A list of memoir book recommendations, along with podcasts and videos to supplement your reading.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”—Atticus Finch, from Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”
Often conflated with the autobiography, the memoir is unique as it focuses on just parts of a person’s life, rather than documenting their life from birth. Memoirs can focus on big ideas, like grief in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) or racism in Margo Jefferson’s Negroland: A Memoir (2015). Memoirs can show us how our heroes became the people they are today, like in Michelle Obama’s Becoming (2018) or Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up (2007). Memoirs can even take us inside some of the worst of humanity, like Elie Wiesel’s Night (1956). Memoirs give authors the opportunity to tell their story the way they want to tell it.
On May 9th, we’re celebrating the art of the memoir at Get Lit: Me, Myself, and I! As part of our monthly after hours series, you will be able to play three rounds of memoir-themed trivia for the chance to win awesome prizes. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to design your own memoir covers and get your author headshot taken! Enjoy adult beverages including beer, wine, and our signature cocktail, The Memoir-tini. Get your tickets here!
Then, on May 16th Nicole Chung, the bestselling author of All You Can Ever Know, returns to the American Writers Museum to discuss her new book A Living Remedy, a searing memoir of family, class and grief—a daughter’s search to understand the lives her adoptive parents led, the life she forged as an adult, and the lives she’s lost. Chung is joined in conversation by Eve L. Ewing. Get your tickets here!
The following is a list of 15 memoirs we recommend featuring writers we have hosted for public programs and events. We’ve also included links to the accompanying podcasts and program videos to supplement your reading. This list is also available on our page at Bookshop.org.
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung
Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hope of giving her a better life, that forever feeling slightly out of place was her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as Nicole grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and as a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth…
Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood by J. Michael Straczynski
In this dazzling memoir, the acclaimed writer behind Babylon 5, Sense8, Clint Eastwood’s Changeling and Marvel’s Thor reveals how the power of creativity and imagination enabled him to overcome the horrors of his youth and a dysfunctional family haunted by madness, murder and a terrible secret…Straczynski’s personal history has always been shrouded in mystery. Becoming Superman lays bare the facts of his life: a story of creation and darkness, hope and success, a larger-than-life villain and a little boy who became the hero of his own life. It is also a compelling behind-the-scenes look at some of the most successful TV series and movies recognized around the world.
Chance: Escape from the Holocaust by Uri Shulevitz
With backlist sales of over 2.3 million copies, Uri Shulevitz, one of Farrar, Straus and Grioux’s most acclaimed picture-book creators, details the eight-year odyssey of how he and his Jewish family escaped the terrors of the Nazis by fleeing Warsaw for the Soviet Union in Chance. It was during those years, with threats at every turn, that the young Uri experienced his awakening as an artist, an experience that played a key role during this difficult time. By turns dreamlike and nightmarish, this heavily illustrated account of determination, courage, family loyalty, and the luck of coincidence is a true publishing event.
A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till by Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. and Christopher Benson
The last surviving witness to the lynching of Emmett Till tells his story, with poignant recollections of Emmett as a boy, critical insights into the recent investigation, and powerful lessons for racial reckoning, both then and now…In a hypnotic interplay between uncovered facts and vivid recall, Rev. Parker offers an emotional and suspenseful page-turner, set against a backdrop of reporting errors and manipulations, racial reckoning, and political pushback—and he does so accompanied by never-before-seen findings in the investigation, the soft resurrection of memory, and the battle-tested courage of faith.
Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen
His name is synonymous with high-stakes wilderness survival adventures. Now, beloved author Gary Paulsen portrays a series of life-altering moments from his turbulent childhood as his own original survival story. If not for his summer escape from a shockingly neglectful Chicago upbringing to a North Woods homestead at age five, there never would have been a Hatchet. Without the encouragement of the librarian who handed him his first book at age thirteen, he may never have become a reader. And without his desperate teenage enlistment in the Army, he would not have discovered his true calling as a storyteller. An entrancing account of grit and growing up, perfect for newcomers and lifelong fans alike, this is the famed author at his rawest and most real.
Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs by Jennifer Finney Boylan
In Good Boy, Jennifer Finney Boylan explores what should be the simplest topic in the world, but never is: finding and giving love. Good Boy is a universal account of a remarkable story: showing how a young boy became a middle-aged woman—accompanied at seven crucial moments of growth and transformation by seven memorable dogs. “Everything I know about love,” she writes, “I learned from dogs.” Their love enables us to pull off what seem like impossible feats: to find our way home when we are lost, to live our lives with humor and courage, and above all, to best become our true selves.
Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares by Aarti Namdev Shahani
Here We Are follows the lives of Aarti, the precocious scholarship kid at one of Manhattan’s most elite prep schools, and her dad, the shopkeeper who mistakenly sells watches and calculators to the notorious Cali drug cartel. Together, the two represent the extremes that coexist in our country, even within a single family, and a truth about immigrants that gets lost in the headlines. It isn’t a matter of good or evil; it’s complicated. Ultimately, Here We Are is a coming-of-age story, a love letter from an outspoken modern daughter to her soft-spoken Old World father. She never expected they’d become best friends.
How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir by Saeed Jones
Haunted and haunting, How We Fight for Our Lives is a stunning coming-of-age memoir about a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his family, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
A chillingly personal and exquisitely wrought memoir of a daughter reckoning with the brutal murder of her mother at the hands of her former stepfather, and the moving, intimate story of a poet coming into her own in the wake of a tragedy…Memorial Drive is a compelling and searching look at a shared human experience of sudden loss and absence but also a piercing glimpse at the enduring ripple effects of white racism and domestic abuse. Animated by unforgettable prose and inflected by a poet’s attention to language, this is a luminous, urgent, and visceral memoir from one of our most important contemporary writers and thinkers.
My Seven Black Fathers: A Young Activist’s Memoir of Race, Family, and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole
Will Jawando tells a deeply affirmative story of hope and respect for men of color at a time when Black men are routinely stigmatized. As a boy growing up outside DC, Will, who went by his Nigerian name, Yemi, was shunted from school to school, never quite fitting in. He was a Black kid with a divorced white mother, a frayed relationship with his biological father, and teachers who scolded him for being disruptive in class and on the playground. Eventually, he became close to Kalfani, a kid he looked up to on the basketball court. Years after he got the call telling him that Kalfani was dead, another sickening casualty of gun violence, Will looks back on the relationships with an extraordinary series of mentors that enabled him to thrive.
Nuestra América: My Family in the Vertigo of Translation by Claudio Lomnitz
A riveting study of the intersections between Jewish and Latin American culture, this immigrant family memoir recounts history with psychological insight and the immediacy of a thriller. In Nuestra América, eminent anthropologist and historian Claudio Lomnitz traces his grandparents’ exile from Eastern Europe to South America. At the same time, the book is a pretext to explain and analyze the worldview, culture, and spirit of countries such as Peru, Colombia, and Chile, from the perspective of educated Jewish emigrants imbued with the hope and determination typical of those who escaped Europe in the 1920s.
The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me by Keah Brown
Keah Brown loves herself, but that hadn’t always been the case. Born with cerebral palsy, her greatest desire used to be normalcy and refuge from the steady stream of self-hate society strengthened inside her. But after years of introspection and reaching out to others in her community, she has reclaimed herself and changed her perspective. In The Pretty One, Brown gives a contemporary and relatable voice to the disabled—so often portrayed as mute, weak, or isolated. With clear, fresh, and light-hearted prose, these essays explore everything from her relationship with her able-bodied identical twin (called “the pretty one” by friends) to navigating romance; her deep affinity for all things pop culture—and her disappointment with the media’s distorted view of disability; and her declaration of self-love with the viral hashtag #DisabledAndCute.
Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir by Ashley C. Ford
One of the most prominent voices of her generation debuts with an extraordinarily powerful memoir: the story of a childhood defined by the looming absence of her incarcerated father…Somebody’s Daughter steps into the world of growing up a poor Black girl in Indiana with a family fragmented by incarceration, exploring how isolating and complex such a childhood can be. As Ashley battles her body and her environment, she embarks on a powerful journey to find the threads between who she is and what she was born into, and the complicated familial love that often binds them.
Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought for Her American Dream
Born in the picturesque town of Taxco, Mexico, Julissa Arce was left behind for months at a time with her two sisters, a nanny, and her grandma while her parents worked tirelessly in America in hopes of building a home and providing a better life for their children. That is, until her parents brought Julissa to Texas to live with them. From then on, Julissa secretly lived as an undocumented immigrant, went on to become a scholarship winner and an honors college graduate, and climbed the ladder to become a vice president at Goldman Sachs. This moving, at times heartbreaking, but always inspiring story will show young readers that anything is possible. Julissa’s story provides a deep look into the little-understood world of a new generation of undocumented immigrants in the United States today—kids who live next door, sit next to you in class, or may even be one of your best friends.
What They Meant for Evil: How a Lost Girl of Sudan Found Healing, Peace, and Purpose in the Midst of Suffering by Rebecca Deng
One of the first unaccompanied refugee children to enter the United States in 2000, after South Sudan’s second civil war took the lives of most of her family, Rebecca’s story begins in the late 1980s when, at the age of four, her village was attacked and she had to escape. What They Meant for Evil is the account of that unimaginable journey. With the candor and purity of a child, Rebecca recalls how she endured fleeing from gunfire, suffering through hunger and strength-sapping illnesses, dodging life-threatening predators—lions, snakes, crocodiles, and soldiers alike—that dogged her footsteps, and grappling with a war that stole her childhood.