Some take extraordinary, traumatic experiences and render them real and relatable, while others transform an uneventful upbringing into a thing of wonder and beauty. Whatever the approach, memoirs of childhood are among the most popular examples of the genre. These 10 classic and new stories of growing up prove there is no such thing as an ordinary childhood.
Novelist Kevin Brockmeier's new memoir A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip is a tightly focused tale of a seemingly ordinary period: seventh grade, and the age at which a child begins to see the outline of his future, full-grown self. On the cusp of his teenage years, Brockmeier starts to notice change, and change starts to get him noticed, in a rhythm of humiliation and enlightenment. Common yet life-altering experiences, like a first kiss and dealing with bullies, take on a dreamlike quality through Brockmeieir's luminous prose, which beautifully captures this transformative year and lifts it out of the everyday.
Many of the best childhood memoirs achieve a universal appeal through their specificity. In Annie Dillard's landmark memoir American Childhood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek returns to the scenes of her upbringing in Pittsburgh. Revisiting her life at age five, 10, and 15, Dillard's prose is intensely evocative as it recalls her fascination with the natural world around her and her growing passion for books. With a lyrical, unsentimental voice and a sharp eye for the tiniest details, Dillard finds endless revelation in the never-ordinary experience of growing up.
Jeannette Walls's memoir The Glass Castle is a testament to a life emerging out of the chaos of parents' high ideals and personal weaknesses. One of four children, the young Walls led a nomadic early life with her family, moving from town to town throughout the Southwest, led by a father whose inspirational leadership was too often lost in an alcoholic fog, and a mother whose commitment to freedom, art, and "excitement" overwhelmed her responsibilities to her children. The romance of life on the road and the money to fund it dried up together, and the family settled in a West Virginia mining town, where the cracks in their relationship became craters. Walls's memoir recalls this disintegration with sympathy and understanding, paying tribute to her supportive siblings but also to her flawed and unhappy parents.
Literary biographer Blake Bailey, whose subjects have included Richard Yates and John Cheever, focuses his narrative and investigative eye on his own family in his celebrated new memoir The Splendid Things We Planned. Bailey's outwardly ordinary childhood in a small Oklahoma town, the child of a wealthy lawyer and his unhappy wife, is rocked by his older brother Scott's alcoholism and worsening addictions. This vividly observed, candid, and compelling story drives relentlessly toward one fateful Christmas, and deeply questions how our lives are shaped by the accident of family.
In a memoir that has been credited with revolutionizing the genre on its publication in 1995, Mary Karr shared the unforgettable story of her east Texas childhood in The Liars' Club. Since its first appearance, the book has been reissued with a new introduction by Karr examining how her family reacted to the memoir, which depicts them in unflinching terms. Although the world she evokes is violent and volatile, peopled with an unstable mother married seven times, a hard-drinking father and his "liars' club" of tough cronies, the story that emerges is a raw, poetic, and often darkly funny testament to a family with remarkable powers of survival.
Jeanette Winterson's landmark coming-of-age novel Oranges are Not the Only Fruit portrayed a version of her religious mother as an ultimately toothless tyrant; but in her powerful memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Winterson creates a more complex figure whose influence lingers long after the author has escaped her orbit. Raised in a northern English town by a mother who eagerly awaited Armageddon and treated her adopted daughter as a sinner in need of punishment, Winterson found solace in her love of literature. Her memoir is a tough-minded examination of the legacy of a tormented childhood, the wavering line between faith and madness, and the lifelong search for home and love.
John Elder Robison's younger brother Augusten Burroughs has made a career of mining his unusual upbringing for funny, outrageous memoirs. But Robison's role in the family was marked by his undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome, which at the time was labeled as simply "deviant" behavior. For the teenager who could not make eye contact and was gripped by obsessions with machinery, the lack of a name for his condition rendered him all the more isolated, struggling to understand why he saw and interacted with the world in such unusual ways. However, his memoir Look Me in the Eye is not a story of loneliness but of the struggle to connect, and describes a funny, moving journey toward understanding himself and creating a family of his own.
After Alysia Abbott's mother died in a car accident when she was two years old, her bisexual poet father took her to San Francisco during its 1970s. Father and daughter make their home in the heart of a creative and political revolution, attending poetry readings and parties together, and moving constantly between temporary living situations. This insecurity masquerading as freedom makes the young Alysia desperate to fit in, but before she is out of her teens, the AIDS crisis starts to ravage her father's world. It is only a few more years before the virus comes home, and Alysia is forced to choose between her own independence and loyalty to her father. Abbott's memoir Fairyland weaves together Alysia's memories with her father's writings, and pays loving tribute to a unique period in the life of a family and a community.
Acclaimed Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has written two memoirs of his upbringing during a time of tumultuous change in his African homeland. Born in 1938 to one of the four wives of his father, Ngũgĩ grew up in a country chafing under British rule, and in an atmosphere of escalating violence, he took refuge in books and dreams of escape. In his memoir Dreams in a Time of War, Ngũgĩ revisits and vividly evokes his early life in a vanished rural society, and bears witness to a country fighting to emerge from colonial oppression.
Alexandra Fuller relates a very different kind of African childhood in her striking memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. Fuller was raised in what was then white-ruled Rhodesia, by parents who were fully committed to the racist project of keeping the country white-run. In the turmoil of the civil war that raged throughout her childhood, the five-year-old Fuller was taught to handle a rifle and keep a sharp, ruthless eye out for danger. Her memoir is sensitive to her parents despite their politics, and displays a warm and even-handed sympathy for her turbulent homeland.
This article originally appeared on Biographile.
Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Astoria, New York. She has written book reviews, essays, and author profiles for several publications, including The Washington Post, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Review of Books, Kirkus Reviews, The Rumpus, and Open Letters Monthly. She holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and teaches writing at NYU's Gallatin School.
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