The best books about surviving rotten families that you’ll never forget

Why am I passionate about this?

The stories I write are fiction, but I’ve heard hundreds of tales about survival, and family drama. I’m the secret-keeper everyone confides in. From the time I was a teen, friends shared their secrets with me. Later, as a healthcare worker, patients often told me shocking true-life stories. What started these events? How did the victims overcome the horrors? I found their tales fascinating. I invent characters that face nightmarish challenges, and they must use the tools they have to persevere. Just like in real life. My novels shed light on darker, twisted topics. 


I wrote...

Book cover of Run Girl Run

What is my book about?

Sixteen-year-old Tracie lives in a house divided by fear and a family secret she has yet to discover. Her grandma gives her a hint and the tools to unearth the past. Are the clues the answer to her prayers? If so, she’ll take her younger brother and split.  

When her dad is in one of his violent rages, opportunity pounds on Tracie’s door. A male friend offers her an escape. But there’s a catch. She can’t sneak her brother out with her parents watching, and her dad demands her friend leave immediately.  On a whim, she goes. After all, he just wants to keep her safe and swears to have her best interest at heart. Exposing the secret may save Tracie and her little brother, but at what cost?

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Take Me With You When You Go

Ellen Y. Mueller Why did I love this book?

I liked the suspense baked into this story of a runaway girl, Bea. The entire novel was written in emails, mostly between her and her brother, Erza. Each exchange demonstrated their tight sibling bond and their unhappy home life since their parent’s divorce. 

Bea leaves home after receiving a mysterious Twitter message from who she believes is her birth father. She hasn’t seen her dad in years and lives far from him. The story centers on escaping her abusive stepfather, apathetic mother, and her need to reconnect with her father. But she’s taking a risk by meeting a stranger from Twitter. Could he really be her long-lost dad or someone else?

By David Levithan, Jennifer Niven,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Take Me With You When You Go as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?


Subject: You. Missing.

Ezra wakes one day to find his sister gone. No note, no sign, nothing but an email address hidden somewhere only he would find it.

Escaping their toxic home life, Bea finds herself alone in a new city - without friends, without a real plan - chasing someone who might not even want to be found.

As things unravel at home for Ezra, Bea confronts secrets about their past that will forever change the way they think about their family. Separated by distance but connected by love, this brother and sister must learn to trust themselves before…


Book cover of Girl with a Pearl Earring

Ellen Y. Mueller Why did I love this book?

This is a book I’ve read more than once. I sympathized with Griet, the main character and enjoyed reading about her world, set in 1600s Holland. When her father goes blind and is unable to support the family, Griet’s mother forces her to work as a maid for a wealthy painter. No longer allowed to live at home, Griet moves in with the painter’s family. He is smitten with Griet despite his pregnant wife’s disapproval. Griet struggles to fulfill her work duties while everyone else resents her presence. I loved the ending of this story.

By Tracy Chevalier,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Girl with a Pearl Earring as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The New York Times bestselling novel by the author of A Single Thread and At the Edge of the Orchard

Translated into thirty-nine languages and made into an Oscar-nominated film, starring Scarlett Johanson and Colin Firth

Tracy Chevalier transports readers to a bygone time and place in this richly-imagined portrait of the young woman who inspired one of Vermeer's most celebrated paintings.

History and fiction merge seamlessly in this luminous novel about artistic vision and sensual awakening. Girl with a Pearl Earring tells the story of sixteen-year-old Griet, whose life is transformed by her brief encounter with genius . .…


Book cover of Memoirs of a Geisha

Ellen Y. Mueller Why did I love this book?

My heart broke for Chiyo and her sister when their mother died. Not entirely because they were motherless, but because their father sold them. These two uneducated girls from a poor fishing village had no advocate.

 A geisha house-bought Chiyo, while her older, unattractive sister was sent away to work in the seedy sex district. The descriptions in this book made me forget I was reading. It was an incredible survival story.

By Arthur Golden,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Memoirs of a Geisha as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'An epic tale and a brutal evocation of a disappearing world' The Times

A young peasant girl is sold as servant and apprentice to a renowned geisha house. Many years later she tells her story from a hotel in New York, opening a window into an extraordinary half-hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degradation and summoning up a quarter of a century of Japan's dramatic history.

'Intimate and brutal, written in cool, lucid prose it is a novel whose psychological empathy and historical truths are outstanding' Mail on Sunday


Book cover of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Ellen Y. Mueller Why did I love this book?

This was the first chapter book I remember reading when I was a little girl, and I still love the story. Set during the early 20th century, Francie, her younger brother, and their mom struggle to survive. The children hoard trash to sell to the junk man for the pennies he pays them on Saturday. Their mother works as a janitress in exchange for rent and a few dollars. Their father works as a singing waiter, but drinks away his earnings. 

I followed Francie from age eleven to age seventeen. I felt like I knew her and was cheering for her to find a better place in her world. This novel highlighted what it was like to grow up impoverished in a city where everyone seems to notice and judge. 

By Betty Smith,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A PBS Great American Read Top 100 Pick

A special 75th anniversary edition of the beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the twentieth century.

From the moment she entered the world, Francie Nolan needed to be made of stern stuff, for growing up in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn, New York demanded fortitude, precocity, and strength of spirit. Often scorned by neighbors for her family’s erratic and eccentric behavior―such as her father Johnny’s taste for alcohol and Aunt Sissy’s habit of marrying serially without the formality of divorce―no one, least of all Francie, could…


Book cover of Black and Blue

Ellen Y. Mueller Why did I love this book?

I found the chase in this book exhilarating. Francess, the main character, married the wrong man. When she and her child are constantly living in fear of a beating, she’s compelled to take her son and escape. With precise planning and help, she runs.  

No longer able to work in her chosen field, nursing, she must accept a different job in a strange town while using a new identity. I was interested in seeing how she’d cope. She and her son must adjust to their unfamiliar life, while aware that her husband will never stop tracking them. 

By Anna Quindlen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old.'

For eighteen years Fran Benedetto kept her secret, hid her bruises. She stayed with Bobby because she wanted her son to have a father, and because, in spite of everything, she loved him. Then one night, when she saw the look on her ten-year-old son's face, Fran finally made a choice - she ran for both their lives.

Now she is starting over in a city far from home, far from Bobby. She uses a name that isn't hers, watches over her son, and tries to forget. For…


You might also like...

Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

Book cover of Snow on Magnolias

Betty Bolte Author Of Notes of Love and War

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Author Editor Traveler Crocheter Reader

Betty's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Magnolia Merryweather, a horse breeder, is eager to celebrate Christmas for the first time after the Civil War ended even as she grows her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after the terror of the past four years. Only, all of her plans are thrown into disarray when her secret lover returns and starts asking questions she can’t answer without disaster following.

Bryce Day comes home to Alabama after he’s discharged from the First Alabama Cavalry USA with guilt weighing on his heart. His neighbors won’t cotton to his Unionist bent, and the woman of his heart likely…

Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

What is this book about?

One terrible lie, a desperate measure to save her past, just might destroy her future…

Award-winning author of historical fiction presents a new novel of love and lies, secrets and sensuality, and the hands of fate weaving it all together.

The American Civil War is finally over and Christmas beckons. Magnolia Merryweather, backyard horse breeder, is eager to celebrate for the first time since the war began even as she continues to grow her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after all the terror of the past four years. She’s preparing to follow in her mother’s matriarchal footsteps,…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in poverty, Japan, and abuse?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about poverty, Japan, and abuse.

Poverty Explore 93 books about poverty
Japan Explore 493 books about Japan
Abuse Explore 12 books about abuse