionTags Immigration / Refugee

Rain of Gold recounts author Victor Villaseñor’s family history through the early 20th century, when his parents immigrated to America to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution. The book was inspired by stories from his grandmother and father, which Villaseñor came to view with skepticism as an adult. He devoted 12 years to researching his family’s history, which included conducting hundreds of hours of interviews with his parents, Lupe and Juan Salvador, and embarking... Read Rain of Gold Summary

Publication year 2018Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Society: Nation, Identity: RaceTags Race / Racism, History: U.S.

Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist (2018) is a biography of disavowed white nationalist Derek Black, authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow.Derek is a former white nationalist wunderkind. Derek is the son of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and Stormfront online hate group creator, Don Black, and the godson of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, white supremacist politician, and notorious public figure, David Duke. Derek’s parents remove... Read Rising Out of Hatred Summary

Publication year 2021Genre Autobiography / Memoir, NonfictionTags American Civil War, History: U.S., Politics / Government

Publication year 2022Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Values/Ideas: Power & Greed, Values/Ideas: Justice & Injustice, Relationships: Siblings, Natural World: Place, Emotions/Behavior: Determination / Perseverance, Values/Ideas: Truth & Lies, Values/Ideas: Trust & DoubtTags Crime / Legal, Mystery / Crime Fiction, Journalism, Business / Economics, Class, Finance / Money / Wealth, Trauma / Abuse / Violence, Leadership/Organization/Management

Publication year 1998Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Values/Ideas: Safety & Danger, Natural World: Place, Relationships: TeamsTags Action / Adventure, Inspirational, History: World

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance by American author Jennifer Armstrong is a work of narrative non-fiction that tells the story of the survival of explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton and the crew of the ship Endurance after they were shipwrecked in the Antarctic Circle. Published in 1998, the book was the winner of the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction and was also named an... Read Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World Summary

Publication year 1990Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Emotions/Behavior: Memory, Identity: GenderTags Arts / Culture

First published in 1990, the creative memoir Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood explores the childhood and adolescence of author Judith Ortiz Cofer. This study guide uses the second edition published in 1991 by Arte Público Press.Born in Puerto Rico, Cofer grew up moving between a Puerto Rican village and Paterson, New Jersey, where her father was stationed with the US Navy. Through a series of essays and poems, Cofer examines... Read Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance Of A Puerto Rican Childhood Summary

Publication year 2011Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Society: Community, Values/Ideas: Science & Technology, Relationships: Fathers, Life/Time: The FutureTags Business / Economics, Technology

Steve Jobs (2011) is an authorized biography written by Walter Isaacson about the life of the late Apple founder and tech revolutionary. Based on more than forty interviews with Jobs, the book is an in-depth exploration of who Jobs was, from the story of his birth and subsequent adoption to his massive success at the helm of Apple. Jobs himself personally requested that Isaacson write his biography on a phone call in 2004. By the... Read Steve Jobs Summary

Publication year 2000Genre Biography, NonfictionTags History: African , Immigration / Refugee

Strength in What Remains is a nonfiction book by Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder. It chronicles the story of a Burundian man named Deogratias (Deo). Deo, a Tutsi, survived a genocide that embroiled Burundi and Rwanda—especially in 1993-94. Deo fled the hospital where he had a medical school internship. Without any resources, he made his way to Rwanda only to be forced to escape violence there, return to Burundi, and finally travel to America... Read Strength in What Remains Summary

Publication year 1955Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Values/Ideas: Religion & Spirituality, Emotions/Behavior: Shame & PrideTags Religion / Spirituality, Christian literature

Surprised by Joy is C.S. Lewis’s spiritual autobiography, tracing the steps that led up to his conversion to Christianity. This guide refers to the 1955 Harcourt Brace & Company/Harvest Books edition. Lewis was born in 1898 in Ireland and begins his story with his childhood in Belfast, where he and his family lived in a maze-like house full of empty attics and heaps of books. He was close with his older brother, and together they... Read Surprised by Joy Summary

Publication year 1973Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Values/Ideas: MusicTags Psychology, Mental Illness

Sybil, by Flora Rheta Schreiber, tells the story of the recovery of the pseudonymous Sybil Dorsett (in real life, Shirley Mason), a woman who suffers from multiple personality disorder because of severe childhood trauma. Published in 1973, the book and the subsequent mini-series caused an immediate sensation, selling millions of copies and bringing the little-known disorder into Americans’ cultural awareness. The story claims to be nonfiction, but critics of the book, such as Debbie Nathan... Read Sybil Summary

Publication year 2005Genre Biography, NonfictionTags Politics / Government

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, published in 2005, is an historical study of the events surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican candidate for US president in 1860 and his tenure in office from 1861 to his assassination in 1865. The sixth book by Pulitzer Prize winner Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals won the 2006 Lincoln Prize and the inaugural Book Prize for American History from the New... Read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln Summary

Publication year 1984Genre Biography, NonfictionTags History: U.S.

Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership by R. David Edmunds is both a biography of the titular Shawnee war chief Tecumseh and an overview of the political movement he started in the early 19th century.From roughly 1805 until his death in October 1813, Tecumseh played a pivotal role in establishing relations between the United States and Native Americans in the Old Northwest Territory (now part of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota). Along... Read Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership Summary

Publication year 2021Genre Essay Collection, NonfictionThemes Values/Ideas: Trust & Doubt, Values/Ideas: Safety & Danger, Identity: Mental HealthTags Inspirational, Science / Nature, History: World, Health / Medicine, Climate Change, Relationships, Sociology

Publication year 2017Genre Biography, NonfictionThemes Values/Ideas: Truth & LiesTags Crime / Legal

The Blood of Emmett Till is a 2017 nonfiction book by Timothy B. Tyson. The text provides an account of the 1955 murder of a young African American boy named Emmet Till. Till was visiting Mississippi from Chicago, where his parents had emigrated during the Great Migration of the 1920s. They sought employment in the North, but they also sought to escape from the terror exercised by whites on blacks in the South.The Civil War... Read The Blood of Emmett Till Summary