Books: Non-Fiction & Fiction

Non-Fiction : Guides, Manuals, How-To’s

Carmack, DeBartolo Sharon. You Can Write Your Family History. Betterway Books, 2003.

Carmack provides a user friendly resource for family historians. The author breaks the process of narrative creation into simple steps with very specific instructions on best genealogical practices and how to convert facts into an engaging narrative. She offers tips choosing the type of history(memoir, non-fiction or fiction etc.), on determining the scope of the history, how to isolate themes, create structure, using social history and setting to create context and including documentation and photographs or illustrations to flesh out the story. Finally, she discusses publication and marketing. Originally published in 2003, this edition offers dated advice on accessing social history resources, such as “CD-ROMs” and also lacks information on using the internet to publish and share end products, but her over all search advice is sound and likely to be non-alienating to individuals who are not digital natives. Carmack is a certified genealogist and a nationally recognized expert in her field, as well an entrepreneur. An editor of Betterway Genealogy Books and owner of Scattered Leaves Press, she is a frequent contributor to Family Tree Magazine. She is also co-owner of Warren, Carmack & Associates, a Salt Lake City based professional genealogy firm which offers research services, family history writing assistance and publication services and, a company which offers editing and mentoring services. Carmack is the author of twenty books and hundreds of articles published in professional journals, as well an adjunct faculty member of Salt Lake Community College where she is an instructor in the Genealogical Research and Writing program. This would be an excellent resource for library programming on this subject and a useful and easy to use resource for individuals.

Greene, Bob and D.G. Fulford. To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come. Doubleday, 1993. 

Designed to prompt recollections in order to write a personal history, this short book is friendly and conversational in tone. Written by Bob Greene (1947-Present) , a former Chicago Tribune columnist and award winning journalist and author, the apparent audience is older Americans interested in autobiographical writing and family history, but unsure of where to start. A short introduction emphasizes valuing individual experiences and not dwelling on writing grand historical themes. The second portion of the short introduction is titled, “Getting Started.” Bullet pointed highlights help readers focus on ways to accomplish the desired task, with admonishments to have fun, and to set aside time to write or record memories. The remainder of the book is described in this section as a menu from which readers can choose questions as writing prompts. Chapters include titles such as, “Facts”, and”Your Family and Ancestry”. Questions are centered around major life milestones, careers, food preferences and important moments, everyday life and so on. Each category simply contains numbered questions to facilitate recollection and spark ideas for writers. Written in 1993, this book is extremely dated in a sometimes potentially amusing fashion to younger readers with questions like, “Have you recently purchased any new home entertainment gadgets? Do you own a VCR? A Walkman?” and “Did you like Ike?”. The principle of this book is however sound and potentially very useful to help family historians craft interview questions for family members, or as prompts to write their own chapters of their family history. It could easily be used or adapted for a library program. Aspiring writers will benefit from the prompts. This is a very user friendly piece, of particular usefulness to non-digital natives.

McCullough, Dana. Unofficial Guide to; How to Find Your Family History on the World’s Largest Free Genealogy Website. Family Tree Books, 2015.

A manual on how to use Family Search , a free family history website operated by the Church of Jesus Crist of Later-day Saints (LDS), which contains billions of names in its 35 million records. McCullough describes the site as a “hidden gem” and an “underutilized resource” (7). The guide provides users with important direction and instruction on how to do more than “scratch the surface” of this key resource (McCullough 7). The book and the website offer checklists, charts to record research and findings, and multiple tree creation options.  More importantly, it offers detailed and up to date instruction on how to get the most out of this free resource. Search strategies and tips, step by step guide for how to use website, description of records and statements on their usefulness, very specific discussion of specific hurdles and resources for ethnic resources, not confined to African-American family history research, but includes search strategies for specific European nationality/geographic and UK, Mexico, South and Central American and Australian searches and Pacific Islands. It also offers and extremely thorough discussion of basic search strategies targeted for use on the website and in depth definitions of record types. It contains a current online resource list. McCullough, a freelance writer and editor, is a former editor at Family Tree Magazine and a frequent content contributor on genealogy and higher education topics to magazines such as Family Tree Magazine and Better Homes and Gardens and has edited eight books. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Iowa State University. This work is an invaluable tool for genealogy enthusiasts regardless of their experience level and also a rich resource for library professionals.

Smolenyak, Megan. Who Do You Think You Are?: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History – A Companion to the NBC Series. Viking Penguin, 2009.

Authored by the chief genealogical consultant to the NBC TV series “Who Do You Think You Are?” this book is designed to capture the interest of viewers inspired by the popular series to do their own family history. Smolenyak writes engagingly, creating the impression of an exclusive consultation with a genealogy expert. She demystifies the process of family history research. Readers will benefit from her succinct descriptions of the value of various vital records such as what each type of record can provide and how to use them to identify clues and generate narrative elements. The work is divided into nine chapters which take readers step by step through the process, beginning with preparation via family interviews and gathering documents on hand, leading readers through online research options, vital records such as the U.S. census is, births, marriages and deaths, military records and researching immigrant ancestors. A section describing the stories of celebrities featured on the series provides an example of narrative creation. The concluding three chapters include miscellanea and examples of genealogical sleuthing in action and finally, moving from genealogy (gathering of facts and names) to family history (the telling of a family story.)  Chapter nine, “Pass It On” reviews options for telling and preserving family history, which includes traditional family history books, crafts, homemade documentaries, and a unique and fun idea, creating a mock tabloid about interesting or fascinating ancestors with headlines like, “He Marries Bride 30 Years His Junior!” The main deficiency of this work is the 2009 publication date; online resources have evolved dramatically in the past seven years. Despite this, the work is an easy entry point for beginners and an excellent review for more advanced genealogists seeking to create family narratives.

Non-Fiction: Memoir, Family Histories


Angelou, Maya. Mom & Me & Mom. Penguin Random House, 2013.

African-American poet, playwright, actress, singer, performer, civil rights activist and author Maya Angelou (1928-2014) is a towering figure in American culture. Her legacy is rich, but perhaps she is best known for her first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). This powerful work, the seventh of her series of auto-biographies, examines her turbulent relationship with her mother, an eccentric and dynamic woman who both failed and succeeded at the difficult task of mothering Angelou. Bernadine Evaristo’s Guardian review observes that taken in context with her prior works, Angelou’s stories and memories are contradictory and incredible (literally in that she doubts anyone can recall seventy year old conversations.) Evaristo’s review is not glowing but raises an intriguing question about memory and the mechanics of constructing auto-biographical narratives. She argues this work, “begs the question, when does autobiography become autobiographical fiction?” It is not within the scope of this bibliography to answer that question, but never the less, this work is part of a unique body of memoirs. By focusing on one of her central relationships in this examination of her mother’s impact on her life, Angelou serves up an example of one way to approach family history. Recommend for non-fiction book discussions for adults in a library setting.


Ball, Edward. Slaves in the Family. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

In this National Book Award winning work of narrative non-fiction, Edward Ball, a white descendant, explores his prominent South Carolina family’s’ past, explicitly investigating their legacy as slave holders. This account includes not only the stories of the white Ball family, tracing their origins to England, but also the families of the people they enslaved, some of whom are also Ball family descendants. It is the history of families intertwined for hundreds of years by the brutal institution of slavery, combining oral history, social history, historical narrative and a tale of the personal journey of the author, an investigative journalist. This work explores the ways in which individual identity is impacted by family history narratives. It also illuminates the detective work required to tell the story of a family group, which includes traditional genealogy work such as tracking down primary sources (tax records, wills, diaries, and census records) and accounts of the interview process and researching the historical context in which events occur. This resource fits perfectly with the topic of family history narratives and would make an excellent addition to a program, serving as an exemplar of family history work, or as a title for a book group discussion. Ball’s unflinching exploration is also an example of the emotional rewards and pitfalls associated with genealogy. Videos related to the title are available as well.

Lawson, Robert. They Were Strong and Good. The Viking Press, 1940.

They Were Strong and Good, illustrated and written by Robert Lawson, won the 1941 Caldecott Award for excellence in illustration for a children’s picture book. This work serves as an example of what simple family history narratives can accomplish, either as a beginning point example, or an example of a finished project that takes a snapshot of individual family members and connects them to one another.  Individual profiles for each ancestor detail their lives by incorporating occupations, geographic area information, historical context and personal anecdotes. Each profile ends with a connecting statement, tying the individual to a marital partner, and then moves on to their children, concluding with the author’s birth. The black and white illustrations include portraits, depictions of story elements, and illustrations of settings. Deceptively simple in content and format, the work succeeds in weaving larger themes of American history into the narrative by placing each profile in the context of impactful life events, such as the Civil War, or westward expansion. The work is a product of its time, reporting uncritically on slave ownership and conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers. Ironically, by presenting family narratives without judging ancestors’ behaviors, this family history reflects modern genealogist’s admonishments to refrain from judging ancestors. A revised edition exists which eliminates problematic wording, such as a reference to “tame” Indians, however the racist illustrations depicting Native Americans and African-Americans as rag dressed servants and threatening “others” remain. This source can be used as an example of basic family history narrative creation. Because it is designed for children, it makes for an easy read for adults and provides a basic template for beginning the daunting task of converting facts and names into a narrative. A nine minute YouTube video reading of the work is available.

Slouka, Mark. Nobody’s Son. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

In this memoir written by acclaimed American short story writer and essayist Mark Slouka, the author examines the turbulent history of his family and his own complicated relationship with his mother. He artfully utilizes the writing skills he applied to craft award winning fiction and essays to confront his fraught family history.  At the heart of this memoir is the intersection of his mother Olinka’s powerful personality and tragic past with the tides of history that produced his life. The memoir follows the lives of his immigrant parents, his mother, the daughter of a Czechoslovakian Nazi sympathizer and a victim of incest who was forced to marry his eventual father after terminating an unwanted pregnancy, and Zdnek, who eventually ended the loveless troubled marriage to remarry. Slouka approaches the memoir in a unique non- linear way, telling their stories and his own in a spiraling circular fashion, out of order. Interweaving forces such as the outside pressures of World War II and the inner pressures of his mother’s mental illness and her addictions which sped her descent into dementia, Slouka creates a novel like true story. Kirkus Review praises, “Slouka’s raw candor, narrative skill, and meticulous attention to the traps of his own memory make for powerful reading.” This memoir, like Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family, is a stellar example of family history at its best, connecting historical events and social forces to the lives of individuals and family groups. And like Ball’s work, it illustrates the potential for relieving and reliving trauma and for healing through seeking to understand one’s past. Slouka is a fifteen year contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine and a professor of writing and literature who has taught at Harvard, Columbia and the University of Chicago. He is a winner of both a NEA fellowship and Guggenheim fellowship. Other examples of recognition include the PEN/O.Henry prizes for his short stories. His novel The Visible World was a finalist for the 2008 the British Book Award. This work will make an excellent addition to any non-fiction book group discussion centered around family history. It also works as an example of taking a semi-fictionalized approach to crafting family history narratives.

Non-Fiction: Other

Zerubavel, Eviatar. Ancestors & Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, & Community. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Zerubavel, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, interrogates the social construction of genealogy, finding that the terms and concepts associated with this popular discipline permeate aspects of human thinking and life, from the way we talk about “next generation” phones, or degrees of relatedness of people, animals and objects. This work is a multi-disciplinary academic and sociological study of relatedness, identity, race and community. The author concludes that “genealogy is first and foremost a way of thinking”, one that is uniquely human. The author discusses norms and conventions about how we perceive family and ancestry that are socially constructed (that is to say not natural or a given, but created by society), norms that involve intentionally remembering, forgetting or classifying individuals as belonging to a family group with which one identifies. This cerebral work is useful for thinking about genealogy in macro terms, and for reflecting on how we choose to focus on or ignore various pieces of our ancestry. In her review, geneticist Turi King comments on the centrality of the relationship between “a person’s narrative of their own identity” and genetic ancestry research. She writes, “Drawing on numerous sources and disciplines his book is a treatise on the transhistorical and transcultural elements which are fundamental to how individuals, communities and even nations perceive and construct narratives of the past and identity.” The reviewer also points to the “timeliness” of this work given recent technological advances in genealogy research and the accessibility of DNA ancestry services. Though written by an academic, none the less, the style of the author makes this work easily digested by casual readers interested in the topic, and may be useful to family historians interested in thinking about the big picture of why and how we seek to learn about family history. It might also be a candidate for inclusion in a non-fiction library book discussion group.


Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Doubleday1979.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) is an award-winning and ground breaking African-American author known best for her feminist speculative fiction, and other works, such as Lilith’s Brood and Fledgling, which  defy genre categorization. She was the recipient of the Pen Lifetime Achievement Award, the McArthur award, multiple Hugo awards, and is widely recognized a major force in the science-fiction genre. Kindred is marketed as science-fiction due to the time-travel narrative device utilized by Butler to explore the ways in which the past and present overlap, but Butler preferred to characterize it as fantasy. A modern Black American woman -Dana -is mysteriously  and repeatedly transported across time and space to nineteenth century Maryland. Trapped in the past against her will with her own future existence at stake, Dana’s journey is traumatic and painful. Seemingly “summoned” by her white ancestor Rufus’ proximity to life threatening dangers, Dana is placed in the heart wrenching position of both the savior and victim of the young white boy who grows to become a vicious violent man and slave owner. Dana’s white husband is also tossed into the past, forcing the two to deal with brutal realities of slavery which cannot be denied. Butler’s novel, which has been described as a neo-slave narrative, is a page turner, rich with implications for family historians who may encounter traumatic pasts as they develop family narrative based on their own family histories. Gender, race, identity and what Hannah Rehak calls “amputated genealogies”, or “genealogies that exist but are hidden from view” are central to this powerful narrative (7).

Haley, Alex. Roots. Doubleday, 1977.

Alex Haley’s Pulitzer prize-winning best selling novel published in 1977 traces the history of an African-American family, beginning with their origins when Kunta Kinte, an eighteenth century African man, is kidnapped and enslaved. Based on Haley’s own genealogical research and oral family tradition, the reception of the book  included some controversy, including a court case settled by Haley that charged portions of his work were plagiarized. Other critics contended that Haley’s genealogical scholarship was flawed. Because it is characterized as a novel, it is placed in this bibliography with fictional accounts of family history. Esteemed Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, creator and host of PBS’ genealogy television documentaries “African American Lives” and “Finding Your Roots” has said, “Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone’s imagination.”  This work is significant because the book itself was a bestseller that inspired the surprise hit 1977 mini-series and newfound public interest in genealogy and family heritage. Gregory Rodriguez writes, “prior to the civil rights movement, which encouraged racial and ethnic minorities to embrace their previously marginalized identities, the study of family history was largely the province of white social climbers and racists.” Rodriguez credits Haley’s seminal work with beginning the modern craze for genealogy and the widespread enthusiasm for seeking to define personal identity with family history stories. This work is useful for its entertainment value for readers interested in family history, American and African-American history. It is also an example of how data can be transformed into a fictionalized or semi-fictionalized family history narrative. The 1977 television mini-series and the 2016 television re-make based on Haley’s novel are also engaging entry points for this work that will interest family-history enthusiasts.

O’Conner, Jane. I Can Read- Fancy Nancy- My Family History. Harper, 2010.

This picture book from the bestselling Fancy Nancy series for children tells the story of Nancy, who loves everything fancy from her clothes to her vocabulary, and her experience learning about her family history. Designed for emergent readers, this book is classified as a “level 1” for short sentence length, common words and basic concepts and is suitable for independent reading. Nancy is assigned a school report on her family history. When she finds her classmates reports’ more glamorous and interesting, she embellishes her own report on her own “ordinary” ancestors. When her grandfather arrives to attend school on the day of the presentation, Nancy realizes her mistake and learns a valuable lesson about honesty. Written by Jane O’Conner who is “an editor at a major publishing house” and has authored over fifty Fancy Nancy books according to the Fancy Nancy website. Charming illustrations by award winning artist Robin Preiss Glasser capture the character’s independence and vitality. The value of this work is in the simple deconstruction of the creation of family narratives. Nancy, like any adult genealogist, gathers information by performing family interviews, is filled with curiosity about her subject, speculates on situations, and yearns for more exiting details. This sweet tale demonstrates how meaning can be created by the activity of developing strong family narratives. Family bonds are strengthened and Nancy learns more about herself via her grandfather and great-grandfather’s stories. This work is ideal for building inter-generational interest in family history research and narrative creation. Like Lawson’s They Were Strong and Good, it is a deceptively simple example of how to construct family history which might make for an unlikely but useful addition to adult family history library programming.

Rutherfurd, Edward. Sarum: The Novel of England. Ballantine Books, 1997.

Rutherfurd’s epic Sarum:The Novel of England, traces the saga of five families over the entirety of British history, beginning in the Ice Age up until the modern era. Set in the area the eventually became known for Stonehenge, the massive mysterious stone circle in Southern England, and Salisbury, the nearby town that became famous for its cathedral, the story spans vast swaths of time. The families’ lives intertwine generation after generation as various members raise the sacred stone circle or build the cathedral, which become physical hubs around which their family stories orbit through the years. The setting is rich with events and the concept of the novel is exciting for those interested in intergenerational narratives, if at times Rutherford’s style is not pleasing to every reader depending upon their taste for extremely long books. Rutherford, a former publishing industry professional, hails from the town Salisbury, which has named the “Rutherfurd Walk” in his honor. The Cambridge University and Stanford University educated English author has written numerous best-selling novels with similar intergenerational narratives. His other works include Russka, London and The Forest, as well as New York,  Paris and the Princes of Ireland. This fictional work is useful for its entertainment value to readers interested in family history narratives and also for the way the author situates his characters within the time period settings, as the forces of history, geography and chance shape their lives and the fortunes of their descendants. The book, like his other works, is very dense so may not be suitable for library book club discussions due length and reading time required.

Works Cited

Beam, Alex. “The Prize Fight Over Alex Haley’s Tangled ‘Roots'”, Boston Globe, October 30, 1998.

Evaristo, Bernadine. “Book Review: Mom & Me & Mom: Maya Angelou’s Memoir About Her Relationship With Her Mother is at Odds With the Stories Told in Her Earlier Work.” The Guardian, 22 Apr. 2013. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.

King, Turi. “Book Review: Ancestors & Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, & Community.” The London School of Economics and Political Science Review of Books, 28 Jun. 2012, www. . Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.

Rehak, Hannah. “Butler’s Kindred: Non-linear Genealogies and the Transformative Possibility of Breaking Genre Conventions.” Tapestries: Interwoven voices of local and global identities 4.1 (2015): 23. www. Accessed 12 Nov.2016.

Review of Nobody’s Son, by Mark Slouka. Kirkus Reviews, 1 Aug. 2016,

Rodriguez, Gregory. “How Genealogy Became Almost As Popular as Porn.” Time, 30 May 2014. almost -as- popular -as -porn. Accessed 10 October 2016.

Rutherford, Edward. “Biography”,, 2016. Accessed 10 Nov. 2016.