The best books about childhood

30 authors have picked their favorite books about childhood and why they recommend each book.

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Mornings on Horseback

By David McCullough,

Book cover of Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt

It’s inspiring to read how a sickly boy became the larger-than-life figure who dominated turn of the century America. Although born into a famous and wealthy family, the young Theodore’s future seemed hopeless because of his repeated bouts with an illness that almost killed him. But through his own will, and with the inspiration and support of his remarkable family, he managed to overcome his ailment and grow into robust and productive manhood. McCullough’s discovery of a rich cache of family letters allowed him to create a fine-grained and moving narrative about how this exceptional man came to be.

Who am I?

After more than thirty years of teaching Russian literature and culture at Yale and Harvard, and publishing numerous academic articles and monographs, I switched to writing historical biographies for a general audience. The catalyst was my discovery of Frederick Bruce Thomas, the remarkable son of former slaves in Mississippi who became a multimillionaire impresario in tsarist Moscow and the “Sultan of Jazz” in Constantinople. This resulted in The Black Russian, a widely praised biography that is now well on track to being made into a TV series. I am always drawn to stories of people whose grit makes them rebel against the limits that life seems to impose and allows them to achieve something transcendent.

I wrote...

To Break Russia's Chains: Boris Savinkov and His Wars Against the Tsar and the Bolsheviks

By Vladimir Alexandrov,

Book cover of To Break Russia's Chains: Boris Savinkov and His Wars Against the Tsar and the Bolsheviks

What is my book about?

A biography of the Russian revolutionary who spent his life fighting to transform his homeland into a liberal and democratic republic, and about whom Winston Churchill said "few men tried more, gave more, dared more and suffered more for the Russian people.” A complex and fascinating individual, Boris Savinkov was a paradoxically moral terrorist, a scandalous novelist, a friend of epoch-defining artists and writers, a government minister, an organizer of private armies, and an advisor to senior statesmen. At the end of his life, he allowed himself to be captured by the Soviet secret police, but, as I argue in my book, he did so because he had a secret plan to strike one last blow against the tyrannical regime. Savinkov’s epic life challenges many popular myths about the Russian Revolution, and his goals remain a poignant reminder of how things in Russia could have been, and how, perhaps, they may still become someday. 

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

By Beauvoir Simone De, James Kirkup (translator),

Book cover of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is a classic. First published in France in 1958, it’s the opening volume of an autobiographical trilogy. This exploration of the childhood and young womanhood that created the world-famous writer and intellectual is compendious, descriptive – and alert at every turn, as befits the mother of existentialism, to how the emerging psyche understands the world around it.

Who am I?

Fiona Sampson is a leading British poet and writer, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, awarded an MBE for services to literature. Published in thirty-seven languages, she’s the recipient of numerous national and international awards. Her twenty-eight books include the critically acclaimed In Search of Mary Shelley, and Two-Way Mirror: The life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and she’s Emeritus Professor of Poetry, University of Roehampton.

I wrote...

Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

By Fiona Sampson,

Book cover of Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

What is my book about?

Born into an age when women could neither own property once married nor vote, Barrett Browning seized control of her private income, overcame long-term illness, eloped to revolutionary Italy with Browning, and achieved lasting literary fame. A feminist icon, political activist, and international literary superstar, she inspired writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf. The first biography of Barrett Browning in more than three decades, with unique access to the poet's abundant correspondence, Two-Way Mirror holds up a mirror to the woman, her art, and the art of biography itself.

Borrowed Finery

By Paula Fox,

Book cover of Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

Paula Fox, the late great novelist and revered children’s book author, wrote a wonderful memoir of effectively not having parents. Oh, Fox’s parents were around, but they were drunk, careless, and inattentive, often shuffling young Paula to and from locales as varied as Hollywood and pre-Revolutionary Cuba. Her parents are depicted in this memoir as both monstrous and sympathetic, providing aspiring memoirists with a model of artful ambivalence. The book is also filled with extraordinary walk-ons by Orson Welles, James Cagney, Stella Adler, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a beautiful book by one of the most effortlessly commanding writers this country has ever produced. (Full disclosure: As a twenty-eight-year-old greenhorn editor, I had the pleasure of line-editing this book, which wasn’t editing so much as polishing silver.)

Who am I?

I'm a journalist, fiction writer, and screenwriter, as well as the author of ten books, the most recent of which is Creative Types and Other Stories, which will be published later this year. Along with Neil Cross, I developed for television The Mosquito Coast, based on Paul Theroux’s novel, which is now showing on Apple TV. Currently, I live with my family in Los Angeles.

I wrote...

The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

By Tom Bissell,

Book cover of The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

What is my book about?

In 2003, my father John and I traveled to Vietnam together. My dad was a Marine Corps combat veteran of the war, and the trip marked his first return to the country that shaped and nearly destroyed him. The Father of All Things is my account of our journey, but also an examination of the myths, history, and complexity of the war and how it affected generations of families, both American and Vietnamese.

In March of this year, my father passed away at 79. I loved my father deeply and am still coming to terms with understanding how it is that this man could be gone. In the aftermath of his death, I picked up and reread the books you'll read about below, looking for ways to understand what I was feeling and how I could cope with my loss. They helped. Every single one of them helped.

The Splendid Things We Planned - A Family Portrait

By Blake Bailey,

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

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.

Who am I?

My first memoir, Overlay, has been called “the very best teenage suicide prevention tool ever created” for which I am eternally grateful. I've been told that it's a miracle I survived my childhood at all, but I don't take credit or satisfaction in that statement. Instead, I've aspired to understand what it is that gives some of us the grit that allows us to power through the unfathomable. Voraciously reading similar stories from my fellow authors continues to inform me that we all have the power to push through the pain of a disadvantaged childhood. Whether it's an inner light, luck, fate, a higher power or some combination of some or all of the above, I don't know. I do know that the children like me who grew up to tell their story with the hope of helping others deserve a read. And sometimes, a good cry.

I wrote...

Overlay: One Girl's Life in 1970s Las Vegas

By Marlayna Glynn,

Book cover of Overlay: One Girl's Life in 1970s Las Vegas

What is my book about?

This award-winning author delivers her addicting breakout novel—a mesmerizing memoir epic destined to become a classic. Set in transient 1970s Las Vegas, Overlay is the fighting-to-come-of-age story of a resilient child born into a cycle of alcoholism and abandonment. The author develops a powerful sense of self-preservation in contrast to the fallen adults entrusted with her care. 

Her profound story explores the characters and events populating her life as she moved from home to home, parent to parents, family to family, ultimately becoming homeless at fourteen. Out of the resources of her remarkable childhood emerges a gripping inner strength that will charm and captivate readers and remain in their consciousness long after the last page of her story has been turned.

Before The Storm

By Marion, Countess Dönhoff,

Book cover of Before The Storm: Memories of My Youth in Old Prussia

Marion Dönhoff was born into privilege, 1909, at Schloss Friedrichstein, one of the largest semi-feudal estates in East Prussia, and her memoir lovingly recreates her childhood there amongst a family of cultured and benevolent Junkers. The values they espoused were contrary to everything Nazism represented, but that did not prevent the deaths of nearly all her adult male relatives in either combat or purges after the failed assassination plot against Hitler in 1944. In 1945 she, along with thousands of other refugees, fled west during harsh winter weather, as the Red Army ruthlessly advanced for Berlin and victory. Dönhoff, on a horse from the Friedrichstein stables, rode alone over 800 miles to safety. From 1946 until her death in 2002, she was associated (as both editor and publisher) with the prestigious, Hamburg-based weekly newspaper, Die Zeit. Her memoir is exceptional.

Who am I?

I am what is euphemistically called an "independent scholar," meaning I have no academic affiliation, no straightforward road I must follow (in order, let’s say, to gain tenure), and no duty per se to follow a pre-ordained or politically correct point of view. But being a "freelance"  has obligations which I take very seriously. I feel that my job, in any subject I choose to pursue, is to engage the reader in a joint venture. I must instill in them the same enthusiasm I have for whatever I’m writing about, which in this case is the history of Prussia, and the state of this footprint on earth which war and ceaseless conflict have rearranged countless times. To do that, I usually take an often oblique and "off the radar" approach that I think will pull the reader along with me, making the journey for both of us something that matters.

I wrote...

The Vanished Kingdom: Travels Through the History of Prussia

By James Charles Roy,

Book cover of The Vanished Kingdom: Travels Through the History of Prussia

What is my book about?

Twice in this century Germany initiated wars of unimagined terror and destruction. In both cases, defense of the "Prussian" realm, the heartland of old Germany, was the justification. Few today understand with any precision what "Prussia" means, either geographically or nationalistically, but neither would they deny the psychic resonance of the word: unbridled militarism, the image of the goose-stepping Junker. 

The final catastrophe for Prussia was World War II, when nearly two million refugees fled in the face of Russian forces, perhaps the greatest dislocation of a civilian population during that war. Prussia became, and remains, a geography in shambles. When the Wall came down I determined to see for myself if anything still remained of the old order, and if what replaced it was for the better or worse. The results, generally speaking, were not very pretty, though the search itself was fascinating. The Vanished Kingdom is a concise travelogue with narrative history, along with many photographs and illustrations.

The Disappearance of Childhood

By Neil Postman,

Book cover of The Disappearance of Childhood

Postman was a hugely erudite and witty writer. When I discovered this book in the 1990s, I was immediately convinced by his argument that our modern conception of ‘childhood’ is connected with the invention of the printing press … and with human progress over succeeding centuries. I was just as convinced by his concern that the recent explosion of screen-based culture would have profound effects on childhood and, indeed, on the quality of human thought. I’m therefore deeply honoured that Toxic Childhood is now on an ‘A’ Level Sociology syllabus alongside The Disappearance of Childhood – can’t believe that we’re sitting on the same shelf!   

Who am I?

As a primary head teacher, then literacy consultant, I wrote many books about education but at the age of 50 I changed tack. A meeting with a researcher who’d discovered an alarming decline in young children’s listening skills led to eight years’ research on the effects of modern lifestyles on children’s development. It involved many interviews with experts on diet, sleep, play, language, family life, childcare, education, screen-time, marketing influences and parenting styles – and a great deal of reading. By the time Toxic Childhood was first published in 2006 I’d realised that, in a 21st century culture, society should be paying far more attention to child development, especially in the early years. I hope to go on spreading that message until my dying breath.

I wrote...

Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It

By Sue Palmer,

Book cover of Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It

What is my book about?

What’s happening to childhood today? Why does one child in five now suffer from mental health problems or behavioural and learning difficulties? How has the rapid rise of digital media impacted children’s lives?

In this ground-breaking book, Sue Palmer presents up-to-date research on the toxic cocktail of factors affecting today’s children. She also provides sound advice on ‘detoxifying childhood’, including the vital importance of real food and real play for children’s development, why sleep is essential to learning – and how to ensure children get enough of it, childcare and education – what works best for different age groups, protecting children from aggressive marketing and excesses of celebrity culture, and the dangers (and benefits) of growing up in an unpredictable yet unavoidable digital age.

The Girl in the Picture

By Denise Chong,

Book cover of The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War

Telling the story of the girl who became an international icon when the Associated Press published a photograph of her running from napalm bombing in her village in 1972, Denise Chong’s The Girl in the Picture offers insight into the day-to-day lives of South Vietnamese villagers who simply wanted to survive. Caught between the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese military and the National Liberation Front, villagers often had family members fighting on both sides of the war, not because of divergent ideological beliefs, but because repressive recruitment efforts left young men no choice but to enlist. Through the eyes of Kim Phuc, Denise Chong’s book humanizes life on the ground in a war zone and describes what happened when U.S. troops left the country.

Who am I?

I fell into researching women’s antiwar activism during the U.S. war in Vietnam by chance when I came across evidence of middle-aged American women traveling to Jakarta, Indonesia in 1965 to meet with women from North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front—the enemies of the United States at the time. Discovering that some of these same U.S. women (and many others), would later travel to Hanoi despite the United States conducting extensive bombing raids over North Vietnam, despite travel to North Vietnam being prohibited, and despite some of the women having young children at home, simply astounded me, and I had to find out more.

I wrote...

Women's Antiwar Diplomacy During the Vietnam War Era

By Jessica Frazier,

Book cover of Women's Antiwar Diplomacy During the Vietnam War Era

What is my book about?

In 1965, fed up with President Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to make serious diplomatic efforts to end the Vietnam War, a group of female American peace activists decided to take matters into their own hands by meeting with Vietnamese women to discuss how to end U.S. intervention. While other attempts at women’s international cooperation and transnational feminism have led to cultural imperialism or imposition of American ways on others, Jessica M.Frazier reveals an instance when American women crossed geopolitical boundaries to criticize American Cold War culture, not promote it.

The American women not only solicited Vietnamese women’s opinions and advice on how to end the war but also viewed them as paragons of a new womanhood by which American women could rework their ideas of gender, revolution, and social justice during an era of reinvigorated feminist agitation.

A Tale of Love and Darkness

By Amos Oz,

Book cover of A Tale of Love and Darkness

This book is both a coming-of-age memoir for the author and the State of Israel. It’s a masterpiece! I was holding my breath (and had tears streaming down my face) as I read his description of the night the neighborhood gathered by the radio to listen to the UN vote on establishing a Jewish state.

Who am I?

I’ve always believed that history isn’t a dry record of events; it’s a portal to the human soul, one that connects us to all the people who lived before. Diving into books about the history of the Jewish people connects me not only intellectually, but also emotionally. I was inspired to write Rebel Daughter as soon as I learned of the ancient gravestone of a Jewish woman. I was so intrigued by the unlikely but true love story the stone revealed that I spent the next ten years with some of the world's leading scholars and archaeologists to bring the real characters to life as accurately as possible. I have degrees from Princeton and Harvard and live in Israel.

I wrote...

Rebel Daughter

By Lori Banov Kaufmann,

Book cover of Rebel Daughter

What is my book about?

Rebel Daughter transports the reader to one of the most dramatic and momentous events in human history – the destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st century. This stunning tale of family, love, and resilience was inspired by a major archaeological discovery in southern Italy: the 2,000-year-old gravestone of Claudia Aster (Esther). The few Latin words chiseled into the ancient stone, proof of a very unlikely romance, shocked and intrigued scholars around the world.

Rebel Daughter is Esther’s story. This emotional and impassioned saga, based on real characters and meticulous research, seamlessly blends the fascinating story of the Jewish people with a timeless protagonist determined to take charge of her own life against all odds.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

By Alexandra Fuller,

Book cover of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

When I first read Alexandra Fuller’s memoir twenty years ago, I felt so glad that someone had finally put words to what I experienced as an expatriate youth in Africa. The book inspired me to speak my own story, which had been hiding inside me for 40 years, suppressed every time I sidestepped the question, “Where are you from?” My family was quite different than Fuller’s. We came to Ethiopia from midwestern America, not England. My father was a doctor, not a farmer.  And there was no alcohol in our teetotalling missionary bungalow. But Fuller, with her story of Rhodesia’s turbulent movement toward independence, spoke to my own complicated relationship to a people and land that I loved but could never fully claim. 

Who am I?

Ever since spending seven years of my youth in East Africa, I have read the literature of that continent. I have relished the incredible novels of authors like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Maaza Mengiste, but I have also sought out stories of those who entered Africa from outside, wanting to confirm my experience and to make sense of it. My reading has included masterpieces like Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone or Ryszard Kapuscinski’s journalistic expose The Emperor. But here are a few personal memoirs that have given me a basis for my own understanding of being an expatriate shaped profoundly by life in Africa.  

I wrote...

Chameleon Days: An American Boyhood in Ethiopia

By Tim Bascom,

Book cover of Chameleon Days: An American Boyhood in Ethiopia

What is my book about?

In 1964, at the age of three, I was thrust into a radically different world when my family moved from midwestern America to the highlands of Ethiopia. Like the herky-jerky chameleon that I found outside a classroom where my missionary parents were learning to speak Amharic, I saw two directions at once, struggling to integrate two hemispheres of experience. Sent reluctantly to boarding school in the capital, I found that beyond the gates enclosing our peculiar, western enclave, conflict roiled Ethiopian society. When secret riot drills at school were followed by an attack by rampaging students near my parents' mission station, I witnessed Haile Selassie’s empire crumbling, and I felt parallel tremors in my family, which had been strained to breaking point by American, evangelical idealism.

A Country Called Childhood

By Jay Griffiths,

Book cover of A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World

It is something of a commonplace that the most important subjects in life are somehow the least amenable to the long essay. Where are the great books on love, grace, revelation, understanding, or peace? 

And what about childhood? Everyone has one, and many people want to be parents, but where are the transformative and indispensable books on this subject? Now we have one, at last, this capacious, passionate, searching, learned book, by one of the most gifted prose stylists writing in English in the present day. It’s beautiful to read, and essential for our cultural moment. 

Who am I?

The first person I ever trusted in the world was a high-school English teacher, a woman named Margaret Muth. She plucked me out of a trash-can, literally and figuratively. When I was seventeen years old, she told me: “Books will teach you. They will help you. Choose books the way you choose the risks you take in life: do it patiently, thoughtfully. Then give yourself to them with a whole heart. This is how you learn.” This is one sentence, from one teacher, given to a teenager of decidedly crude and primitive material—one sentence that changed his whole life for the better. Bless her. 

I wrote...

The Hot Climate of Promises and Grace: 64 Stories

By Steven Nightingale,

Book cover of The Hot Climate of Promises and Grace: 64 Stories

What is my book about?

The book collects the stories of sixty-four women the writer has known during his idiosyncratic and exploratory life. These women are keen, strange, ardent, and their labors and playfulness in our world and in our time are a testimony of mischief, invention, laughter, and magical initiative. They are everywhere. They do everything: they are doctors, writers, burglars, investment bankers, rebels, painters, college students, bartenders, hikers, healers in the rain forest of Jamaica, securities attorneys in San Francisco….

Each has their own destined work. And they show us, each of them, the hidden reality of that work in a very few pages of revelation.

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