The best memoirs of childhood and youth

Who am I?

As a creative nonfiction writer, I’m interested in exploring how the environments of our early years shape us. I read many different childhood memoirs while writing my own. Many of us have stories worth telling if we dig into our memories and let our creative juices flow. But it helps to have had an antagonist. The chemical stinks and pressure to conform in my hometown provided that, allowing me to use the humorous theme of escape. Everyone has had challenges to overcome, rivals, opponents, supporters, and friends, and that is the stuff of good stories. The feedback I have received indicates that, as I hoped, my memoir strikes a chord with many.

I wrote...

Kid on the Go! Memoir of My Childhood and Youth

By Neill McKee,

Book cover of Kid on the Go! Memoir of My Childhood and Youth

What is my book about?

Kid on the Go! is Neill McKee’s third work of creative nonfiction. In this memoir, McKee takes readers on a journey through his childhood, early adolescence, and teenage years from the mid-40s to the mid-60s, in the then industrially-polluted town of Elmira, Ontario, Canada—one of the centers of production for Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. McKee’s vivid descriptions, dialog, and self-drawn illustrations are a study of how a young boy learned to play and work, fish and hunt, avoid dangers, deal with bullies, and to build or restore “escape” vehicles.

You will laugh out loud as the author recalls his exploding hormones, attraction to girls, rebellion against authority, and survival of 1960s’ “rock & roll” culture. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood

Why did I love this book?

This was one of the first of many childhood and youth memoirs I read while writing my book. The author, Paul Hertneky, had a similar experience to mine in a larger immigrant-filled steel mill town, Ambridge, Pennsylvania. It’s an entertaining story of how he almost became a permanent resident, working in the mill like his father, but finally escaped this industrially-polluted environment, as I did. My hometown also had many newly-arrived immigrants and, at one time, I was also thinking of following in my father’s footsteps. The big difference is that my hometown never became part of the rust belt, although its deep water wells had to be closed down. It grew in size and the chemical factory, which once produced DDT and Agent Orange, remains in place today, very close to houses, but with more environmental controls. Still, the parallels between our two stories are interesting. 

By Paul Hertneky,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

These stories are specific to one legendary riverfront plateau and one boy's journey, but are emblematic of immigrant life and blue-collar aspirations during the heyday of American industry and its crash, foreshadowing one of the largest internal migrations in U.S. history. Approximately six million baby boomers, like the narrator, fled the Rust Belt. Another six million remained and stories of their youth, struggles, and aspirations echo throughout this book. Pittsburgh alone attracts die-hard affinity with its scattered natives.

Boy: Tales of Childhood

By Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake (illustrator),

Book cover of Boy: Tales of Childhood

Why did I love this book?

I was heavily influenced by the storytelling and humor in this memoir, as well as the comic and childish cover and illustrations. Although I had a very different upbringing, I wrote in a similar style. Roald Dahl's tales of his own childhood are completely fascinating and fiendishly funny, especially for adults. He tells of crazy conflicts in his English schools with headmasters and teachers, and I had similar experiences. He writes of a visit to a chocolate factory, whereas our town’s factories were not so innocent. The air was filled with the by-products of pesticide, herbicide, plastics, fertilizer, and steel castings production, as well as a slaughterhouse. Roald Dahl employed a professional illustrator to add humor, whereas I decided to learn how to draw, coming up with over 50 illustrations to amplify the humor.

By Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Boy: Tales of Childhood is the story of Roald Dahl's very own boyhood.

Including takes of sweet-shops and chocolate, mean old ladies and a Great Mouse Plot - the inspiration for some of his most marvellous storybooks in the years to come. These tales are full of exciting and strange things - some funny, some frightening, all true.

'An autobiography is a book a person writes about their own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiogrpahy' - Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl, the best-loved of children's writers, was born in Wales…

Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover,

Book cover of Educated: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

I chose this book because Tara Westover’s childhood was, in every way, the opposite of mine. First of all, growing up as a girl in a rural setting with fundamental religious and autocratic parents, she had little freedom. She was homeschooled until age 17. It’s an amazing story of resilience, as she battles to escape this environment and get an education, eventually journeying over oceans and across continents. Most bestselling memoirs are about such people who fought against such odds and won. But many of us have great foundational stories to tell that are full of struggles and cultural battles, even if our parents were loving and nurturing. I, too, left my hometown to go far away, but it was ordinariness and pressure to conform, plus environmental pollution that caused me to leave.

By Tara Westover,

Why should I read it?

17 authors picked Educated as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



'One of the best books I have ever read . . . unbelievably moving' Elizabeth Day
'An extraordinary story, beautifully told' Louise O'Neill
'A memoir to stand alongside the classics . . . compelling and joyous' Sunday Times

Tara Westover grew up preparing for the end of the world. She was never put in school, never taken to the doctor. She did not even have a birth certificate…

Book cover of Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir

Why did I love this book?

I recommend this book because it takes the reader to a totally different world of a child growing up in the 1940s and 50s in Kenya, East Africa, during the war between the British colonials and Mau Mau freedom fighters. The author was born into a typical African compound ruled by a patriarch with four wives. He had many adventures in his attempts to escape the restrictions of his native culture. In Chapter 3 of my memoir, titled “First Dreams of Africa,” I describe how I saw shapes which looked like African animals on a hill, the other side of the chemical factory and town dump. That’s when I started to dream about going to a more verdant faraway land. Ngugi wa Thiong'o became a novelist and playwright and I became an international film and media producer, and much later a creative nonfiction writer. 

By Ngugi Wa Thiong'o,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dreams in a Time of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Dreams in a Time of War, Ngugi wa Thiong'o paints a mesmerising portrait of a young boy's experiences in an African nation in flux.

Beginning in the late 1930s, this moving and entertaining memoir describes Ngugi's day-to-day life as the fifth child of his father's third wife in a family that included twenty-four children born to four different mothers. Against the backdrop of World War II, which affected the lives of Africans under British colonial rule in unexpected ways, Ngugi spent his childhood as the apple of his mother's eye before attending school to slake what was then considered…


By TW Neal,

Book cover of Freckled

Why did I love this book?

I was attracted to the word “wild” in the title of this childhood and youth memoir. It’s stories by a girl, Toby Neal, whose parents were hippie surfers on the beautiful and empty beaches of Kauai, Hawaii, during the 1960s and 70s. By most people’s standards, they’d be regarded as negligent parents, even more so today. Living day to day, they didn’t care about giving her a proper home or food. But they loved her and gave her great freedom to explore. She learned how to survive, building her life skills. The other thing about Toby Neal’s memoir is that I learned a great deal about the cultures of Hawaii. My parents loved me and my siblings and ensured we had a comfortable home and good food, but they also gave us similar freedom to explore and learn about our strange hometown, which frequently got me into trouble—the stuff of storytelling.

By TW Neal,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Freckled as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For fans of The Glass Castle and Educated, comes mystery author Toby Neal’s personal story of surviving a wild childhood in paradise. We never call it homeless. We're just "camping" in the jungle on Kauai...

We live in a place everyone calls paradise. Sure, Kauai’s beautiful, with empty beaches, drip-castle mountains, and perfect surf...but we’ve been "camping" for six months, eating boiled chicken feed for breakfast, and wearing camouflage clothes so no one sees us trespassing in our jungle hideout. The cockroaches leave rainbow colors all over everything from eating the crayons we left outside the tent, and now a…

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