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Top 10 Childhood Memoirs


I liked this post from the Guardian – literary agent Caradoc King gives his list of the 10 best childhood memoirs. I would absolutely agree with Boy and Persepolis – two beloved reads on my shelf. And while I’ve never read Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, my colleague Richard swears by it. I think I’ll have to investigate the other titles in this list. For an unhappier variation on the theme, check out our Books about Shattered Childhoods.

1. Little House on The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1935)

An American classic of happy family life and the third in the Little House series. Although written as third-person fiction it is directly about the Ingalls family, using real names, and their pioneering life in the 1870s. This book is about the problems and danger of squatting and finally having to abandon a little house on an Indian reservation in Kansas.

2. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr (1971)

Also an autobiographical novel, the first of a trilogy about Kerr’s much-loved family’s escape from Berlin to Paris and finally London. The family names are changed, but the story is so close to the author’s own life that it deserves inclusion not just as an enchanting children’s classic about a loving family in fear while holding together as refugees but also as a book used widely in German as wells as English schools to teach children about Nazi treatment of the Jews.

3. Haywire by Brooke Hayward (1977)

The lives of Hollywood stars are like fairy stories, glittering, glamorous and enchanting, but swiftly darkened by the pain, tragedies and penalties of fame. Brooke Hayward’s moving and understated memoir of her adoring but ill-matched parents – the brilliant and charismatic agent and producer Leland Heyward and the intensely private actress Margaret Sullivan, who hated Hollywood – captures the tinseltown paradox exquisitely.

4. Boy by Roald Dahl (1984)

This has all the wickedness, black comedy, pranks and adventures of his brilliant fiction. Its stories about school and family life include the dead mouse in the gobstopper jar of the hated sweetshop-owner Mrs Pratchett, reading the whole of Dickens while daily warming the lavatory seat for a bullying Repton prefect, the enchantment of Norwegian family holidays and near fatality driving the family Alvis. A source book for Dahl’s fiction and, written half-a-century after his 1930s childhood, vividly displaying his genius for storytelling.

5. Nobody Nowhere by Donna Williams (1992)

A gripping, surreal, painful, funny and uplifting book about an Australian girl diagnosed as psychotic at the age of three, who suffers severely from deafness, food allergy immune deficiency disorders, and inability to communicate and relate to other people, but survives her inner chaos by creating two imaginary alter-egos: the wild and angry Willie and the apparently calm and normal Carol. Only in her twenties and after leaving an early draft of this book accidentally with a UK child psychiatrist is she diagnosed as autistic and helped to make sense of her life.

6. And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison (1993)

A candid and moving memoir of a middle-class English family telling of a visit home to see his dying GP father through flashbacks of an difficult and angry childhood. His dying releases a deeper understanding of the ambiguities of this ordinary, troubled and overbearing man .

7. Bad Blood by Lorna Sage (2000)

An outstanding childhood memoir set in a village on the Welsh borders, this tells the painful but enthralling story of three generations of Sage’s family. Sage depicts the estranged marriage of her outrageous and philandering vicar grandfather and her man-hating and discontented grandmother, her own parents trapped in the shadows of the grandparents and the dull rectitude of 1950s life. Lorna herself is a bright rebellious girl who in her mother’s eye confirms her grandfather’s “bad blood” by becoming pregnant at 16. She finally escapes the family for university with a baby and new husband.

8. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2000)

A wise, funny and heartbreaking account of a childhood in Iran during and after the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic revolution, told as a black and white graphic novel. It is told through the eyes of a young girl trying to makes sense of the brutality of political repression, the meaning of God, her turbulent adolescent emotions and her family’s tradition of political dissidence.

9. Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger by Nigel Slater (2004)

A childhood story organised around the names of dishes might seem a rather artificial confection, but Slater’s Proustian bread-and-butter pudding, lemon meringue pie and arctic roll journey through a loveless 60s childhood, with a widowed father fond of corporal punishment who found him irksome, and a vulgar stepmother, is a tour de force of culinary self-discovery.

10. This Is Not About Me by Janice Galloway (2008)

A dazzling, brave and blackly comic story of the quiet, watchful Janice growing up in 1960s Scotland council estate with an unloving single mother who wished she had never been born and a vain and cruel adult sister. The brilliance of the writing, the acuteness of observation and the curiosity about the world beyond transcends the misery of Galloways’s childhood and reveals the creative energy which would follow.

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Beth Carswell

About Beth Carswell

I've been reading, selling, researching, loving and writing about books with AbeBooks since 2000.

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