The best books about impossible childhoods

Who am I?

I'm a writer who’s always been obsessed with early childhood. No experience we have later in life is any more emotionally charged, resonant, intense, bewildering, or wondrous as those we have as young children. A day can feel like forever; what we imagine can be so vivid as to be indistinguishable from reality; we’re not wholly sure what’s animate and inanimate; we're still at least half-feral. My interest in childhood led me to write about children’s psychology for Psychiatric Times and for the UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. Recently, I designed two related university courses that I teach at Antioch University Los Angeles: Representations of Childhood in Literature and the Trauma Memoir.


I wrote...

Don't Go Crazy Without Me

By Deborah A. Lott,

Book cover of Don't Go Crazy Without Me

What is my book about?

My book is about my own rather impossible childhood. I grew up in the 50s and 60s in a Jewish family in a very Christian neighborhood in La Crescenta, an isolated suburb in the foothills of Southern California. Everyone wanted to be – or at least appear to be – normal. It was a time of post-WWII optimism and conformity. My family did not conform. While our neighbors were athletic, churchgoing, mostly Republican, we were neurotic, sickly, leftist-leaning, and self-dramatizing. At the helm was my father – charismatic, lay rabbi at our tiny Jewish synagogue, donner of Little Lord Fauntelroy costumes, and the occasional drag. Apart from my father’s eventual descent into psychosis, and my nearly following him over the edge, we had a lot of laughs. 

The books I picked & why

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Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë, Charlotte Brontë,

Book cover of Jane Eyre

Why this book?

Jane Eyre is a book I read and teach at least once a year. Its early section about childhood is, for me, the archetype of all impossible childhoods. Jane is orphaned, misunderstood, oppressed by the awful relatives who take her in, and abused by officials of Lowood School, the institution they palm her off on. Deprivation and hunger are the daily facts of her life. Humiliation, physical “punishment,” and the threat of hell are used to control her fellow wards. She is not so easily controlled. She watches while some of her fellow children, including her beloved friend Helen Burns, die because of infections caused by unhygienic conditions and malnutrition.

Despite it all, she retains an authenticity, a sense of herself that she refuses to violate to curry favor or reduce the harshness of her treatment. She remains a truth-teller, a natural detector of the pompous and hypocritical. She questions orthodoxy, she questions the Patriarchy, she questions class, she questions the limitations placed on women. Her refusal to conform and her propensity to ask hard questions, make her one of my favorite children in literature.  

Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë, Charlotte Brontë,

Why should I read it?

24 authors picked Jane Eyre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Introduction and Notes by Dr Sally Minogue, Canterbury Christ Church University College.

Jane Eyre ranks as one of the greatest and most perennially popular works of English fiction. Although the poor but plucky heroine is outwardly of plain appearance, she possesses an indomitable spirit, a sharp wit and great courage.

She is forced to battle against the exigencies of a cruel guardian, a harsh employer and a rigid social order. All of which circumscribe her life and position when she becomes governess to the daughter of the mysterious, sardonic and attractive Mr Rochester.

However, there is great kindness and warmth…


Black Boy

By Richard Wright,

Book cover of Black Boy

Why this book?

In this classic text, racism and its attendant poverty work in tandem to smother young Richard’s development. This book begins with one of the most memorable scenes in all of literature: Richard almost sets his grandmother’s house on fire because he is just so curious about what would happen if flames met his dying grandmother’s curtains. A truth-teller like Jane Eyre, Richard refuses to accept the status quo as unchangeable – refuses to identify himself with the way society identifies him. Though nearly every act of his self-assertion is met by a counteract of suppression on the part of the adults around him, who are either preparing him to live in a racist world dominated by a white ruling class, or a part of that white ruling class, he questions everything. He calls out race as a social construction even as a child; he rails against the injustice of some people having enough to eat while others don’t; and at turning points where another person might decide to act merely out of self-preservation, he enlarges his vision of himself and strives to bring justice to the world.

Black Boy

By Richard Wright,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Black Boy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life

By Robert Goolrick,

Book cover of The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life

Why this book?

Robert Goolrick does not pretend in this memoir to have overcome or prevailed or found redemption from his horrendous childhood. Instead, he tells us the number of psychotropic prescriptions he must take every day just to be able to function. Something unthinkably awful happens in his seemingly genteel family at the hands of the father who is supposed to protect him, and as a result, he will never be the same. When he tries to tell what happened and seek comfort, let alone redress, his whole family turns on him. Yet Goolrick tells this story with an amazing lyricism and compassion. He unravels his tale slowly, protecting and preparing the reader in a way that no one in his family ever protected or prepared him. 

The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life

By Robert Goolrick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The End of the World as We Know It as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It was the 1950s, a time of calm, a time when all things were new and everything seemed possible. A few years before, a noble war had been won, and now life had returned to normal.

For one little boy, however, life had become anything but "normal."

To all appearances, he and his family lived an almost idyllic life. The father was a respected professor, the mother a witty and elegant lady, someone everyone loved. They were parents to three bright, smiling children: two boys and a girl. They lived on a sunny street in a small college town nestled…


Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

By Alison Bechdel,

Book cover of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Why this book?

Nothing ruins a childhood so much as a parent with a secret. Alison’s father is a closeted gay man who sublimates unmet desires via the “monomaniacal restoration” of their old Gothic Revival house into a kind of look-but-don’t-touch museum. His M.O. is artifice, while young Alison becomes a relentless seeker of honesty. Soon after she comes out to her parents as a lesbian, her father finally tells her haltingly some of the secrets about his own sexuality. Shortly after that, he dies, in what may have been a suicide, and she feels culpable. In richly drawn panels full of irony and layers of meaning, and text that could stand on its own even without illustration, Alison finds her way towards truth. 

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

By Alison Bechdel,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Fun Home as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

DISCOVER the BESTSELLING GRAPHIC MEMOIR behind the Olivier Award nominated musical.

'A sapphic graphic treat' The Times

A moving and darkly humorous family tale, pitch-perfectly illustrated with Alison Bechdel's gothic drawings. If you liked Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis you'll love this.

Meet Alison's father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family's Victorian home, a third-generation funeral home director, a high-school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with his male students and the family babysitter. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescence, the denouement is…


The Boys of My Youth

By Jo Ann Beard,

Book cover of The Boys of My Youth

Why this book?

This essay collection is not strictly about Jo Jo’s childhood but the pieces like “Bulldozing the Baby,” that are, are indelible. Some might argue that her childhood is not all that impossible, nothing that horrendous happens. The most tragic event for the narrator is when she accidentally damages her doll Hal, a prized transitional object, and her aunt responds by throwing him into the trash. And yet, from the perspective of the toddler JoJo, it feels tragic. Her grief is as deep as any adult’s. If the piece shows us anything, it is that the feelings of childhood are to be taken seriously. Other than that, her father drinks too much, and there is an emotional mismatch between mother and daughter. They don’t understand each other, and not having a parent who sees who you are, even if you grow up relatively privileged – not beaten, not starved, not materially deprived – can be a kind of tragedy for a child.

This book leaves me feeling that childhood, no matter how easy, is an inherently impossible state. Jo Jo’s own thoughts, feelings, sensitivity to everything going on around her is too much for her young self to comfortably contain or for anyone else around her to handle. And she can’t even tell them what is wrong. Reading The Boys of My Youth may get you back in touch with even the pre-verbal you, the inconsolable infant you, the you that it took JoAnn Beard to find words for.       

The Boys of My Youth

By Jo Ann Beard,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Boys of My Youth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The "utterly compelling, uncommonly beautiful" collection of personal essays (Newsweek) that established Jo Ann Beard as one of the leading writers of her generation.

Cousins, mothers, sisters, dolls, dogs, best friends: these are the fixed points in Jo Ann Beard's universe, the constants that remain when the boys of her youth -- and then men who replace them -- are gone. This widely praised collection of autobiographical essays summons back, with astonishing grace and power, moments of childhood epiphany as well as the cataclysms of adult life: betrayal, divorce, death.
The Boys of My Youth heralded the arrival of an…


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