The best memoirs on surviving traumatic childhoods

The Books I Picked & Why

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir

By Frank McCourt

Book cover of Angela's Ashes: A Memoir

Why this book?

If you don't mind a good sob by the beginning pages of this magnificent ode to poverty-ridden Limerick, Ireland, then dig right in. I cried when Frank McCourt passed, because his skill in managing to tell such a sad and hopeless tale and keep you rooting for the success of his family is unmatched in the memoir world. 

You will want to pull these children from the pages of this book and bring them into your home. You will want to feed them and clothe them. However, it is McCourt's gift of the gab that will keep you reading, desperate to know that something must have worked in their favor. Although it wasn't you, somebody and something magnificent stepped in on behalf of these children. Angela's Ashes is the best testament to grit ever written.

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Another Hill and Sometimes a Mountain

By Tim Green, Marlayna Glynn

Book cover of Another Hill and Sometimes a Mountain

Why this book?

You think you had a tough childhood? Meet Tim Green. Born blue into an uneducated, poor, and incestuous family in 1950s Ohio, it's a wonder this child lived at all. However, grit and forces of luck arrived to meet Tim when he needed help. Luck involved the right policemen, care workers, social workers, and foster parents. Grit involved the resolve of Tim himself.

Like Frank McCourt, Tim Green learned early to look on the bright side of life. You'll read the most shocking things you can imagine in this book that will leave you shaking your head at the things people will do. But Tim maintained the idea that not only was he worth something, but so was everyone around him. He learned how to forgive, and that was his rocky path to the fabulous life he lives today. This book is LGBTQ positive.

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The Splendid Things We Planned - A Family Portrait

By Blake Bailey

Book cover of The Splendid Things We Planned - A Family Portrait

Why this book?

No one wants to know a troubled, addicted family member isn't going to beat their demons. But knowing the ending at the beginning makes reading this difficult story possible. Bailey tells a relatable story that breaks down his brother's struggles and their effect upon the family in a way that those of us who share similar stories can relate to. The reader can see how and where things went wrong with Blake's brother Scott, while recognizing that there wasn't anything anyone could have done to prevent the ending.

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The Tender Bar: A Memoir

By J.R. Moehringer

Book cover of The Tender Bar: A Memoir

Why this book?

While most children from tough backgrounds won't necessarily want to read a book about a bar, J.R. Moehringer is able to get us to do so. Why? Because nothing horrible happens. A fatherless boy who searches for The Voice of his father who was a DJ, young J.R. finds the corner bar to be the best replacement for his voiceless father. This is one memoir that doesn't hurt too much. In fact, it's a testament to the human spirit when people, particularly children, find ways to find love and acceptance outside of the family.

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The Glass Castle

By Jeannette Walls

Book cover of The Glass Castle

Why this book?

I read this book while driving cross-country. To say I couldn't wait to find my hotel for the night and dig back into the book doesn't cover it as I'm pretty sure I read this book at stoplights as I passed through small towns. In fact, it was after reading The Glass Castle that I wrote my first memoir in just three short weeks. I was on fire and inspired by Jeanette Walls to get my story out there, too.

While I've picked up many books about disadvantaged childhoods, I've put many right back down if I found them to be too triggering. The skill in telling a story about a tough childhood is not hitting the reader too hard. Jeannette Walls and the other authors I have mentioned above are to be commended for describing pain with simplicity, and occasionally, humor. We can feel we are in the story without experiencing the downsides. This is quite a feat.

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