The best books that evoke the magic (and miseries) of childhood

Why am I passionate about this?

Growing up in a Kentucky coal-mining community, I enjoyed reading about the lives of other people and how their experiences differed from mine. I read biographies of famous people, such as Paul Revere or Stephen Foster, and an occasional memoir, such as Harlan Ellison writing about infiltrating a juvenile gang or David Gerrold revealing how he came to write for Star Trek. Fiction also took me to places that I had never seen. But something about a coming-of-age tale especially resonated with me and I hope these recommendations will help you make that same connection with how others have navigated the magic and miseries of childhood. 


I wrote...

Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV

By Ronnie Blair,

Book cover of Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV

What is my book about?

This memoir of growing up in a Kentucky coal-mining community from the late 1950s to the early 1970s weaves history, popular culture, and geography into a nostalgic journey interspersed with tales of coal-strike tensions and humorous family adventures. Eisenhower Babies is a celebration of the eccentricities of 1960s small-town life, where a police officer might promise to give a four-year-old his gun once the officer ran out of bullets, a neighbor could return from a Florida vacation with a live baby alligator as a new pet, and the children of World War II veterans waged imaginary battles against Hitler’s treachery in their hillside backyards.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Ronnie Blair Why did I love this book?

The title might sound like fiction, but the Thunderbolt Kid is simply an imaginary superhero version of himself that Bryson created as a child. Mostly, this trope is used sparingly throughout the book, which is a memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s. Bryson brings plenty of humor to the work, as well as a wistful nostalgia for the era. He is roughly a decade older than me, but I identified greatly with his descriptions of the time period. Plus, he and I were both fans of The Roy Rogers Show on TV, though Bryson seems a little more put off than I was about how the show couldn’t seem to decide which century the characters were living in.

By Bill Bryson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From one of our most beloved and bestselling authors, a vivid, nostalgic, and utterly hilarious memoir of growing up in the 1950s.

Born in 1951 in the middle of the United States, Des Moines, Iowa, Bill Bryson is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24 carat memoir gold. Like millions of his generation, Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero. In his case, he ran around the house wearing a jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel round his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings…


Book cover of An American Childhood

Ronnie Blair Why did I love this book?

Annie Dillard, probably best known for her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is masterful with words and brings all of her writing abilities to this memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh. For a city girl, she is especially entranced by nature as she gathers in her bedroom a rock collection that seems to foretell a career as a geologist that never happened. But it’s her tales of her father that are the most striking to me because as a child I didn’t know any fathers quite like him. He once set off alone on a long-planned river trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Most wonderful of all, he had a role in the 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead. Finally, think of the title Dillard chose for her memoir: An American Childhood. In many ways, her childhood was no more unique than any other American’s childhood, yet she makes it compelling all the same, and so her experience is representative of what many of us went through.

By Annie Dillard,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"[An American Childhood] combines the child's sense of wonder with the adult's intelligence and is written in some of the finest prose that exists in contemporary America. It is a special sort of memoir that is entirely successful...This new book is [Annie Dillard's] best, a joyous ode to her own happy childhood."  — Chicago Tribune

A book that instantly captured the hearts of readers across the country, An American Childhood is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard's poignant, vivid memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 60s. 

Dedicated to her parents - from whom she learned a love…


Book cover of Eastern Sun, Winter Moon: An Autobiographical Odyssey

Ronnie Blair Why did I love this book?

Gary Paulsen is best known for his novels for young people, such as the popular Hatchet, but this R-rated memoir is aimed at an adult audience. Of my five recommendations, this one is far and away the most representative of the miseries of a dysfunctional childhood. Paulsen’s parents were both alcoholics, and his mother had affairs that she could have done a much better job of hiding from her young son. Somehow, despite the trauma (or maybe because of it), Paulsen emerged as a successful and extraordinarily prolific writer. For those of us with wonderful childhood memories, this book serves as a reminder that not everyone is so lucky.

By Gary Paulsen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eastern Sun, Winter Moon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work describes the author's experiences as a child during World War II. Along with his mother, who is alternatively protective and selfishly neglectful, Paulsen travelled to the Philippines to live with his father, a distant and imperious army officer.


Book cover of Morningstar: Growing Up with Books

Ronnie Blair Why did I love this book?

I was a huge bookworm as a boy, so I identified greatly with Ann Hood’s memoir that focuses on her own love of reading, which she developed as a child growing up in Rhode Island. While I still enjoy reading as an adult, nothing matches the way I could lose myself in a Hardy Boys adventure or a Doctor Dolittle tale as a youngster. Hood captures this total-book-immersion experience as she recalls reading Little Women, one of the first books to whisk her away to a different world. The title of this memoir refers to another of Hood’s beloved books, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk.

By Ann Hood,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In her admired works of fiction, Ann Hood explores the transformative power of literature. Now, with warmth and honesty, Hood reveals the personal story behind these works of fiction.

Growing up in a household that didn't foster the love of literature, Hood channelled her imagination and curiosity by devouring The Bell Jar, Marjorie Morningstar, The Harrad Experiment and other works. These titles introduced her to topics that could not be discussed at home: desire, fear, sexuality and madness. Later, Johnny Got His Gun and The Grapes of Wrath influenced her political thinking and Dr. Zhivago and Les Miserables stoked her…


Book cover of The Yearling

Ronnie Blair Why did I love this book?

My only fiction pick, this classic novel set in Florida in the 1870s is about 12-year-old Jody Baxter and his friendship with a fawn. I became familiar with this coming-of-age tale in an unusual way. In seventh grade, I was on a school speech team, and one of the other kids competed in the storytelling competition using an excerpt from The Yearling. That excerpt included the moment when Jody’s father talks to him about becoming a man: “What’s he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.” That phrase stuck with me, and was even more powerful years later when I read the novel in its entirety and learned all that Jody had gone through by the time he and his father reached that moment.

By Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Yearling is a novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings published in March 1938. It has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, French, Japanese, German, Italian, Russian and 22 other languages. It won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.
Rawlings's editor was Maxwell Perkins, who also worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other literary luminaries. She had submitted several projects to Perkins for his review, and he rejected them all. He advised her to write about what she knew from her own life, and The Yearling was the result.


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Liddy-Jean Marketing Queen and the Matchmaking Scheme

By Mari Sangiovanni,

Book cover of Liddy-Jean Marketing Queen and the Matchmaking Scheme

Mari Sangiovanni

New book alert!

What is my book about?

Introducing the irrepressible Liddy-Jean Carpenter, a young woman who has learning disabilities but also has a genius plan.

While Liddy-Jean spends her days doing minor office tasks with nobody paying attention, she sees how badly the wand-waving big boss treats the Marketing Department worker bees. So, she takes lots of notes for a business book to teach bosses to be better. Liddy-Jean likes office-mate Rose and Rose’s new friend Jenny, but she doesn’t like Rose’s creepy boyfriend. So how can she save Rose?

Liddy-Jean knows with certainty that love is love, and she concludes that Rose should be with Jenny, bosses should do better, and everybody needs the services of Liddy-Jean, Marketing Queen.

Liddy-Jean Marketing Queen and the Matchmaking Scheme

By Mari Sangiovanni,

What is this book about?

Novelist and filmmaker Mari SanGiovanni introduces readers to the irrepressible Liddy-Jean Carpenter, a matchmaker with special talents who will charm readers with her wit, wisdom, and sensibilities in this warm, enchanting love-is-love office romance.

Liddy-Jean Carpenter has learning disabilities. But she also has a surprisingly genius plan.

While she spends her days doing minor office tasks with nobody paying attention, she sees how badly the wand-waving big boss treats the Marketing Department worker bees. So, she takes lots of notes for a business book to teach bosses to be better.

While compiling pages of bad behavior notes, she finds she…


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