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. 

The books I picked & why

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Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood

By Paul Hertneky,

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

Why 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. 

Boy: Tales of Childhood

By Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake (illustrator),

Book cover of Boy: Tales of Childhood

Why 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.

Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover,

Book cover of Educated: A Memoir

Why 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.

Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir

By Ngugi Wa Thiong'o,

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

Why 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. 

Freckled: A Memoir of Growing up Wild in Hawaii

By T.W. Neal,

Book cover of Freckled: A Memoir of Growing up Wild in Hawaii

Why 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.

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