Happy “We Love Memoirs” Day!

It’s for real—two memoir writers cooked it up on Facebook almost two decades ago and their page has over 5000 followers who throw an online party every August 31st. When you think about it, it’s surprising nobody thought of it sooner. Memoirs are a time-tested and time-honored form of literature, at least since Augustine, whose Confessions might be considered the first psychological autobiography.

What’s the difference between memoir and autobiography? It’s mostly a matter of focus and theme, and the line is not always sharp. Autobiography is record of the author’s life up to the time of writing. It will hit the high points and illuminate (for good or ill) why the subject is famous. A memoir, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be by someone famous. It could be someone with a unique perspective or upbringing, such as Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Jeannette Walls (The Glass Castle), or J. D. Vance (Hillbilly Elegy). All three grew up in poverty and achieved some level of success, but more importantly, all three were thoughtful, talented writers who could give structure and meaning to their early experience.

Some memoirs are written to explore a pivotal time later in life, such as Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and Thoreau’s Walden. Other represent growth or conversion, as in The Education of Henry Adams (by John Adams’ great-grandson), Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, or Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis.

We Love Memoirs Day is a good time to celebrate the genre here at Redeemed Reader with—of course—a list! Most of these we’ve reviewed, and those we haven’t may not be suitable for younger readers. Follow the links to read more. (Asterisks indicate a starred review.)

Random Picks for older teens and grownups:

  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. The host of The Daily Show recalls growing up in South Africa. The Young Reader version is much cleaner.
  • All Creatures Great and Small and sequels by James Herriot. Naturally! Great for animal lovers, but be aware there is some cursing.
  • The Corfu Trilogy by Gerald Durrel. A James-Herriot type meets bohemians abroad, with animals!
  • What is a Girl Worth? Rachel DenHollander’s memoir. Heavy reading but excellent, available on both adult and Young-Reader editions.
  • The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. A must-read of Christian perseverance in the face of great hardship.
  • God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew. How a self-centered sinner turned to Christ and defied Soviet tyranny by sneaking Bibles behind the Iron Curtain.

For Teens and Middle-Graders

  • Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We couldn’t leave this one out!
  • Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers and sequels by Ralph Moody. Classic stories of coming of age in early 20th century America.
  • The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. In this contemporary classic, a Jewish girl and her family flee the Holocaust in Poland to find dubious refuge in Siberia.
  • Chance: Escape from the Holocaust by Uri Shulevitz. Similar recollections by a boy who eventually became a successful children’s-book illustrator.
  • Boy from Buchenwald by Robbie Waisman. Robbie didn’t escape the Holocaust but regained his health and sanity over time.
  • I am Malala by Malala Yousefzai. The Nobel-prize winner recounts her struggle for education in a strict Muslim culture. Available in several editions for different age groups.
  • Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave by Shyima Hall. Sold at age 7 to a wealthy Egyptian family, Shyima found freedom in the US.
  • The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. The inspiring story of a self-taught mechanic who brought electricity to his Malawi village.
  • *Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri. A beautiful and searing account of a Christian convert fleeing persecution in Iran with her two children.
  • *Ugly by Robert Hoge. The story of an Australian boy born with severe facial deformities gaining peace with himself.
  • Gone to the Woods by Gary Paulsen. The author of rugged adventure stories like Hatchet recalls his fraught upbringing.
  • *Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes. Grimes faces up to her dysfunctional childhood with hope and faith. For mature teens.
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Another popular children’s author recalls growing up in the segregated south.

Graphic Memoirs

  • Persepolis by Marjane Sartrapi. A young woman’s eyewitness account of the Islamic takeover of Iran. For mature teens.
  • *When Stars Are Scattered by Omar Mohammed. The author and his brother resided in a Kenyan refugee camp for years after losing their parents in the Somali civil wars. Sounds depressing, but is actually hopeful.
  • Hey Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Like J. D. Vance, Krosoczka was born to a drug-addicted mother but received stability from his foul-mouthed grandparents. For mature teens.
  • El Deafo by Cece Bell. Deaf from the age of four, Bell depicts her struggles with humor and warmth.
  • Friends Trilogy by Shannon Hale. Real Friends, Best Friends, and the upcoming Friends Forever recall the minefield of middle-grade friendship.
  • Cub by Cynthia Copeland. A journalist tells how she began acquiring her skills at an early age by reporting for her hometown newspaper.
  • Guts by Raina Telgemeir. The author/illustrator of two very popular graphic memoirs, Smile and Sisters, recounts her early experiences with anxiety-driven turmoil in her GI tract.

Fictionalized memoirs:

  • *You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins. A Bengali family migrates to the U.S., their story closely mirroring the experiences of the author’s own family.
  • Enduring Freedom by Trent Reedy and Jawad Arash. The authors who became friends during the former’s tour of duty in Afghanistan structure this story closely around their memories. Note: The last I heard, Arash is trapped in his home country after the Taliban takeover. Reedy is trying to get him and his family out.

What did I leave out? Tell us some of your favorite memoirs!

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Betsy Farquhar on August 31, 2021 at 11:30 am

    Such a fun list, Janie! I think I’d add Christy by Catherine Marshall to the list, although it’s the author writing as her grandmother (or was it her mother?). It’s styled like a memoir and based on a true event/person. It reads like a memoir, if that makes sense. Another memoir we’ve reviewed here at Redeemed Reader is Every Falling Star about a boy’s escape from North Korea. (another for mature teens)

    • Janie Cheaney on August 31, 2021 at 4:33 pm

      Thanks, Betsy! Christy might qualify as a “fictionalized memoir,” or “fictionalized biography.” I’ll add Every Falling Star (I knew we’d forget a few!). Also Never Fall Down, another tough read about a young man’s experience of the “killing fields” of Cambodia.

  2. Keri on September 8, 2021 at 12:47 pm

    A few I’ve loved….
    Graphic novel form – When Stars are Scattered (the graphic novelist interviewed the author so it’s more biography)
    Hiding in the Light by Rifka Bary
    Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis
    Miracle on Voodoo Mountain by Megan Boudreaux
    The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee

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