14 Unpredictable Memoirs Detailing Unconventional Childhoods

Not all kids grow up with a nuclear family in a house with a white picket fence. The memoirs listed here delve into the formative years of people who have dealt with everything from poverty to serious illness to neglect. Reading these personal stories is a great way to gain a new perspective. This video was made with Ezvid Wikimaker.

Unique Memoirs About Growing Up: Our 14 Picks

Title Author
1. Driving with Dead People Monica Holloway
2. Leaving Story Avenue Paul LaRosa
3. Dreams in a Time of War Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
4. A Certain Loneliness Sandra Gail Lambert
5. 100 Years Mark L. Baynard
6. The Choke Artist David Yoo
7. Little Heathens Mildred Armstrong Kalish
8. All Better Now Emily Wing Smith
9. Excavation Wendy C. Ortiz
10. Monsoon Mansion Cinelle Barnes
11. I'm Still Here Austin Channing Brown
12. From Our House Lee Martin
13. Almost a Family John Darnton
14. The 5 Greatest Spankings of All Time Rob Wood

The History of Memoirs

Memoirs can be traced back all the way to the days of Ancient Rome. Julius Caesar wrote about his experience in battle in his work Commentarii de Bello Gallico, which translates to Commentaries on the Gallic War. Documenting life is also a longstanding custom in Japan. The Japanese tradition of Nikki bungaku, or poetic diary, dates back to around the year 935. This unique form of journaling is made up of several autobiographical poems, interspersed with sections of prose. In the 18th century, memoirists were generally people who were exceptional in their profession, who wrote in order to provide the public with an official account of their exploits. In the 20th century, many of these books began to focus on war, especially World War II, a subject that has been explored for decades through all sorts of media. Memoirs written by ordinary people began to gain popularity in the early 1990s, as a result of technological advances (such as the Internet) that made it easier for people to share their stories with the world.

8 Great Movies Based on Memoirs

  1. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
  2. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
  3. A Mighty Heart (2007)
  4. Eat Pray Love (2010)
  5. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
  6. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
  7. October Sky (1999)
  8. Persepolis (2007)

How to Write a Memoir

In Depth

For some kids, growing up is anything but ordinary. Whether it's dealing with quirky family dynamics, battling debilitating illnesses, or going to great lengths to fit in with their peers, children can be remarkably resilient when faced with challenges. In no particular order, here are fourteen unpredictable memoirs about unconventional childhoods.

Kicking off our list at #1 is "Driving with Dead People" by Monica Holloway. While her peers focused on toys and playing outdoors, Holloway preferred the solitude of lounging in caskets at a funeral home. Her morbid fascination began with her father, who always kept a camera on hand in case there was a disaster to document. As the family dysfunction continued to grow during her teen years, she sought comfort in death and found a job driving a hearse for a local mortician. In this memoir, Holloway recounts how her troubled childhood left deep and lasting scars.

At #2 we have "Leaving Story Avenue" by Paul LaRosa. In the late 1970s, LaRosa is living in a housing project in the Bronx. As his neighborhood transitions from peaceful to dangerous, the young adult knows he needs to make a change. He lands a job as a copy boy at "The New York Daily News," one of the most widely-circulated newspapers in the country. As LaRosa climbs up the ranks and becomes a reporter, he has a ringside seat to the debauchery of writing for a tabloid. In this humorous and sometimes cringe-worthy story, the Emmy-award winning writer recounts how the staff churned out gripping articles for their readers despite the chaos.

As LaRosa climbs up the ranks and becomes a reporter, he has a ringside seat to the debauchery of writing for a tabloid.

#3 is Ngugi wa Thiong'o's memoir, "Dreams in a Time of War." Post-World War II, a young Thiong'o resided in rural Kenya with his polygamous family. During this time, European colonists claimed fertile farmland as their own and forced the villagers to adopt Christian-based customs. Even in the face of rising tensions that culminated with the Mau Mau Rebellion, his mother fostered his thirst for knowledge and encouraged him to go to school.

Coming in at #4 is "A Certain Loneliness" by Sandra Gail Lambert. Polio strikes Lambert as a child, and her freedom is eroded bit by bit. As the years pass, the disease robs her of her mobility, and she moves from braces to crutches to a wheelchair. Lambert bravely pushes herself to be as independent as possible. She kayaks, skis, and travels solo, all the while trying to quell the ever-present loneliness she feels. Lambert's collection of personal essays about her youth through her mid-30s is an honest and inspiring look at living life with a disability.

For #5 we have "100 Years" by Mark L. Baynard, which chronicles how the author's life changed following the realization that his family had collectively spent 100 years behind bars. Baynard found crime at a young age. As a teen, he experimented with drugs and resorted to selling them on the streets. But the law caught up to him quickly, and he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Wanting to break the cycle of incarceration, Baynard decided to change his ways after his release in 2004. After working with at-risk youth on the precipice of making similar mistakes, the author describes his pathway to finding a new purpose in life.

Wanting to break the cycle of incarceration, Baynard decided to change his ways after his release in 2004.

At #6 is "The Choke Artist" by David Yoo, in which the author paints a vivid picture of his teenage years as a Korean American in a predominately white town in Connecticut. Desperate to fit in with his high school peers, Yoo tried to distance himself from hurtful Asian stereotypes. He changed his appearance by hiding under bulky layers of clothing and even went as far as removing moles that looked too "foreign." Yoo's memoir examines the complexities of being a minority in high school and his journey to self-acceptance.

#7 is "Little Heathens" by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. At the height of the Great Depression, five-year-old Kalish and her siblings were living on their grandparents' farm in rural Iowa. She had little time to dwell on her father's absence, and instead focused on helping out on the farm. Life for the young girl was a cycle of chores: milking the cows, tending to the pigs, and picking peas in the field. Looking back on her childhood, Kalish reminisces about the value of hard work and the small pleasures she found along the way, despite living in the toughest of economic times.

At #8 we have "All Better Now" by Emily Wing Smith. Angry outbursts and dizzy spells were constant companions for Smith as a young girl. Even with frequent visits to therapists, she never felt quite "right." Alone and misunderstood, Smith's only escape was the make-believe world she created for herself. At twelve, while in the hospital recovering from a horrific accident, she finally received an answer to her mental and physical issues when doctors discovered a large tumor in her skull. Owing her life to a twist of fate, Smith recounts her childhood struggles and the near-fatal accident that ended up saving her.

Angry outbursts and dizzy spells were constant companions for Smith as a young girl.

#9 is "Excavation" by Wendy C. Ortiz. In the late '80s and early '90s, Ortiz is living in Los Angeles with her alcoholic parents. As an only child, she is lonely, insecure, and desperate to find comfort. A charismatic teacher crosses her path when she's thirteen, and he quickly becomes the solace she seeks. Thus begins a five-year relationship with a man fifteen years older than she is. Although the perpetrator encourages her to explore her passion for writing, he also brainwashes her into keeping their relationship a secret. Ortiz's story reflects on life as a vulnerable teenager and highlights her personal growth after surviving sexual abuse.

Coming in at #10 is "Monsoon Mansion" by Cinelle Barnes. At the young age of three, Barnes lived a lavish life in the Philippines. The ten-room Mansion Royale served as a playground for Barnes and her only brother and was a sign of social status for her parents. But a few years later, a devastating monsoon upended their lives. Her father disappeared, her brother became entangled in drug abuse, and her mother took in a controlling and abusive lover. With an adult's perspective, Barnes looks back on the family's once picture-perfect life and the resilience of the little girl she once was.

At #11 we have "I'm Still Here" by Austin Channing Brown. At birth, Brown's parents carefully selected the name "Austin" for her, knowing that prospective employers in the future would falsely assume it belonged to a white male. From a young age, Brown was acutely aware of racial inequality. Public schools, colleges, places of worship, and businesses all claimed they embraced diversity, but they always fell short. Looking back on her childhood, the author shines a light on what it means to be a person of color in the United States.

Public schools, colleges, places of worship, and businesses all claimed they embraced diversity, but they always fell short.

For #12 we find "From Our House" by Lee Martin. When Martin was an infant, his father tragically lost both hands in a farming accident. The once strong, hard-working man was now bitter and angry, especially towards his wife and son. For years, Martin endured both physical and mental abuse while his mother stood by helplessly. From an older, wiser perspective, the author writes about his childhood being a constant contradiction of loving and despising his father and how, through his mother's persistent love, he learned to forgive.

At #13 is "Almost a Family" by John Darnton. Darnton is less than a year old when his father, a war correspondent for "The New York Times," is killed in World War II. Wanting her sons to know their father, Darnton's mother tells them vivid stories of his successes. To Darnton, his father is a god, and he finds himself following in his old man's footsteps. It's not until after his mother passes away that he and his historian brother unearth the truth about the man they looked up to.

And last, #14 is "The 5 Greatest Spankings of All Time" by Rob Wood. Post-World War II, Wood was living on a small ranch with his parents and two brothers. The boys were mischievous and a little unruly at times. Looking back on his youth, Wood recounts the five scenarios where he and his brothers received their biggest spankings and the antics that warranted the punishments. From destroying a pig roast to setting fire to the garage, he gives a glimpse into the chaos of a house filled with three rambunctious boys.