The best books about the heartbreakingly poignant and complex lives of children

Why am I passionate about this?

I wondered, seven novels in, why I’d never written in the voice of a child, and it so happened that Our Picnics in the Sun, the eighth novel, required me to do just that. In doing my research I discovered an oddity. Writers of fiction assume the right to enter the head or consciousness or identity of their characters. The oddity is that you might expect a writer to write, without too much difficulty, from the point of view of a child: after all, the writer has been a child. But it turns out that childhood experience is often elusive, evades interpretation, and is the hardest to capture on the page.

I wrote...

Our Picnics in the Sun: A Novel

By Morag Joss,

Book cover of Our Picnics in the Sun: A Novel

What is my book about?

In Our Picnics in the Sun I wrote one of the narrative strands from the point of view of a child, Adam. Until then, I got to know my adult characters through a kind of osmosis: absorbing, rather than inventing, their wholly imagined lives. So, I thought, having been a child myself, won’t writing Adam be as much about memory as imagination? Mightn’t it be a little easier?

It wasn’t. Writing Adam taught me that there is no generic ‘child’s view’ of anything. Childhood isn’t one thing or even a thing at all. There are writers who know this more profoundly than I, who capture childhoods in all their complex, fragmented, puzzling variations. Here are five of them, whose children rise off the page and enter the heart.
Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Housekeeping

Morag Joss Why did I love this book?

The first time I read Housekeeping, as soon as I finished I went back to the beginning and read it again. I wanted to keep it by me; Robinson’s beautiful prose is captivating: fluent and lyrical, yet spare. A haunting story of two sisters and their strange upbringing in Fingerbone (the town and lake of Fingerbone are characters too), Housekeeping deals with what psychologists now call ‘generational trauma’. But it does more than that: it captures an elusive, layered, childhood experience of loneliness that amounts to something spiritual and transformative. Yes, it’s sad. But above all it’s beautiful; I still read this book every two or three years.

By Marilynne Robinson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award

A modern classic, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, the eccentric and remote sister of their dead mother.

The family house is in the small town of Fingerbone on a glacial lake in the Far West, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town "chastened by an outsized…

Book cover of The Girl with the Louding Voice

Morag Joss Why did I love this book?

This novel taught me more about Nigeria than I could ever have learned from reading scholarly histories. Adunni is the narrator of her own story, and her voice has the rhythms, textures, and energy of a child bursting to express herself – to locate and validate herself – in a life where she struggles for agency. Daré gives us the political, economic, and cultural context of modern Nigeria whose forces work mostly against Adunni, but it’s never didactic. Adunni is compelling, admirable, and adorable, but while you sense she will ultimately break her bonds, she evokes thousands of Nigerian girls who won’t. The ending seemed to be setting us up for a sequel – hurray!

By Abi Daré,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Girl with the Louding Voice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The most uplifting debut of 2020

'Unforgettable' New York Times 'Impressive' Observer 'Remarkable' Independent 'Important' Guardian 'Captivating' Mirror 'Luminous' Daily Mail 'Sparkling' Harper's Bazaar 'Beautiful' Herald


I don't just want to be having any kind voice . . .
I want a louding voice.

At fourteen, Adunni dreams of getting an education and giving her family a more comfortable home in her small Nigerian village. Instead, Adunni's father sells her off to become the third wife of an old man. When tragedy…

Book cover of Girl with Dove

Morag Joss Why did I love this book?

A wonderful and slightly maddening memoir, this (it’s nonfiction, Jim, but not as we know it). Bayley survived her childhood by absorbing books. She evokes the worlds of David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, and everything Agatha Christie ever wrote, by ventriloquising and interweaving the voices of those stories with the story of her own parental neglect, thereby insisting, if dreamily, that the boundaries between her reliable book-land and her unstable real-life-land will remain blurred. It’s only slightly maddening (I did much the same as a child; part of me will always be Katie tumbling out of the swing). The book’s deliberate ambiguities suggest that Bayley is claiming sanctuary, reserving the right not to divulge what is still too unbearable to relate, and why shouldn’t she? It’s an amazingly honest, touching book.

By Sally Bayley,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'The word "mesmerising" is frequently applied to memoirs, but seldom as deservedly as in the case of Girl With Dove' Financial Times

'Reading is a form of escape and an avid reader is an escape artist...'

Brilliantly original, funny and clever Honor Clark, Spectator, Book of the Year

Growing up in a dilapidated house by the sea where men were forbidden, Sally's childhood world was filled with mystery and intrigue. Hippies trailed through the kitchen looking for God - their leader was Aunt Di, who ruled the house with charismatic force. When Sally's baby brother vanishes from his pram, she…

Book cover of Shuggie Bain

Morag Joss Why did I love this book?

I love this novel for personal as well as literary reasons and I can’t separate the two. It’s by a Scottish writer, and it’s a debut, as if Douglas Stuart waited until he could write this story perfectly. Maybe he also had to wait for courage; Shuggie Bain, although not autobiographical, is personal to the author. The realities and humiliations of alcoholism, poverty, and love are written unembellished, put on record from a child’s point of view. It’s a hard, unsentimental love that triumphs, imperfectly – Shuggie at the end is still terrifyingly vulnerable. This is where it gets personal for me: the strangling emotions, the frantic, divided loyalties of the child of an alcoholic parent. It’s not cosy, but it’s transcendent. It’s all about love.

By Douglas Stuart,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Shuggie Bain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


A stunning debut novel by a masterful writer telling the heartwrenching story of a young boy and his alcoholic mother, whose love is only matched by her pride.

Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.

Shuggie’s mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she…

Book cover of Lullabies for Little Criminals

Morag Joss Why did I love this book?

O’Neill shoved me right into the real world of her novel, as intended. The narrator ‘Baby’ (could there be a more ironically named protagonist?) is the 12-year-old daughter of a heroin-addicted father, a single parent. The story revolves around Baby’s adolescence amid her neglect and its repercussions, her descent into criminality. My heart just beat alongside Baby’s. Your heart would have to be of granite not to beat alongside Baby’s. This is what fiction does. 

By Heather O'Neill,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Lullabies for Little Criminals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Baby is twelve years old. Her mother died not long after she was born and she lives in a string of seedy flats in Montreal's red light district with her father Jules, who takes better care of his heroin addiction than he does of his daughter. Jules is an intermittent presence and a constant source of chaos in Baby's life - the turmoil he brings with him and the wreckage he leaves in his wake. Baby finds herself constantly re-adjusting to new situations, new foster homes, new places, new people, all the while longing for stability and a 'normal' life.…

You might also like...

A Theory of Expanded Love

By Caitlin Hicks,

Book cover of A Theory of Expanded Love

Caitlin Hicks Author Of A Theory of Expanded Love

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

My life and work have been profoundly affected by the central circumstance of my existence: I was born into a very large military Catholic family in the United States of America. As a child surrounded by many others in the 60s, I wrote, performed, and directed family plays with my numerous brothers and sisters. Although I fell in love with a Canadian and moved to Canada, my family of origin still exerts considerable personal influence. My central struggle, coming from that place of chaos, order, and conformity, is to have the courage to live an authentic life based on my own experience of connectedness and individuality, to speak and be heard. 

Caitlin's book list on coming-of-age books that explore belonging, identity, family, and beat with an emotional and/or humorous pulse

What is my book about?

Trapped in her enormous, devout Catholic family in 1963, Annie creates a hilarious campaign of lies when the pope dies and their family friend, Cardinal Stefanucci, is unexpectedly on the shortlist to be elected the first American pope.

Driven to elevate her family to the holiest of holy rollers in the parish, Annie is tortured by her own dishonesty. But when “The Hands” visits her in her bed and when her sister finds herself facing a scandal, Annie discovers her parents will do almost anything to uphold their reputation and keep their secrets safe. 

Questioning all she has believed and torn between her own gut instinct and years of Catholic guilt, Annie takes courageous risks to wrest salvation from the tragic sequence of events set in motion by her parents’ betrayal.

A Theory of Expanded Love

By Caitlin Hicks,

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Nigeria, girls, and friendships?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Nigeria, girls, and friendships.

Nigeria Explore 65 books about Nigeria
Girls Explore 87 books about girls
Friendships Explore 1,371 books about friendships