117 books directly related to childhood 📚

All 117 childhood books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

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

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

Why this book?

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.

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

By Beauvoir Simone De, James Kirkup (translator),

Book cover of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

Why this book?

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.

Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

By Paula Fox,

Book cover of Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

Why this book?

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.)

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.

Before The Storm: Memories of My Youth in Old Prussia

By Marion, Countess Dönhoff,

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

Why this book?

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.

The Disappearance of Childhood

By Neil Postman,

Book cover of The Disappearance of Childhood

Why this book?

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!   

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

By Denise Chong,

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

Why this book?

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.

A Tale of Love and Darkness

By Amos Oz,

Book cover of A Tale of Love and Darkness

Why this book?

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.

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

By Alexandra Fuller,

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

Why this book?

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. 

A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World

By Jay Griffiths,

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

Why this book?

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. 

Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier

By Wallace Stegner,

Book cover of Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier

Why this book?

Stegner was an American writer who viewed nature not only as a complex set of ecosystems but as a state of mind. In a letter to Congress, he famously stated that we need to preserve wilderness as a means of “reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” Wolf Willow stands out for me because it speaks of a place on the prairies that I have explored. It is also storytelling at its best.

Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings

By Jane Yolen, Christine Davenier (illustrator),

Book cover of Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings

Why this book?

What experiences might children have that inspire them to write poetry? Author Yolen brings readers into the Dickinson home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where young Emily scribbles on scraps of paper in her father’s study. Emily reads her three-word poem to her parents, to the flowers in the garden, and to Mrs. Mack, who provides encouragement that’s as warm and appreciated as the desserts they share. Just as Emily takes time to ponder what is the essence of a poem, this imagined story unfolds at an unhurried pace. That pace, combined with the engaging illustrations, permits readers to linger on small moments and let their own imaginations wander. Poetry takes time, just as growing up does.

Suffer the Children

By John Saul,

Book cover of Suffer the Children

Why this book?

Unlike the other authors on this list who mostly write about adult characters, John Saul writes almost exclusively about children (at least he has in all the books I’ve read by him). I chose Suffer The Children for this list because it was the first book he wrote back in 1977, I believe. There are some disturbing moments in it, as there are in most horror novels, so be aware of that. However, Saul is a talented author who can effortlessly get into the heads of the kids he writes about. He’s also a master of the slow-burn, building suspense page by page until the big pay-off, so if you don’t need action every other sentence, he might be right up your alley.

Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards

By Josh Wilker,

Book cover of Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards

Why this book?

Anyone who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies remembers baseball trading cards, using sold with a flat stick of gum. Wilker doesn’t just remember them; he uses them as a narrative device. Each chapter of this touching and honest memoir about growing up in the Me Decade is based around one card in his collection (Tom Seaver, Wade Boggs, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, and many more) and the year and memories it evokes. What could have been a glib gimmick is transformed into a smart and insightful way to recall a life and a decade. 

This Boy's Life: A Memoir

By Tobias Wolff,

Book cover of This Boy's Life: A Memoir

Why this book?

Celebrated author and Stanford professor Tobias Wolff recounts his perilous teenage years in the 1950s Pacific Northwest. Clever, conniving Toby (self-named Jack Wolff) will do whatever it takes to reinvent himself in a memoir full of larger-than-life characters, thrilling events, emotional rollercoasters of betrayals, broken dreams, and hard-won triumphs, all conveyed in prose so lucid that the book has been college assigned for its poetic honesty at the sentence level for decades. Guaranteed you’ll be floored by what it takes for Wolff to ultimately transcend the merciless circumstances of his life. 

Child Life in Colonial Times

By Alice Morse Earle,

Book cover of Child Life in Colonial Times

Why this book?

Children of the 17th and 18th centuries were raised far more strictly than today. In the 17th century, initially without schools, they would likely be uneducated. Encouraged to walk as soon as possible, children would be incorporated into the work of the family at an early age, to ensure the survival of the community. Alice Morse Earl conducted years of research, based on letters, official records, diaries, and other accounts to create and detailed portrait of a child’s world of that time. For me, it answered questions, such as: Did the children work? How were they educated? How did parents teach respect, manners, and religion? How were children disciplined? Were children allowed to play and what toys or games did they have? I found her book to be enormously helpful in creating the life of Mary Allerton as a child in the Plymouth Colony and the home life of the children in the home of Mary and Thomas Cushman.

The Chain

By Adrian McKinty,

Book cover of The Chain

Why this book?

This book made me wonder.

Rachel’s daughter has been kidnapped, and to get her back, Rachel must pay a ransom and abduct another child. The kidnapper is another mother whose child has been kidnapped—by someone else whose child has been kidnapped, by someone else whose... Well. You get the idea. As I tore through this novel, I couldn’t help wondering what I would do in that situation. Could I actually kidnap somebody else’s child? I still don’t have an answer, but watching this ingenious plot unfold was a rollercoaster ride I’ll never forget.


By Nathalie Sarraute, Barbara Wright (translator),

Book cover of Childhood

Why this book?

This book is so subtle and intelligent that it makes me smile at almost every line. Sarraute hates nothing more than clichés and the narcissistic self-indulgence of memoirs. In Childhood, the inner dialogue between the narrator and her memory allows her to avoid these pitfalls and resurrect the past with an amazing emotional accuracy. The questions asked by her critical self deepen her memory and lead to a delicate, vivid, and funny rendering of her childhood at the beginning of the twentieth century in Paris between her divorced Russian parents.

The Magic Kingdom

By Stanley Elkin,

Book cover of The Magic Kingdom

Why this book?

Eddy Bale becomes a crusader for children after the death of his own young son and decides to take a group of terminally ill children to Disneyland for a holiday. The antic hyperbolic tone of the narration is utterly at odds with the grave subject matter and the novel is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking.  

Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood

By bell hooks,

Book cover of Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood

Why this book?

Because my first introduction to bell hooks was through her scholarly writing, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this memoir. A few pages in, I was already dazzled, challenged, and addicted to her storytelling genius—I read it in one sitting and immediately began reading it again. The perfect memoir for those who are looking for unconventional storytelling, hooks uses techniques like point-of-view shifts to paint a realer-than-real-life portrait of her childhood in rural Kentucky.  

Elsewhere: A Memoir

By Richard Russo,

Book cover of Elsewhere: A Memoir

Why this book?

A memoir of his mother and his life in Glovershville, New York from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. It is utterly unfair that such a singular writer of fiction can be this deft at non-fiction. The best piece of advice I ever got as a writer was “Make your characters complicated…” Some characters, like Jean Russo, come complicated out of the factory. (By the way, Russo is a friend, and once told me at a book event in his honor that he felt like a fraud. So, I am in fine company). 

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life

By Annette Lareau,

Book cover of Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life

Why this book?

This is one of the best books ever written about anything! It’s a classic that remains underappreciated even after its big role in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. First, it’s entertaining. The author’s team got to know dozens of white-collar and working-class families up close. They lived in these families’ homes. They slept over, watched TV, and brushed their teeth with them; accompanied them to supermarkets, doctor’s appointments, and parent-teacher conferences. It’s crazy! After reading this book it seems impossible to believe that advantageous parenting (1) doesn’t matter all that much or (2) is something “anyone can do if they put their mind to it.” In an appendix Lareau describes what a monumental, stressful, and awkward undertaking it was to observe people like specimens in every aspect of their private lives.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

By Laurie Lee,

Book cover of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

Why this book?

Still in his teens and a young poet in the making, Lee set out in the 1930s from his village in the rural west of England, first to walk to London and then to take a boat to Spain. Landing with no return ticket and little knowledge of where he was, he walked across the country earning his keep by playing his violin on the streets. His story captures the romance of Spain, plus its drama and tensions of the time.

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

By Sujatha Gidla,

Book cover of Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

Why this book?

We learn about our family and our place in the world through the stories our older generations tell us. This is such a memoirnot about the author but about her (famous) uncle and mother. To me, it has the feel of numerous family gatherings where old stories are dredged up and the youngsters listen with wide eyes and keen ears of a time before their time. Situated deep in the Telugu hinterland in the south, this memoir presents an intimate personal narrative layered with the communist and caste politics of the first decades after Independence.

The Corfu Trilogy

By Gerald Durrell,

Book cover of The Corfu Trilogy

Why this book?

Many enjoyed The Durrells of Corfu TV series, and Gerald was the young man so obsessed with local wildlife he eventually created a private zoo. He put his and his family's years in Corfu into this memoir combining his love of Nature with sharp-edged portraits of family members. He creates a vision of an 'earthly paradise,' and his contrasting evocation of those around him to that paradise immediately felt at home to me. I survived my childhood in part by turning to the natural world, not to classify but simply to become part of its own natural rhythms which I found so much more benign than the tense family currents within my home. I write of my own "Earthly Paradise" in my book.

Too Close to the Falls

By Catherine Gildiner,

Book cover of Too Close to the Falls

Why this book?

Too Close to the Falls is hilarious and moving with a dark side that at first is undetectable. Gildner's memoir is richly absorbing and captures childhood's essence, where each experience is a lesson. In the 1950s, Too Close to the Falls is an exquisite, haunting portrayal of friendships, brushes with death, and how a schoolgirl affects the course of aboriginal politics. Memorable and skillfully told.

Shostakovich: A Life Remembered

By Elizabeth Wilson,

Book cover of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered

Why this book?

Having studied cello in Soviet Russia in the 1960s, Elizabeth Wilson used her extensive musical contacts to produce this unique study of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the most innovative composers of the 20th century. Prompted by Wilson’s queries, family members, friends, fellow musicians, and other artists offered their recollections that might have otherwise been lost. Gathered together these testimonies offer a gripping picture of Shostakovich as an artist and a man. They describe his extraordinary successes and his struggles for survival and dignity during the brutal Stalinist purges and horrors of World War II. One of the most moving testimonies sheds light on the creation and the first performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 which, in the world of music, became a symbol of resistance to fascism and all forms of totalitarianism anywhere.

Royal Bastards: The Birth of Illegitimacy, 800-1230

By Sara McDougall,

Book cover of Royal Bastards: The Birth of Illegitimacy, 800-1230

Why this book?

For much of Western history, birth out of wedlock has been a serious barrier to inheritance and succession. It is often assumed that this attitude arrived alongside Christianity: yet, McDougall explains that the medieval world actually cared very little about the circumstances of one’s birth until the thirteenth century. What historians have consistently misinterpreted as concern for legitimate birth was instead dogged insistence that a legitimate marriage existed only when husband and wife were of equivalent status. This is particularly relevant when it comes to an heir’s “throneworthiness.” It was not sufficient for a king to be the son of a great man with a remarkable patriline; the matriline had to be every bit as impressive to qualify him for the throne.

McDougall’s eminently readable and thought-provoking book reveals how the misogynistic assumptions of modern-day historians have gotten in the way of understanding medieval dynasties. Historians have preferred to see queens merely as vessels, while medieval kings and their subjects instead welcomed them as scions of great families and astute political partners whose own family connections were vital to successful rule.

Playing with History: American Identities and Children's Consumer Culture

By Molly Rosner,

Book cover of Playing with History: American Identities and Children's Consumer Culture

Why this book?

Toys! Dolls! Amusement Parks! They aren’t just playthings and play places; they are part of our national character and our consumer culture, as well as our private objects and experiences. Childhood is manufactured—created in our homes, communities, schools, and yes, by play. This book has a lot to say about our history but it is also a fun reminder of the things many of us grew up with or wish we had. It just might have you rooting through your attic or old photo books.

The Children of Willesden Lane: A True Story of Hope and Survival During World War II

By Mona Golabek, Lee Cohen,

Book cover of The Children of Willesden Lane: A True Story of Hope and Survival During World War II

Why this book?

A beautiful read set otherwise on a very dark backdrop. Learning of Lisa Jura’s journey on the Kindertransport to a country she’s never been to at the age of fourteen, really exemplifies the very difficult, and not fair, choices parents were forced to make during this time period. However, the memoir really demonstrates the power of music and hope to uplift and fulfill many human needs.

What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing

By Bruce D. Perry, Oprah Winfrey,

Book cover of What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing

Why this book?

Dr. Bruce Perry, a well-known trauma expert, neuroscientist, and psychiatrist, and icon Oprah Winfrey break down mental illness barriers and hold conversations with emotionally struggling individuals. Instead of asking, “What is wrong with you?” they ask, “What events in your past led to how you feel and act today?” Trauma, especially childhood trauma, is covered, with the emphasis on how to renew one’s personal sense of worth and become more resilient. Readers learn what can cause trauma and lack of self-worth and how individuals can become strong, thrive, and move successfully through life. What experiences can lead to resilience rather than trauma? In these days of high stress, we must learn how to build each others’ self-determination and strengths that make us better humans.  

North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both

By Cea Sunrise Person,

Book cover of North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both

Why this book?

The full title of this memoir by Cea Sunrise Person is North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Counter Culture Family, and How I Survived Both, which basically sums up this fascinating and wild ride through Cea’s unconventional upbringing in a pot-smoking, free-loving, clothing-optional, canvas tipi-sleeping, non-conforming family in the Canadian wilderness. Gaining this unique view into the psychology and emotional fallout of the eccentric family lifestyle was shocking, heart-breaking, and inspirational all at once. You will never read another book quite like it.

We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust

By Jacob Boas,

Book cover of We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust

Why this book?

Yes, it’s heartbreaking to know that these young people died in the Holocaust, but their words live on.  The author, who is a Holocaust survivor, does an outstanding job of putting each diarist’s thoughts, dreams, and hopes—and fears—in context with his gifted commentary.  Among the excerpted diaries featured in this book is the most famous of them all—Anne Frank’s.

Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South

By Melton A. McLaurin,

Book cover of Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South

Why this book?

Separate Pasts is McLaurin’s account of his 1950s boyhood in the tiny hamlet of Wade, North Carolina, years when the Jim Crow system still reigned. He describes the complex, interconnected lives of the town’s white and black families, and his own confusion as he tried to make sense of the contradictions he observed in his world. A painfully honest account of a white boy’s reckoning with the legacies of segregation and oppression, McLaurin reveals how his own relationships with black neighbors undermined the racist beliefs he was taught.

Beatrix Potter, Scientist

By Lindsay H. Metcalf, Junyi Wu (illustrator),

Book cover of Beatrix Potter, Scientist

Why this book?

We all know Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated Peter Rabbit and other children’s books, but how many people are aware that young Beatrix was a groundbreaking mushroom scientist? In Beatrix Potter, Scientist, Metcalf unveils the secret scientific side of Beatrix Potter, long before her books became classics. Beatrix studied all sorts of fungi, discovering a mushroom known as the Old Man Of The Woods, but as a female she was prohibited from presenting a scientific paper to London’s Linean Society. I love one of this book’s underlying messages, that someone can be an artist AND a scientist; there’s no need to choose one or the other. There’s also a terrific author’s note and strong supporting end matter for further study.

The Basketball Diaries: The Classic about Growing Up Hip on New York's Mean Streets

By Jim Carroll,

Book cover of The Basketball Diaries: The Classic about Growing Up Hip on New York's Mean Streets

Why this book?

This is the New York City “classic” rock-n-roll, basketball-playing, bad behaving, love life chasing, down and dirty poetic feel-good like a young god book. You have to read this whip-smart, live life to the fullest, see-it-all book set in NYC. After you read this book you will move there because you’ll be addicted to the literary electricity in this book.

Creepy Susie: And 13 Other Tragic Tales for Troubled Children

By Angus Oblong,

Book cover of Creepy Susie: And 13 Other Tragic Tales for Troubled Children

Why this book?

The stories are twisted and disturbing, and the artwork is just as awesome. This is the sort of book to give a kid (or even an adult) who says they don’t like reading. The books they beat you over the head with at school are boring enough to turn anyone into a non-reader; this little gem may just be the antidote to this situation.

Boy: Tales of Childhood

By Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake (illustrator),

Book cover of Boy: Tales of Childhood

Why this book?

I was heavily influenced by the storytelling and humor in this memoir, as well as the comic and childish cover and illustrations. Although I had a very different upbringing, I wrote in a similar style. Roald Dahl's tales of his own childhood are completely fascinating and fiendishly funny, especially for adults. He tells of crazy conflicts in his English schools with headmasters and teachers, and I had similar experiences. He writes of a visit to a chocolate factory, whereas our town’s factories were not so innocent. The air was filled with the by-products of pesticide, herbicide, plastics, fertilizer, and steel castings production, as well as a slaughterhouse. Roald Dahl employed a professional illustrator to add humor, whereas I decided to learn how to draw, coming up with over 50 illustrations to amplify the humor.


By Frederick Busch,

Book cover of Girls

Why this book?

Girls is not written by a Nordic author but feels very Nordic Noir… so I am giving it an honourable mention. 

Jack and Fanny’s baby daughter has died, and they are struggling to cope. Jack, a Vietnam Vet, is trying desperately to find ways to bring them back together. A fourteen-year-old girl goes missing, and Jack turns his focus to finding her, as if this could be their redemption.

Girls is the perfect read. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Clean prose, irresistible characters so finely drawn. Voices that resonate. Add to this a very suspenseful plot…

Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of "The Children's Ship"

By Deborah Heiligman,

Book cover of Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of "The Children's Ship"

Why this book?

My own kids absolutely devoured non-fiction when they were middle-graders, and this book would have topped their lists. Torpedoed tells the story of the torpedoing and tragic sinking of the SS City of Benares, an ocean liner bearing English evacuees to Canada. Full of photographs, excerpts from letters, first-person accounts, and ephemera like packing lists, other evacuation paperwork, and even the ship’s emergency drill instructions, Deborah Heiligman’s book belongs in every middle-grade non-fiction collection. There is heartbreak and tragedy in these pages, but there is also extraordinary bravery and heroism. I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Brown Girl Dreaming

By Jacqueline Woodson,

Book cover of Brown Girl Dreaming

Why this book?

Brown Girl Dreaming is an absolutely beautiful book. I found the writing simply stunning, with images that stayed with me long after I finished reading. I also loved the use of a variety of poetic forms and found the haiku especially effective in delivering powerful moments with a punch. 

This book is a memoir, based on Woodson’s years growing up in a tumultuous time to be a brown girl, placing YA readers in her head and heart during those years. It’s no wonder that this heartfelt book won so many of the industry’s top awards.  

A High Wind in Jamaica

By Richard Hughes,

Book cover of A High Wind in Jamaica

Why this book?

Not technically a fairy tale, this surrealist classic nevertheless reads as if a haze of magic might as well be wafting the prose directly into the reader’s mind. The story about a passel of spirited children orphaned by a hurricane and kidnapped by bawdy Caribbean pirates remains shocking and yet deliciously lyrical in its cheeky exploration of human nature and childhood resilience. I read it and am reminded of the often frightening fluidity of human behavior under unexpected influences. 

Childhood, Boyhood, Youth

By Leo Tolstoy,

Book cover of Childhood, Boyhood, Youth

Why this book?

When I was in college, I told my writing teacher I wanted to write about my father’s death, which had happened when I was very little. My teacher, a famous writer, lost his father when he was very little too, but he told me he never wrote about it directly. I looked for examples in literature of someone writing autobiographically about a loss in early childhood and I only ever found one: Tolstoy’s debut novel, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. Tolstoy’s mother died when he was 2, his father when he was 8, and he writes about it with unparalleled power across his oeuvre, but never so directly and autobiographically as in Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. He made it OK for me to write my own autobiographical novel about childhood loss.

The Accidental Tourist

By Anne Tyler,

Book cover of The Accidental Tourist

Why this book?

Anne Tyler’s books are all filled with a deep understanding every life, no matter how small it may appear, has value and meaning. Ms. Tyler has great compassion for all her characters. I have several favorites among her many novels, but chose this one to recommend here because it is a story of love found amid the wreckage circumstances sometimes create for us, and is thus a story of hope.

The Going to Bed Book

By Sandra Boynton,

Book cover of The Going to Bed Book

Why this book?

I didn’t think much of rhyming picture books until I became a father. Whether I was savoring the bedtime experience, impatient to get on to the next task or about to fall asleep myself, the rhythm of this (and all of Boynton’s books) pulled me into the moment and made me an engaged reader. And Boynton’s books are as fun to look at as they are to read. 

What World is Left

By Monique Polak,

Book cover of What World is Left

Why this book?

I love stories that are inspired by real people, and this is one of them; based on a true story about the author's mother who was sent to a concentration camp with her family. Anneke, the young girl of the story, must grapple with the trauma of having left behind the life she once knew. She also faces a terrible choice; standing by her father who is forced to create propaganda that conditions in the camp are good, and her own desperate need to get the truth out. The voice of the young girl is so authentic.

Guts: A Graphic Novel

By Raina Telgemeier,

Book cover of Guts: A Graphic Novel

Why this book?

This graphic novel portrayal of a young girl with gastrointestinal symptoms and significant anxiety likely rings true for many children (especially over the last two years!) and is the story of the author’s own struggles with anxiety. A unique exploration of the intertwined and complex relationships between mental health and physical symptoms, Telgemeier’s powerful images depict dramatic internal struggles in a more clear and honest way than anything I’ve seen. She also does a great job taking readers through healthy solutions like therapy sessions, communication, and acceptance and does so with hope and humour.


By Stephen King,

Book cover of It

Why this book?

Despite its biblical length, King’s iconic novel keeps the pages engaging, hilarious, and terrifying—often all at once. While his horror game plays out strong as ever in It, what really makes this story great is its unabashed perspective on childhood, nostalgia, and growing up, all centered in a gilded small-town atmosphere. It is the quintessential coming-of-age tome, tapping deep into the shadowy subconscious of our memories and pasts, while throwing in good old-fashioned blood, guts, and cosmic horror. For some reason I chose this book to give an oral presentation about in seventh grade (while my classmates mostly did The Hunger Games), and I swear I haven’t been the same since. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Power of One

By Bryce Courtenay,

Book cover of The Power of One

Why this book?

This is one of only a few books that I have re-read several times in my life. It’s not a perfect book – it could do with some editing – but it’s a compelling story with a unique character at the heart of it. It’s the story of a young white boy, Peekay, growing up in Apartheid South Africa, who has a special gift. The sport in this book is boxing, but – as in most books about sport – it’s really about other things: coming of age, politics, violence, class, race, nature, magic, love, and friendship. I was so inspired by this book that in my book the main character Pip gave it to someone as a birthday gift, and he loved it too.

Song for Sarah: A Mother's Journey Through Grief and Beyond

By Paula D'Arcy,

Book cover of Song for Sarah: A Mother's Journey Through Grief and Beyond

Why this book?

After my daughter died, I wrote her hundreds and hundreds of letters. Sometimes it felt like she was the only one who could understand me. Other times, as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, living up to what my dead daughter might have wanted for me was what kept me going. I was still deep in my grief when I first read Song for Sarah, a memoir composed of D’Arcy’s letters to her own lost child. A dear friend asked me how I could possibly read about another mother’s grief when I was so lost in my own. The answer, simply, was that D’Arcy made me feel seen. 

Witnesses of War: Children's Lives Under the Nazis

By Nicholas Stargardt,

Book cover of Witnesses of War: Children's Lives Under the Nazis

Why this book?

Nick Stargardt’s Witnesses of War is the kind of book I’d love to write – it’s really one of the most comprehensive and accessible studies of children’s experiences under Nazism out there. The author doesn’t shy away from describing the lives of the Third Reich’s youthful victims in harrowing detail, but he also explores the lives of children who were seduced by the Nazi dictatorship. "In war," he writes, "all children are victims." 

On the Way Home,

By Jill Murphy,

Book cover of On the Way Home,

Why this book?

This book is another great classic full of scary characters dreamed up by a young girl to explain her hurt knee. On the way home, she bumps into one friend after another and to each of them she provides an even more dramatic description of what happened. Did a wolf try to snatch her for his tea? Did a crocodile knock her over? Was it the witch, the snake, the dragon, the flying saucer that was responsible for her injury? This is such a great story for encouraging children to fire up their own imaginations – and to think about description. It encapsulates how they sometimes exaggerate events to make them appear more impressive or to feel better about what has happened to them. Finally, when the young girl gets home to Mum we discover how she actually hurt her knee, and Mum supplies the all-important plaster to make everything all right.

My Father's Glory & My Mother's Castle: Marcel Pagnol's Memories of Childhood

By Marcel Pagnol, Rita Barisse (translator),

Book cover of My Father's Glory & My Mother's Castle: Marcel Pagnol's Memories of Childhood

Why this book?

No one wrote about the South of France with more affection and understanding than Marcel Pagnol. He was a novelist, playwright, director, and memoirist. Pagnol’s family had a small house in the hills near Marseille where they spent summers. His book, My Father’s Glory, is about those months Pagnol spent there as a child and about his family, mostly his father. (The companion book, My Mother’s Castle, concerns his mother more.) The story of his aunt’s sweet, delicate courtship with his eventual uncle is worth reading the book alone. If you’re like me, you will come away from reading this book wishing you’d been part of Pagnol’s kind and joyous family and his life in this little corner of France. The good news is that with this book, you very nearly are.

A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep

By Rumer Godden,

Book cover of A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep

Why this book?

Rummer Godden’s autobiography A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep offers the stories, context, and sense of place for many of her novels. I so enjoyed her ability to write like a bright child thinks about the world, as well as how she is feeling. It is laugh-out-loud funny in spots, despite describing the dislocation of war.

Every Heart a Doorway

By Seanan McGuire,

Book cover of Every Heart a Doorway

Why this book?

Even I was very young, every time I read a portal fantasy, I wondered how the kids (because so many portal fantasies are about kids) coped after they were sent back home and had to deal with their ordinary lives. After all, they’d been heroes or saviors or found true love or whatever. Now they had to go back to school and go to bed on time? Seanan McGuire did what I never thought of doing, and wrote a book that addresses this question. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a good tale in its own right, with a cast of lively characters, and an interesting setting. But Every Heart a Doorway is special to me because it addresses that “there’s no place like home” is a lot more complicated than it seems.

Blitz Families: The Children Who Stayed Behind

By Penny Starns,

Book cover of Blitz Families: The Children Who Stayed Behind

Why this book?

We’re all familiar with wartime images of young evacuees gathered together on railway stations. But over fifty percent of children were not evacuated from British cities, and it is they that Penny Starns has studied. Once we get past the mothers’ ‘keep or send’ moral dilemma, there are the issues of discipline, education, health, food, and psychological development to consider. Starns takes these subjects chapter by chapter, relating stories of disease, poverty, criminality, and terror (including one child who spent the night in a shelter within reach of an unexploded bomb). These tales she counterpoints with examples of unexpectedly increasing emotional and physical wellbeing amongst some of the stay-behinds. This is an important record of the experiences of a demographic that war histories often ignore.

When Can We Go Back to America? Voices of Japanese American Incarceration During WWII

By Susan H. Kamei,

Book cover of When Can We Go Back to America? Voices of Japanese American Incarceration During WWII

Why this book?

If you want to delve into first-hand accounts of what life was like in the incarceration camps, you’ll find a lot of books for that, but you could be overwhelmed in the process. What I like about Kamei’s recent book is that it is a handy compilation of over a hundred engaging, heartbreaking, and inspiring descriptions of incarceration from those who directly experienced and fought against the prejudice that created it. Best of all, you can use this book as a jumping-off point for learning more about any of the individuals you encounter here. 

The Thief of Always: A Fable

By Clive Barker,

Book cover of The Thief of Always: A Fable

Why this book?

I was as surprised as anyone when hardcore horror master Clive Barker painted such a magical panorama in this harrowing story suited for almost all ages. In a house haunted by imprisoned spirits and managed by a mysterious man eager to fulfill the dreams of visiting children, young Harvey Swick knows that every marvel comes at a sinister cost, and it’s up to him to rise to the challenge and outwit the forces trying to take him captive. The full impact of Barker’s twisted imagination is on display in this oft-forgotten classic, structured with page-turning verve for fans of contemporary dark fairy-tale adventure.

Field of Blood

By Denise Mina,

Book cover of Field of Blood

Why this book?

The first in Mina’s Paddy Meehan series set in Glasgow in the 1980s and 90s. Paddy is a newbie on the Scottish Daily News, who dreams of becoming an investigative reporter. A child is abducted from the garden of his house, and the trail leads to two young lads. But Paddy doesn’t believe the lads acted alone and launches her own investigation. Headstrong, ambitious, and wet behind the ears, Paddy also has to combat rampant sexism and Catholic guilt. In an intriguing subplot, Mina weaves fact into fiction through Paddy’s obsession with her namesake. The real Paddy Meehan was a Glasgow criminal who was the victim of a notorious miscarriage of justice, jailed for a murder he didn’t commit. 

Marie-Therese, Child of Terror: The Fate of Marie Antoinette's Daughter

By Susan Nagel,

Book cover of Marie-Therese, Child of Terror: The Fate of Marie Antoinette's Daughter

Why this book?

How many people know what happened to Marie Antoinette’s daughter? This book focuses on this tragic, formidable woman and her extraordinary life, from her birth in a crowded bedroom where they had to break the widows to provide fresh air to her fainting mother, to her three year imprisonment during the Terror, to her secret escape from France after the murder of her family. She found refuge in several European countries and married her cousin, the Duc d’Angoulême. Many historians claim that on the abdication of his father (Charles X, a brother of the executed Louis XVI), he became King for twenty minutes and his wife, thereby, became briefly the last Queen of France of the senior Bourbon line. 

The Fifty Year Sword

By Mark Z. Danielewski,

Book cover of The Fifty Year Sword

Why this book?

Danielewski is as much an artist as he is a storyteller. The Fifty Year Sword is a work of literal—and literary—art. The story is brief, haunting, and beautifully told. The book is a labor of love beyond words on the page. The art accents the story, propelling it forward and assisting the tension that grows as the unread pages dwindle. It is neither grotesque, nor leave-the-lights-on scary, but it is fantastically memorable and shocking, making it a wonderful introduction to the fun-filled intensity the genre offers. For all its simplicity, it’s an unforgettable read, worth picking up for repeat visits to admire the way story and art meld into this single binding. It’s an every-October treat for me that sets the mood for Spooky Season.

Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History

By Barbara A. Hanawalt,

Book cover of Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History

Why this book?

I learnt so much from this book when I was writing my biography of Chaucer. It is hard to find out information about childhood in history, and yet it is impossible to try to understand a society if we don’t know how children were brought up, what games they played, how they were educated, what adolescence was like. This book tells us about all those things. You can find out about how children learnt to read, what happened to orphans, the opportunities for pre-marital sex. Looking at a wide range of historical records and literary texts, Hanawalt pieces together a remarkably complete picture of medieval childhood. Looking at causes of death, for example, tells her where male and female children spent their time and what they were likely to be doing (boys were more likely to be outside). And archaeological finds reveal what kinds of toys children played with. Fascinating stuff.

No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War

By Anita Lobel,

Book cover of No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War

Why this book?

Five years old when the Nazis invaded her homeland of Poland, Anita Lobel spent the war years in hiding. Her memoir is intimate and suspenseful and even occasionally funny.  Here’s a glimpse… through the eyes of a real child…of what survival means, and of those who helped her achieve it.


By Elie Wiesel, Marion Wiesel (translator),

Book cover of Night

Why this book?

I have used Night in teaching the Holocaust with great results. The book provides us with the full scope of the steps from freedom to arrest, to ghettoization, to deportation to surviving the death camps to liberation. The book challenges the reader to raise important moral questions linked to belief in God, and what one does to survive, including difficult choices made under extreme duress, such as sharing a slice of bread with a parent.

The Wicked Boy: An Infamous Murder in Victorian London

By Kate Summerscale,

Book cover of The Wicked Boy: An Infamous Murder in Victorian London

Why this book?

Although Kate Summerscale is best known for The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, this is a book to read for those interested in mental illness and crime. The boy of the title is indeed a child – one who killed his mother and entered the asylum at the age of eighteen. The influence of Victorian social media – the penny dreadfuls and sensational journalism – feels relevant as today’s youth are lambasted for similar fascinations. The story ends far from Broadmoor and provides hope of recovery from even the most desperate and tragic situations.

My Family and Other Animals

By Gerald Durrell,

Book cover of My Family and Other Animals

Why this book?

I’m a popularist. My passion is communicating and sharing information on a level that engages, entertains, and informs. Gerald Durrell does just that wrapped up with ribbons of humour and compassionate observation. With effortless ease, you are there in his company, his armadillos or relatives. His characters come to life, including his own young self, as alive as the elder teller of the tale. You feel you know them. He has the same compassion and empathy for the natural world and immediate location as he does for the zoo of his family gathered round the table at feeding time. Of course, the other thing is, he wasn’t just a writer. To have been able to achieve all the amazing things in his life, my goodness, what an inspiration.

The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction

By Meghan Cox Gurdon,

Book cover of The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction

Why this book?

This book, a nonfiction book for adults, is a kind of ode to the read-aloud. But it’s not the typical parenting book. Filled with case studies, book recommendations, and poetic language, Gurdon shows how those read-alouds are far more impactful than you might think, in bringing you closer as a family. It’s so easy to think “reading time” for school-aged kids needs to mean them reading alone or to you, but in fact, kids of all ages, and even adults, benefit from being read aloud to. With my ten-year-old daughter, we’ve had fun taking turns reading to each other or to her brother. She’s often proud of how her reading skills help put him to sleep!

Me... Jane

By Patrick McDonnell,

Book cover of Me... Jane

Why this book?

This book is about Jane Goodall, famous chimp researcher and United Nations Messenger of Peace. As a child, she shared her backyard “magical world of nature” with her stuffed chimp named Jubilee. The book Tarzan of the Apes expanded her passion into dreams of going to Africa to study animals. “Wow!” She did it, and her stick-to-it observations led to the discovery that chimpanzees make and use tools. As she protects wildlife she also helps people in wild places to get better food, water, and education. Her concerns for all creatures have inspired children around the world to take some action toward a better planet.  

Wait, What?: A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up

By Heather Corinna, Isabella Rotman,

Book cover of Wait, What?: A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up

Why this book?

This fun and approachable book is fantastic! A prime pick for any preteen or young teen. Inclusive of many different genders, orientations, and other identities, this book covers relevant and important topics like body and body image, the media and cultural messages (in particular around bodies and sex), sexual and gender identity, gender roles and stereotypes, crushes, relationships, and feelings, as well as how to be kind, empathetic, and mature. The characters, Malia, Rico, Max, Sam, and Alexis, support each other while figuring out confusing feelings and experiences. What sets this book apart is not only how beautifully inclusive and positive the authors’ approach is, but how it empowers young people with effective questions for reflection that serve all of us no matter what age. Corinna and Rotman are expert sex educators who “get it” and all that goes along with navigating growing up in today’s realm of healthy sexuality and relationships. An essential book to enrich any puberty education in school or at home. 

The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections with Your Kids

By Sarah MacKenzie,

Book cover of The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections with Your Kids

Why this book?

I wasn’t sure how an entire book could be written on the topic of reading to my kids. I also thought I knew how to read to my kids. This book took our time together to a new level! The Read-Aloud Family challenged me to make the most of our reading time, equipped me to ask the right questions, and created an incredibly precious space in our days to share together in the delight of stories! Our Read-Aloud time is now my favorite time of the day. This book encouraged me that “Ten minutes matters.” If all I have is ten minutes, it’s worth it to pick up a book and read with my kids. Quickly, that ten minutes turned into one hour a day. This book also includes a very helpful resource guide with lists of suggested reading for each age group.

The Turn of the Screw

By Henry James,

Book cover of The Turn of the Screw

Why this book?

This classic ghost story follows a young governess who takes up a position at a mysterious country house. She is soon plagued by the appearance of two figures she believes to be ghosts, and slowly, as past events are revealed, she understands that the threat to her and the children in her care is real. I loved the sense of growing threat and panic that is weaved into everyday events, even as our narrator becomes increasingly unreliable. I think this uncertainty adds to the fear factor – if we can’t trust our own perceptions, what can we trust? What might we do? That’s a terrifying thought. 

Alphonse, That Is Not Ok to Do!

By Daisy Hirst,

Book cover of Alphonse, That Is Not Ok to Do!

Why this book?

I would highly recommend any of Daisy Hirst’s books. To me Daisy Hirst’s books have both the ease and the force of natural phenomenon. They are like a gust of wind, rain, or sunshine. Immaculate expressions of the child’s experience. A seamless flow through the ordinary beauty of the surroundings, the thoughts and the emotions of the child. They represent the joy of creativity and play alongside the feelings of confusion, loneliness or guilt. Simply put, they are brilliant!

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

By Peter Guralnick,

Book cover of Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

Why this book?

When my wife and I moved to Nashville, I was stunned to realize that most forms of American popular music had been born within 500 miles of our new home, in an arc from New Orleans (jazz) to the Mississippi Delta (blues) to Memphis (rock ’n’ roll) to Nashville (bluegrass) to Bristol (country). 

I began reading eagerly about American popular music, and my reading led to writing—most recently my novel about the birth of country music, Lord of the Mountain. This list gives you some of my favorite books.

The best of these is also one of my favorite biographies of any kind, Peter Guralnick’s magnificent Last Train to Memphis, the first volume of his essential two-volume story of Elvis Presley and the birth of rock ’n’ roll.

All Over But the Shoutin'

By Rick Bragg,

Book cover of All Over But the Shoutin'

Why this book?

Pulitzer prize-winning and best-selling author Rick Bragg depicts hardscrabble, family life in rural Alabama, with a bad-tempered, hard-drinking father and a mother who won’t see her children go without. Bragg’s honest voice is immediate and compelling, and the visceral feel of the setting is the perfect backdrop for this rags to riches story of a man who triumphs over adversity to become a widely acclaimed writer. Bragg’s use of Southern vernacular is what makes this story. 

French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters

By Karen Le Billon,

Book cover of French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters

Why this book?

The title alone of this book was enough to get me hooked since my experience with young children was that they typically don’t eat anything – and I know I’m not alone. Le Billon gives us a peek into the culinary lives of French parents and shares her best tips for getting kids to not only eat what the adults eat, which in France may involve both beef tongue and smelly blue cheese, but also enjoy it. 

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation

By Duncan Tonatiuh,

Book cover of Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation

Why this book?

Civil rights have been denied to many groups in the United States at different times in different ways—and sometimes in very much the same way, as I learned from this book about a landmark school desegregation case in 1946 in California. Eight-year-old Sylvia Mendez didn’t understand why she had to go to the “Mexican school,” a rough shack without a playground or a cafeteria, when there was a much nicer public school close to her house. So her family decided to fight—not just for Sylvia and her brothers, but for all children in segregated schools in California. Ultimately, they won, with help (as Tonatiuh points out) from the American Jewish Congress, the Japanese American Citizens League, and the NAACP.

The Eight Knights of Hanukkah

By Leslie Kimmelman, Galia Bernstein (illustrator),

Book cover of The Eight Knights of Hanukkah

Why this book?

So many Hanukkah books are super serious. I love the way Leslie Kimmelman cleverly uses wordplay to expand the story of the 8 nights of the holiday into something completely unexpected and uproariously funny. The book obviously references a Jewish holiday, but the story will have broad appeal to children of all religious backgrounds and children living in strictly secular households too.

White Gardenia

By Belinda Alexandra,

Book cover of White Gardenia

Why this book?

Much like my first pick, this is an incredible novel that has stayed with me for years. It’s another go-to recommendation for me if anyone asks what my all-time favorite WWII novels are. Alexandra is a Russian-born Australian author, and I’m a huge fan of her other books too. Once again, she creates characters that are impossible not to fall in love with, and she’s a natural storyteller who artfully blends historical detail with fiction. 


By Anne Ursu, Erin McGuire (illustrator),

Book cover of Breadcrumbs

Why this book?

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu is one of my very favorite books to read over and over. It’s a modern-day story inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, a classic fairy tale. Hazel and her best friend Jack have gotten to a point in their age where they feel as though they’re drifting apart. Hazel feels very isolated and alone, but when Jack goes missing, Hazel sets out on a dangerous adventure to save him…and their friendship. This story touches on so many topics: growing up, friendship, adoption, grieving, change, and above all, hope.

Making Bombs for Hitler

By Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch,

Book cover of Making Bombs for Hitler

Why this book?

Set during WWII, this novel follows a Ukrainian girl who, with other children, is forced to make bombs for the German army. The story is captivating and fast-paced, and it’s hard not to admire the protagonist, Lida, who risks everything in her fight to do what she believes is right. I think books like this are so important because they ask readers to think hard about what they would do in similar situations. 

Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia

By Catherine A. Jones,

Book cover of Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia

Why this book?

This inspired, award-winning study looks at how black and white households were reshaped in Virginia after the Civil War. It’s full of captivating stories: Black parents trying to wrest their children away from former enslavers; once-privileged White families having to send their boys or girls into the job market to compensate for the loss of enslaved laborers; or officials coping with masses of orphaned children. It also shows the different ways that adults used ideas of childhood for political ends, as well as how children themselves fared in the aftermath of war.

Negroland: A Memoir

By Margo Jefferson,

Book cover of Negroland: A Memoir

Why this book?

Margo Jefferson is one of the smartest humans on the planet and her memoir reflects that. She tells her story as intertwined with the story of her first cultural context—the Black elite of the 1950s, and the crisis of identity she experienced with the rise of the Black Power movement of the 1960s. She brings her critic’s sharp intelligence and wit to bear in every paragraph, but doesn’t hold back any of her heart. It’s a terrifically moving book and a masterpiece of personal/cultural criticism, full of elegance and nuance. 

Requiem for a German Past: A Boyhood among the Nazis

By Jurgen Herbst,

Book cover of Requiem for a German Past: A Boyhood among the Nazis

Why this book?

Requiem for a German Past: A Boyhood Among the Nazis offers a nuanced glimpse of what it was like to grow up in Germany from 1928 to 1948. Author Jurgen Herbst joined the Hitler Youth or Jungvolk and became a leader because he supported a mythic German past. But the more involved he became as the war wore on, the more he understood and was deeply troubled by the nefarious basis of the National Socialist regime. His descriptions of how fascism slowly overcame a democratic country are particularly chilling. Captured at the end of the war by American forces, Herbst would learn even more of the horrors that had taken place in Nazi Germany, horrors that forced him to leave his home country for the US, pledging never to return.

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir

By Liz Prince,

Book cover of Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir

Why this book?

I’ve assigned this graphic memoir to college students, given it to young nieces, and sent a copy to my mom. Prince tells the familiar story of being identified by others as a tomboy and struggling to understand what that means and whether or not she accepts the term. It’s funny, poignant, and smart.

I'm Down: A Memoir

By Mishna Wolff,

Book cover of I'm Down: A Memoir

Why this book?

Delightful, clear, and unpretentious. The author shared what she thought as a child during each stage of her unique upbringing. The juxtaposition of her state of happiness while living in poverty compared to that of her affluent teenage classmates was a stark revelation. Racial issues were not shied away from, but dealt with tenderly and humorously. 

A Child's Christmas in Wales

By Dylan Thomas, Trina Schart Hyman (illustrator),

Book cover of A Child's Christmas in Wales

Why this book?

Dylan Thomas was one of the rarish writers who succeeded wildly in poem and prose. His stories have the throb and call of great poetry, and are rimed with gemfire. A Child's Christmas in Wales is short in length, but is so bighearted that it deserves an honorable place on my list. I read it aloud. And once you hear its simple magic, you too will find it visiting you every Christmas inside this inscrutable life, like the happy tapping susurrations of jingling silver bells.

The Outsider

By Stephen King,

Book cover of The Outsider

Why this book?

What if a thing could replicate a living person and cause havoc on humans in a doppelgänger body? As with most King stories, you get the chills and thrills here. However, what readers don't talk enough about with King are his characters and why we care about them. And he's in top form here in not rehashing characters as some authors do—they are so unique and on point. 

A vintage King story. Very good.

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide

By Kay Redfield Jamison,

Book cover of Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide

Why this book?

This book is also full of sad facts. But understanding suicide is important. Many people with bipolar disorder struggle with suicidal thoughts, and researchers estimate that 20-60% of people with bipolar disorder attempt suicide. Kay Redfield Jamison’s book is full of compelling patient profiles, thought-provoking statistics, and beautiful poetry. This is book is gripping, compassionate, and ultimately life-affirming.

The Grass Roof

By Younghill Kang,

Book cover of The Grass Roof

Why this book?

This is an autobiographical novel of a scholar’s son’s coming of age in a small village during the Japanese occupation, though that is felt with some distance. Kang focuses on classical education in that era, traditions for holidays and ceremonies, schooling, friends, family dynamic, a detailed account of the March First Independence Movement Day, and finally emigration to America as a young man. It is a little-known prequel to Kang's book, East Goes West, a seminal work in Korean American literature, which covers his immigration to New York in the 1920s through the war years.

Twenty Letters to a Friend: A Memoir

By Svetlana Alliluyeva,

Book cover of Twenty Letters to a Friend: A Memoir

Why this book?

Svetlana Alliluyeva was Josef Stalin’s daughter. In 1967 she fled to the West bringing this memoir with her. It was published to universal acclaim in the same year. An epistolary memoir it gives remarkable insight into her life growing up in the Kremlin. Haunting, at times lyrical, always affecting, she shows Stalin as something other than the monster we take him to be. She makes no excuses for him but it is salutary to see him portrayed as a father and a human being. An antidote to the all-too-easy dismissal of him as ‘a monster’.

Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued

By Peter Sis,

Book cover of Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued

Why this book?

In 1938, a young Englishman named Nicholas Winton canceled his ski vacation. Instead, he went to Prague to help the Jewish children seeking refuge there from the Nazis. Up until the start of the war in 1939, he made arrangements to send nearly 700 children to safety in England. He did everything from raising funds and locating foster families, to obtaining travel documents—even forging them when necessary. Then he went home and never told anyone what he had done. Fifty years later, his wife found all the records he’d kept and she tracked down as many of those children as she could. A now-famous video clip from a British TV show, “That’s Life,” shows an elderly and very surprised Nicholas as dozens of those he saved stand up in the audience to thank him. Among them was Vera Diamontova, who was just eleven years old when Nicholas saved her life.

This stunning picture book merges the stories of Vera and Nicholas in Peter Sis’s dream-like illustrations and evocative text. It’s a book to savor over and over.

Odette's Secrets

By Maryann MacDonald,

Book cover of Odette's Secrets

Why this book?

Odette Meyers was a young Jewish girl living in Paris when the Nazis invaded. Her father joined the army and her mother joined the French resistance, so Odette was sent to live with a Catholic family in the countryside, where she would be safe. She had to pretend to be Catholic and keep her secrets locked away. After the war, Odette returned to her family and had to find a way to rediscover her true identity. Writing poetry helped her to adjust and she grew up to be a poet. Macdonald retells Odette’s story in evocative free verse, capturing the poetic voice of a young girl learning how to express her innermost thoughts and feelings during a tumultuous and dangerous time. The reader comes to love this little girl and admire her courage.

Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: The Uncensored Story of the JonBenet Murder and the Grand Jury's Search for the Truth

By Lawrence Schiller,

Book cover of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: The Uncensored Story of the JonBenet Murder and the Grand Jury's Search for the Truth

Why this book?

This is the most detailed account we’re likely to get of what remains an enduring mystery: the 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in her home in the affluent town of Boulder, Colorado. From the beginning, police and all other observers were baffled, although the victim’s parents remained under a cloud of suspicion. An added bizarre element was the mother’s grooming of her daughter to compete in child beauty pageants.

Fish in a Tree

By Lynda Mullaly Hunt,

Book cover of Fish in a Tree

Why this book?

This book is a great read for parents, teachers, and children. It's breaking down stereotypes in the field of education. It's perfect for book studies or book clubs at any level. I think everyone can get something different from this book.

Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx

By Sonia Manzano,

Book cover of Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx

Why this book?

Manzano played Maria for more than 40 years on Sesame Street, but this isn’t a book about that show. A sort of next-gen, nonfiction companion to Dominicana, it tells the story of Manzano’s hard-knock childhood in the South Bronx, and how her gifts as an actor and storyteller propelled her out of a rough neighborhood and troubled home (her father physically abused her mother.) Manzano doesn’t paper over the anger she felt and still feels about the systemic forces that ghettoized Hispanic kids like her. But she succeeds in offering hope and modeling Nuyorican success to latter-day versions of her young self.

Cider with Rosie

By Laurie Lee,

Book cover of Cider with Rosie

Why this book?

In my book I talk about how many people miss out on the love they expect—the love of a mother, father, spouse, or child—and yet how most of us survive by finding the love we need elsewhere. In Cider with Rosie, Laurie’s father abandons his family, but Laurie’s mother shines: her frisks and gaieties, her fits of screams, her love of man. This is the childhood memoir of one of the great (somewhat unacknowledged) poets of the twentieth century.

Falling Angels

By Tracy Chevalier,

Book cover of Falling Angels

Why this book?

For modern fiction dealing with Edwardian women's suffrage, I recommend Chevalier's moving account of two girls growing up as the new century begins. It's a beautiful, atmospheric handling of the turbulent period of social change. The Victorian idealisation of the 'Angel of the House' falls from grace and the outcome is heartbreaking.

A Way of Seeing: Photographs of New York

By Helen Levitt,

Book cover of A Way of Seeing: Photographs of New York

Why this book?

Women photographers have all too often been overlooked or forgotten. (This happened to the subject of my own book choice, Helen Post.) But Helen Levitt – who really flourished from the 1940s through the 1960s and is now undergoing something of a renaissance – has always had devotees. Steichen invited her to contribute to The Family of Man and one of her most notable admirers, James Agee, the novelist, poet, film critic, and documentarian, was pleased to write the insightful essay to A Way of Seeing. Levitt’s quirky pictures of street life – especially those featuring children, often at play – document quite ordinary customs at a particular moment. Despite never seeming intrusive, they get up close, reveal the photographer’s rapport with her subjects, and present them, so to speak, on the level. Ultimately, these images are so expressive that they become universal, transcending the period in which they were made.

Do Not Let Your Dragon Spread Germs

By Julie Gassman, Andy Elkerton (illustrator),

Book cover of Do Not Let Your Dragon Spread Germs

Why this book?

This book encourages little ones to read along with a recurring refrain, “Don’t let your dragon spread germs!” The premise of this book is that children have to teach their pet dragons hygiene. In using this logic, the story puts the young characters in the book in the position of the teacher-caregivers. The illustrator, Andy Elkerton, did a great job with the dragons. Each dragon has its own personality and the illustrations are full of energy and motion. Those colorful, dynamic dragons are fun for kids to look at while a grown-up reads the text. 

The Little Princesses: The Story of the Queen's Childhood by Her Nanny, Marion Crawford

By Marion Crawford,

Book cover of The Little Princesses: The Story of the Queen's Childhood by Her Nanny, Marion Crawford

Why this book?

"I really don’t know what we’re going to do with Margaret, Crawfie!" declared Lilibet anxiously to the original nanny diarist. "Poor Lil," responded Margaret, when rumours of her sister’s romance with Philip hit the papers. "Nothing of your own. Not even your love affair!" In the US, this first inside account of life with the modern royals boosted the circulation of the Ladies’ Home Journal magazine by half a million. But in Britain, Buckingham Palace complained that the letters quoted from the princesses breached royal copyright and insisted they be removed. Lilibet never forgave Crawfie for the betrayal embodied in this sickly, but oh-so-revealing tome.  

Child of the Civil Rights Movement

By Paula Young Shelton, Raul Colón (illustrator),

Book cover of Child of the Civil Rights Movement

Why this book?

I chose this picture book because it’s so well-written (including an unforgettable kid-friendly explanation of “Jim Crow”), because it’s a first-hand account by someone who took part in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery when she was only four years old, and because I liked the way the author showed the organizers as an “orchestra” composed of leaders such as Dorothy Cotton, Ralph Abernathy, and her own parents, Andrew and Jean Childs Young, rather than a solo act by Martin Luther King.

Cloud Cuckoo Land

By Anthony Doerr,

Book cover of Cloud Cuckoo Land

Why this book?

This is a time-travelling collection of tales braided through fragments of a Greek work of speculative fiction contrived so very long ago. I identified with all the book-loving characters from Constantinople in 1453 to small-town Idaho in the late twentieth century, to those seeking a future in outer space. I loved the fantasy and the adventure as well as the character's commitments to the magic and wisdom of written words, as well as to the translators who expand them and the librarians who conserve them.

Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense

By Ellyn Satter,

Book cover of Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense

Why this book?

Thanks to the ideas in this book, all three of my babies, including one born with feeding challenges, have grown into capable and adventurous eaters. Child of Mine offers a wealth of evidence-based information on what to feed your baby and why, but the true gem is the how. The main principle, the Division of Responsibility, is simple yet powerful; it helps babies enjoy food, takes worries and struggles out of mealtimes, and brings joy (back) to the dinner table.

The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

By Elspeth Huxley,

Book cover of The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

Why this book?

Huxley’s parents go to Kenya to start a coffee plantation. And like Blixen and her husband, they know nothing about Africa or growing coffee and must depend on Africans to teach them. Huxley writes a delightful account of her life and the struggles they endure. Her portrayal of the people who work on the family’s plantation is brilliant as is the description of the environment and animals. Huxley also writes from the unsentimental eyes of a child.

Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir

By Natasha Trethewey,

Book cover of Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir

Why this book?

This exquisite memoir contains a chilling account of Tretheway’s mother’s murder at the hands of Tretheway’s abusive stepfather. Delving into the past, she unearths her mother’s history and recaptures the days leading up to her death, even providing police reports of the conversations prior to the murder. And while her mother’s poor choices had a tragic ripple effect on Tretheway’s life, as I fully understand from my own mother-daughter experiences, her compassion never wavers and the result is an illuminating work of art and an example of the heart’s resilience. 

LaRose: A Novel

By Louise Erdrich,

Book cover of LaRose: A Novel

Why this book?

In her fifteenth novel, Erdrich, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, attempts to answer the question, “Can a person do the worst possible thing and still be loved?” by showing readers how native American parents living on a reservation cope when the father, Landreaux, accidentally kills his best friend’s five-year-old son in a hunting accident. Landreaux is distraught, wracked with horror, guilt, and grief. After consultation and attending a sweat, guided by an old native custom, he gives La Rose, his and his wife’s youngest child–whose best friend was the deceased–to the bereaved parents and siblings in a version of justice. It’s a twist on an eye for an eye, intended to equalize the suffering and prevent the escalation and further death that can occur when acts of grief-fueled revenge begin. Now both families are suffering unbearable loss, and so is LaRose, a five-year-old boy.

I don’t know if there’s any meaningful compensation for the death of a child brought about by someone else. What if it’s a genuine accident? Is real forgiveness possible then? I recommend this book for the look into how grief can wreck the family of even an accidental perpetrator, as well as that of the victim. It’s also a glimpse into how a non-dominant culture coped with this issue. Better? Worse? Louise Erdrich shows us how a native American culture might have made it work.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

By Maya Angelou,

Book cover of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Why this book?

The reason I chose this book is because it serves as an inspiration for anyone who has experienced hurt and disappointment. This book spoke to my soul, I could identify with the feelings of hurt in my life that have caused me to crawl up into a tiny space and isolate myself from the world. I could also identify with feeling like there’s nobody in the world that can identify with the pain that one feels sometimes. The most important takeaway I gained from this book is that we all have hidden gifts inside of us that are waiting to be discovered. And just like Maya in the book, I too know why the caged bird sings. I know what it is to finally say all the things you have been holding inside and how it frees your spirit like a bird in flight.


By Mary Karr,

Book cover of Lit

Why this book?

Karr is a poet, and you cannot race through Lit. Her language is to be untangled and savored. Only then can you grasp the profound dawning of a woman as she stumbles, soberly, towards God. In the last half, Karr is desperation personified, and she is encouraged by an AA fellow to pray. I was enthralled by Karr’s journey to find a Higher Power, trying on spirituality and religions with a fierce and humble willingness. (The 12-Steps are not about religion.) Karr does find an unlikely connection to Catholicism. I’m grateful for her transparency; the open window into her heart and mind. Karr taught me about the necessity to remain teachable to have a different experience of life.

The Disappearance

By Geneviève Jurgensen, Adriana Hunter (translator),

Book cover of The Disappearance

Why this book?

Upon receiving the news that her two young daughters had been killed by a drunk driver, Genevieve Jurgensen didn’t think she could go on, let alone ever write about her loss. Fortunately for us, she eventually found a way to tell this story. Through letters to a friend, she draws us in, circling the pain of that terrible day, musing about the mysterious ways in which loss can coexist with a happy, ongoing life. With its raw and intimate feel, the book is a profoundly moving testimony to the complicated process of healing.

Understanding Toddlers & Twos: Winning Ways for Early Childhood Professionals

By Gigi Schweikert,

Book cover of Understanding Toddlers & Twos: Winning Ways for Early Childhood Professionals

Why this book?

This book is part of a trilogy that offers valuable insights and strategies for caring for young children. Readers will gain an understanding of toddler development and behavior. The author also covers techniques for promoting positive connections with adults and responding to the child’s individual needs.

In the Woods

By Tana French,

Book cover of In the Woods

Why this book?

I inhaled this book. Yes, it’s a police procedural, and yes, there’s a murder. Maybe there are several, though the beauty of the novel is that this is not crystal clear. The absolute best part of this novel, and what I still remember years after reading it, is how real the characters are. Their emotions, their connections, and relationships are so vividly portrayed, that I wanted to alternately hug and scream at them. The narrator, a detective named Rob Ryan, is a walking, talking wound who somehow managed to become an adult after a devastating childhood event, and then become a police officer. This book is psychological suspense at its best. 

The House in the Cerulean Sea

By TJ Klune,

Book cover of The House in the Cerulean Sea

Why this book?

This is an utterly magical book, and not just because it’s a fantasy. In addition to the fabulous world building and the engrossing plot, it’s a beautiful and thoughtful exploration of human nature and personal growth and is incredibly and gloriously hopeful about the people we could all become. I read it on the recommendation of my agent, Deidre Knight, who said something like, “I think it’s done so well because at its heart it’s a book about kindness.” And it is! It’s also about the transformative power of believing in people, of giving the best of yourself and expecting the same from others, of forgiveness, and of courage. It’s also funny and wise and quirky and utterly enthrallingand has a mystery that needs to be solved!

The Westing Game

By Ellen Raskin,

Book cover of The Westing Game

Why this book?

The oldest book on my list, The Westing Game is a classic murder-mystery puzzle set just outside of the author’s hometown of Milwaukee. The story centers around the mysterious and eccentric Westing, who is found dead in his mansion. His will challenges sixteen locals to determine who caused his death to inherit his fortune. The contrast between the enticing Sunset Towers, where the characters stay, and the vacant and eerie Westing Estate next door provides a unique setting for this classic midwestern whodunnit.

Lifeboat 12

By Susan Hood,

Book cover of Lifeboat 12

Why this book?

A page-turning, true-life adventure! The story is told in first-person verse by 13-year-old Ken Sparks whose parents send him from England to Canada at the start of the Blitz as part of the British government’s ill-fated child evacuee program. Five days into the crossing, his ship, the SS Benares, is torpedoed by a German U-Boat, and as it sinks fast, Ken finds himself in a lifeboat with five other boys fighting for their lives. I read this book and loved it from page one. Although they come from very different backgrounds, Ken and Käfer share endearing qualities: pluck, resourcefulness, and a child’s optimistic view of the world. All of which stand them in good stead.


By Tillie Walden,

Book cover of Spinning

Why this book?

I received a copy of Spinning as a birthday gift a few years ago. It’s always great to get a book from a friend that they personally pick out for you based on what they think you’ll like. I find this to be one of the most relatable memoirs that I’ve picked up in the last few years. I think the author’s experiences – although unique to their life – speaks deeply to many young women growing up with the pressure to embody the ideal of their gender and the punishing isolation that can come from those expectations. I return to this title often, when I feel a lack of courage to be myself, and it reminds me that fitting into those expectations will not rid me of whatever insecurities or discomfort I feel.

The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

By Jan Jarboe Russell,

Book cover of The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

Why this book?

Was it just Japanese Americans who were detained during the war? I found myself asking this question before I started researching this topic. Sadly for me, Russell’s book was not yet published. While there are many books that detail the experiences of Germans and Italians (citizen and nationals) with internment, this book focuses on two young, American-born women—one German American, the other Japanese American—and the trials and tragedy they faced when they were detained and deported to Germany and Japan because their parents were foreign-born and eventually returned to the United States. I normally am skeptical of books described as telling “little-known” or “unknown” stories, but this book truly is an examination of an understudied event in the larger story of wartime panic, prejudice, and discrimination.

There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America

By Alex Kotlowitz,

Book cover of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America

Why this book?

Having lived in Chicago for more than a decade, this first-hand glimpse of two young boys growing up in the inner city changed my perspective and understanding of the realities of domestic urban poverty. A moving and powerful read, you can follow the journey after There are No Children Here in Kotlowitz’s follow-up story, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago.