Niche Nonfiction for Teens (AKA “Living Books”): A Book List

Living Books Are Full of Ideas

Those of us in Charlotte Mason educational philosophy circles like to talk about “living books.” A living book is essentially a well-written book that is full of ideas. The ideas are the “life” in a “living” book. Living books for teens are interesting, well-written books about any topic you can think of. Teens are interested in lots of things. Interesting things. And teens who enjoy reading will enjoy reading a living book about their favorite topic.

[In industry terms, we’re actually considering “popular nonfiction” books. That simply refers to nonfiction books written for a popular, or lay, audience as opposed to an academic or specialist audience. Popular nonfiction books aren’t necessarily “popular” as we usually understand the term.]

Consider one of the living books below as a possible gift idea for the older teens in your life, those who enjoy reading and who have niche interests. I’ve read many of these books with one or more of my own teens.

Note: Most have been written for the adult market, so they may contain more mature ideas, themes, and/or content than books we normally review for teens. Most of these books have also been written for a secular audience; discerning teens will be able to find the diamonds within. If in doubt, do some research on content/appropriateness for your particular teen. And remember: these are living book ideas for teens who already enjoy reading. They’re meaty and thought-provoking (and sometimes LONG).

Living books for teens

Living Books for Teens: A Book List

Note: books are linked to amazon rather than RR reviews because we haven’t reviewed most of these. We are participants in the Amazon LLC affiliate program; purchases you make through affiliate links like the one below may earn us a commission. Read more here.


cover of Infinite Powers

Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe by Steven Strogatz. Mariner Books, 2020. See on Amazon.

  • Yes, we’re starting off with a MATH book. Even I, a non-math-y person, have read and enjoyed this book immensely. I never took Calculus; that’s not a pre-requisite. But this book does assume a working knowledge of math concepts through high school level Algebra II and Geometry; a working knowledge of Trigonometry wouldn’t hurt. My math-y son loved this book.

Math Art: Truth, Beauty, and Equations by Stephen Ornes. Union Square and Co., 2019. See on Amazon.

  • Almost a coffee table book, this is full of mathematical art. Especially interesting to math-y types who enjoy spatial mathematics and geometry (and ideas like the Golden Ratio).

String, Straight-Edge, and Shadow by Julia Diggins. Floris Books, 2018. See on Amazon. 

  • Not nearly as complicated or lofty as the previous two titles (and, frankly, not quite as engaging), this is a readable history of how our geometry concepts came to be. Beginning in ancient times and showing how people might have discovered basic concepts using string, straight-edge, and shadow, it also includes such well-known figures such as Thales and Pythagoras. It will spark geometry fans to think how they might make their own discoveries.


Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall. Scribner, 2016. See on Amazon.

  • For your geo-politics fans, this is an engaging and very insightful look at how geography has impacted our current world, particularly country borders and regional identities or struggles. Current events, like wars and trade issues, will make more sense after reading this book!

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time by Dava Sobel. See on Amazon.

  • We’ve reviewed Longitude before, but it’s a biography of John Harrison’s determination to build a time keeper (chronometer) that would help mariners navigate more precisely. A great, succinct read.

Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft by Thor Heyerdahl. Simon & Schuster, 1990 (reprint). See on Amazon.

  • This famous story of men who embarked from South America on a raft, attempting to prove earlier peoples made it to Polynesia, is gripping and well-written. It brings the ocean to life while highlighting how intrepid and skilled earlier people groups were without the aid of our modern technology.

The Brendan Voyage: Sailing to America in a Leather Boat to Prove the Legend of the Irish Sailor Saints by Tim Severin. Random House, 2000. See on Amazon.

Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story by Wilfred McClay. Encounter Books, 2020. See on Amazon.

  • Yet another title we’ve raved over before, Land of Hope is a textbook-sized story of American history that is quite readable and ends on an upbeat, patriotic note. Highly recommended.

Epic: An Around-the-World Journey Through Christian History by Tim Challies. Zondervan, 2020. See on amazon.

  • Epic was our anchor text for our summer reading program called Faith and Fortitude. It’s an interesting read for teens who enjoy church history, but even more particularly, enjoy artifacts and interesting trivia. This is not a chronological recounting of church history; it’s a global journey full of physical objects.


The Visible Hand: A Wealth of Notions on the Miracle of the Market by Matthew Hennessey. Encounter Books, 2022. See on Amazon.

  • The Visible Hand introduces teens to basic free-market economics in a way that’s accessible and entertaining. We reviewed this book here.

Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell. Basic Books, 2014. See on Amazon.

  • Remember, these are books for teens who are interested in a given topic and like to read. Sowell’s Basic Economics is quite readable and full of ideas for those ready for a doorstop-sized tome. I have one teen, in particular, who has devoured this book. But save this for kids who truly are fascinated by economics.


cover of radium girls

Radium Girls: the Scary but True Story of the Poison that Made People Glow in the Dark by Kate Moore (Young Readers’ Edition). Sourcebooks, 2020. See on Amazon.

The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds by Julie Zickefoose. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. See on Amazon.

  • Zickefoose writes charming stories about the many bird friends she makes in her back yard. She is also a talented artist; each story is accompanied by her many sketches of birds. She also wrote a lovely book titled Baby Birds.

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean. Black Bay, 2011. See on Amazon.

  • We’ve reviewed the Young Readers Edition of this chemistry book, but the original is quite readable and fascinating! Anyone even remotely interested in chemistry will find this book full of ideas and stories. Readers will come away with a renewed understanding of the elements and the way the periodic table is organized (plus a lot of interesting trivia and stories).

A Walk Through the Year by Edwin Way Teale. Dodd, Mead, and Co, 1987. See on Amazon.

  • Teale is a skilled naturalist and an equally skilled writer. The book is out of print now, but well worth tracking down for those budding naturalists in your home. The book is written as a series of reflections, one per day for one full year.


cover of 20 ways to draw a jellyfish

Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. William Morrow, 1994. See on Amazon.

  • Not just for budding artists, this book helps readers understand the art and thought behind comics. We reviewed it here.

20 Ways to Draw a…: A Sketchbook for Artists, Designers and Doodlers by various authors. Quarry Books. See on amazon.

  • Fun for more than teens, but teens who love to draw and doodle will have great fun with this series! Read our review.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder. South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014. See on amazon.

  • Laura Ingalls Wilder’s own account of her growing-up years shows how life became art and is a must for fans of the Little House series. Read our review here.

Books for Teen Writers


I don’t have space to list all the amazing biographies out there, but suffice it to say that there’s been an interesting biography written about someone in a field your teen is looking into. We’ve got a few lists on our site already you might check out:

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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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