While we’ve been putting together our monthly “get genrefied” guides over the last two years, it’s been neat to see what trends in publishing have emerged and which have subsided a bit. Without doubt, one of the biggest trends in the last two years is one which we aren’t as familiar with and one we don’t talk much about: young adult non-fiction. The growth in YA non-fiction can, of course, be partially attributed to the implementation of Common Core. But it’s also worth noting that because YA non-fiction has gotten so great in the last few years that more and more of it has been published.
One subsection within YA non-fiction that has seen tremendous growth in the last few years is the YA memoir. These are written for teens, about an experience by the author in their teens, regardless of whether or not they’re in their teens as they’re writing or it they’re adults reflecting upon a teen experience. Though it’s arguable whether or not memoirs are a genre per se, let’s dig into this category of YA.
Definition and History
What’s a “memoir” and how does it differ from “autobiography?”
This isn’t a dumb question at all, and it’s one that people are often confused about because the terms are often used interchangeably. Even major retailers lump the two together, even though they’re not the same thing.
Memoir, by definition, covers a specific period of time or experience within a person’s life. An autobiography, on the other hand, covers an entire lifespan. Wikipedia actually puts it most succinctly, noting that autobiographies are of a life while memoirs are from a life. Both of these differ from biography, which is a story of someone’s life as told by a third party.
Memoirs have huge appeal for teen readers and they always have. Anyone who has worked in a library knows that books like Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It is perennially popular with teen readers, especially among younger teens. Other memoirs, like Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, are popular among teen readers and are frequently on reading lists in classrooms or for enrichment. There is something appealing about reading someone’s true story, and while these three books, along with many other sought-after memoirs, are published as adult non-fiction, they have tremendous crossover appeal. But with the explosion of memoirs geared directly toward teen readers in the last few years, the options for what teens can pick up and relate to continue to get better and better.
Very little has been written about YA memoirs specifically, likely because it’s become an emerging category of YA non-fiction, rather than something that’s always been specifically geared toward those readers. It’s not just adult books that are being rewritten and adapted for a teen audience (which we’ve written about before), but it’s a category all its own.
Taking a look back at the memoirs written for teens in the early 2000s, it’s interesting to see that the bulk — and those which have remained around — were written by well-known and popular young adult authors. Walter Dean Myers, Ned Vizzini, Jack Gantos, and Chris Crutcher all wrote YA memoirs: Bad Boy, Teen Angst? Naaah…, Hole in My Life, and King of the Mild Frontier respectively. More recently, though, it’s new voices that are lending their stories to YA audiences. These are authors who don’t already have a foot in the category or who may otherwise not be known to teen readers at all.
Since YA memoirs are an emerging category within YA non-fiction, there aren’t many resources available. Seeking these books out isn’t the easiest, as YA non-fiction has itself been difficult to seek out more broadly. As always, Edelweiss proves to be one of the best resources, though it’s also one of the most time-consuming: even with good searching, finding the non-fiction for teens can be challenging.
With the change in YALSA’s awards and selection list honors a few years ago, non-fiction become deemphasized. The “Best Fiction for Young Adults” list used to be the “Best Books for Young Adults” list, and it included both fiction and non-fiction; now it’s fiction only. Part of the change, of course, was to help guide people toward one of the best resources for finding YA non-fiction: the Excellence in Non-Fiction Award (ENYA). Though it covers the broad range of non-fiction titles published for YA readers, it does and has included memoirs on its lists.
The ENYA isn’t the only YALSA resource featuring non-fiction, though. The Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list also includes non-fiction titles, some of which may include memoirs. Likewise, the Great Graphic Novels list includes non-fiction, too. Since memoirs can be rendered in comic form, this is a really valuable resource for finding those titles. Of course, non-fiction of any flavor is as eligible for the Printz award and the Morris award as fiction.
Beyond those lists and the use of Edelweiss, there aren’t many resources available for finding YA non-fiction and even fewer for YA memoirs. Perusing the awards of other organizations, it’s interesting to see that YA non-fiction isn’t even a category in some cases. For example, the International Reading Association designates awards for primary non-fiction and intermediate non-fiction, but they limit their YA honors to fiction only. Perhaps as non-fiction becomes more pervasive in YA — and again, its growth has been remarkable in the last two to three years alone — more acknowledgement and more tools will become available for finding high quality stories and matching them with teen readers.
Because trying to include crossover titles in this list would make it really long, I’m sticking (mostly) to memoirs that were published for a YA readership. I’ve limited the list further to those titles out in the last 5-7 years, as well as forthcoming titles worth having on your radar now. As always, descriptions come from WorldCat, and any other additions are welcome in the comments. These are all memoirs, as opposed to autobiographies. In some cases, there’s not an easy distinction or it becomes blurred and fuzzy (as in the Earl title), but I’ve included it here anyway.
Model by Cheryl Diamond: Presents the true story of one teen’s attempt to break into New York’s modeling industry at the age of fourteen, where a career-altering event changed her life and nearly ruined her shot at her dream.
Positive by Paige Rawl A teenager’s memoir of the experinces of bullying, being HIV positive and surviving the experiences to become a force for positive change in this world.
Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler: Aaron Hartzler grew up in a home where he was taught that at any moment the Rapture could happen — that Jesus might come down in the twinkling of an eye and scoop Aaron and his whole family up to Heaven. As a kid, he was thrilled by the idea that every moment of every day might be his last one on Earth. But as Aaron turns sixteen, he finds himself more attached to his earthly life and curious about all the things his family forsakes for the Lord. He begins to realize he doesn’t want the Rapture to happen just yet — not before he sees his first movie, stars in the school play, or has his first kiss. Eventually Aaron makes the plunge from conflicted do-gooder to full-fledged teen rebel. Whether he’s sneaking out, making out, or playing hymns with a hangover, Aaron learns a few lessons that can’t be found in the Bible. He discovers that the best friends aren’t always the ones your mom and dad approve of, the girl of your dreams can just as easily be the boy of your dreams, and the tricky part about believing is that no one can do it for you. In this coming-of-age memoir, Hartzler recalls his teenage journey to become the person he wanted to be, without hurting the family that loved him.
Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter: Ashley spent nine years in foster care after being taken away from her mother. She endured many caseworkers, moving from school to school and manipulative, humiliating and abusive treatment from one foster family. See how she survives and eventually thrives against the odds.
Three More Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter (May 5): In the sequel to the New York Times bestselling memoir Three Little Words, Ashley Rhodes-Courter expands on life beyond the foster care system, the joys and heartbreak with a family she’s created, and her efforts to make peace with her past. (Description via Goodreads)
Smile for the Camera by Kelle James: The author relates her experiences after she left an abusive home at sixteen and traveled to New York City to pursue a career as a model.
Rock ‘N Roll Soldier by Dean Ellis Kohler: Dean Ellis Kohler, aspiring rock star, is drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he forms a rock ‘n’ roll band at the behest of his Captain.
The Pregnancy Project by Gaby Rodriguez: In this book, Rodriguez shares her experience growing up in the shadow of low expectations, reveals how she was able to fake her own pregnancy, and reveals all that she learned from the experience. But more than that, Gaby’s story is about fighting stereotypes, and how one girl found the strength to come out from the shadow of low expectations to forge a bright future for herself.
The Year We Disappeared by Cylin Busby and John Busby: Cylin and John Busby share the challenges they faced after their family was forced into hiding to protect themselves from a killer who had already shot John, a police officer, and was determined to finish the job.
Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill: In her unique, generous, and affecting voice, nineteen-year-old Katie Hill shares her personal journey of undergoing gender reassignment. Have you ever worried that you’d never be able to live up to your parents’ expectations? Have you ever imagined that life would be better if you were just invisible? Have you ever thought you would do anything–anything–to make the teasing stop? Katie Hill had and it nearly tore her apart. Katie never felt comfortable in her own skin. She realized very young that a serious mistake had been made; she was a girl who had been born in the body of a boy. Suffocating under her peers’ bullying and the mounting pressure to be “normal,” Katie tried to take her life at the age of eight years old. After several other failed attempts, she finally understood that “Katie”–the girl trapped within her–was determined to live. In this first-person account, Katie reflects on her pain-filled childhood and the events leading up to the life-changing decision to undergo gender reassignment as a teenager. She reveals the unique challenges she faced while unlearning how to be a boy and shares what it was like to navigate the dating world and experience heartbreak for the first time in a body that matched her gender identity. Told in an unwaveringly honest voice, Rethinking Normal is a coming-of-age story about transcending physical appearances and redefining the parameters of “normalcy” to embody one’s true self.
Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews: Seventeen-year-old Arin Andrews shares all the hilarious, painful, and poignant details of undergoing gender reassignment as a high school student in this winning teen memoir
The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson: The biography of Leon Leyson, the only memoir published by a former Schindler’s List child.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai: I Am Malala. This is my story. Malala Yousafzai was only ten years old when the Taliban took control of her region. They said music was a crime. They said women weren’t allowed to go to the market. They said girls couldn’t go to school. Raised in a once-peaceful area of Pakistan transformed by terrorism, Malala was taught to stand up for what she believes. So she fought for her right to be educated. And on October 9, 2012, she nearly lost her life for the cause: She was shot point-blank while riding the bus on her way home from school. No one expected her to survive. Now Malala is an international symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize nominee. In this Young Readers Edition of her bestselling memoir, which includes exclusive photos and material, we hear firsthand the remarkable story of a girl who knew from a young age that she wanted to change the world — and did. Malala’s powerful story will open your eyes to another world and will make you believe in hope, truth, miracles and the possibility that one person — one young person — can inspire change in her community and beyond.
Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw: With acerbic wit … Shane Burcaw describes the challenges he faces as a twenty-one-year-old with spinal muscular atrophy. From awkward handshakes to having a girlfriend and everything in between, Shane handles his situation with humor and a ‘you-only-live-once’ perspective on life. While he does talk about everyday issues that are relatable to teens, he also offers an eye-opening perspective on what it is like to have a life-threatening disease.
This Star Won’t Go Out by Esther Earl: A memoir told through the journals, letters, and stories of young cancer patient Esther Earl.
Little Fish by Ramsey Beyer: Written in an autobiographical style with artwork, this book shows the challenges of being a young person facing the world on your own for the very first time and the unease – as well as excitement – that comes along with that challenge. (This WorldCat description is not good — this is a memoir that mixes narrative with lists, ephemera, and art).
Tomboy by Liz Prince: Eschewing female stereotypes throughout her early years and failing to gain acceptance on the boys’ baseball team, Liz learns to embrace her own views on gender as she comes of age, in an anecdotal graphic novel memoir.
How I Made it to Eighteen (A Mostly True Story) by Tracey White: How do you know if you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown? For seventeen-year-old Stacy Black, it all begins with the smashing of a window. After putting her fist through the glass, she checks into a mental hospital. Stacy hates it there but despite herself slowly realizes she has to face the reasons for her depression to stop from self-destructing. Based on the author’s experiences, How I Made it to Eighteen is a frank portrait of what it’s like to struggle with self-esteem, body image issues, drug addiction, and anxiety.
Tweak by Nic Sheff: The author details his immersion in a world of hardcore drugs, revealing the mental and physical depths of addiction, and the violent relapse one summer in California that forever changed his life, leading him down the road to recovery.
We All Fall Down by Nic Sheff: Sheff writes candidly about stints at in-patient rehab facilities, devastating relapses, and hard-won realizations about what it means to be a young person living with addiction.
We Should Hang Out Sometime by Josh Sundquist: Why was [Paralympic ski racer and cancer survivor] Josh still single? To find out, he tracked down the girls he had tried to date and asked them straight up: what went wrong? The results of Josh’s semiscientific, wholly hilarious investigation are captured here: disastrous Putt-Putt date involving a backward prosthetic foot, to his introduction to CFD (Close Fast Dancing), to a misguided ‘grand gesture’ at a Miss America pageant, this story is about looking for love–or at least a girlfriend–in all the wrong places.
The Bite of Mango by Mariatu Kamara: When Mariatu set out for a neighborhood village in Sierra Leone, she was kidnapped and tortured, and both of her hands cut off. She turned to begging to survive. This heart-rending memoir is a testament to her courage and resilience. Today she is a UNICEF Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.
The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon: Brent Runyon was fourteen years old when he set himself on fire. In this book he describes that suicide attempt and his recovery over the following year. He takes us into the Burn Unit in a children₂s hospital and through painful burn care and skin-grafting procedures. Then to a rehabilitation hospital, for intensive physical, occupational, and psychological therapy. And then finally back home, to the frightening prospect of entering high school. But more importantly, Runyon takes us into his own mind. He shares his thoughts and hopes and fears with such unflinching honesty that we understand₇with a terrible clarity₇what it means to want to kill yourself and how it feels to struggle back toward normality. Intense, exposed, insightful, The Burn Journals is a deeply personal story with universal reach. It is impossible to look away. Impossible to remain unmoved.
Ghosts of War by Ryan Smithson: Ryan Smithson joined the Army Reserve when he was seventeen. Two years later, he was deployed to Iraq as an Army engineer. In this extraordinary and harrowing memoir, readers march along one GI’s tour of duty. Smithson avoids writing either prowar propaganda or an antimilitary polemic, providing instead a fascinating, often humorous-and occasionally devastating-account of the motivations and life of a contemporary soldier.
Popular by Maya Van Wagenen: A touchingly honest, candidly hysterical memoir from breakout teen author Maya Van Wagenen. Stuck at the bottom of the social ladder at “pretty much the lowest level of people at school who aren’t paid to be here,” Maya Van Wagenen decided to begin a unique social experiment: spend the school year following a 1950s popularity guide, written by former teen model Betty Cornell. Can curlers, girdles, Vaseline, and a strand of pearls help Maya on her quest to be popular? The real-life results are painful, funny, and include a wonderful and unexpected surprise-meeting and befriending Betty Cornell herself. Told with humor and grace, Maya’s journey offers readers of all ages a thoroughly contemporary example of kindness and self-confidence.
Soul Surfer by Bethany Hamilton: Bethany Hamilton, a teenage surfer lost her arm in a shark attack off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii. Not even the loss of her arm keeps her from returning to surfing, the sport she loves.
To Timbuktu by Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg: Casey and Steven met in Morocco, moved to China then went all the way to Timbuktu. This illustrated travel memoir tells the story of their first two years out of college spent teaching English, making friends across language barriers, researching, painting, and learning to be themselves wherever they are.
A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me by Jason Schmidt: In his memoir, Jason Kovacs tells the story of growing up with an abusive father, who contracted HIV and ultimately died of AIDS when Jason was a teenager
Elena Vanishing by Elena and Clare B. Dunkle (May 19): Seventeen-year-old Elena is vanishing. Every day means renewed determination, so every day means fewer calories. This is the story of a girl whose armor against anxiety becomes artillery against herself as she battles on both sides of a lose-lose war in a struggle with anorexia. Told entirely from Elena’s perspective over a five-year period and co-written with her mother, award-winning author Clare B. Dunkle, Elena’s memoir is a fascinating and intimate look at a deadly disease, and a must read for anyone who knows someone suffering from an eating disorder. (Description via Goodreads).
I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda (April 14): It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of–so she chose it.
Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one.
That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.
In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends –and better people–through letters. Their story will inspire readers to look beyond their own lives and wonder about the world at large and their place in it. (Description via Goodreads).
No Summit Out of Sight by Jordan Romero: The story of Jordan Romero, who at the age of 13 became the youngest person ever to reach the summit of Mount Everest. At age 15, he reached the summits of the world’s 7 highest mountains.
Hidden Girl by Shyima Hall The author, Shyima Hall, was eight when her parents sold her into slavery. In Egypt’s capitol city of Cairo, she lived with a wealthy family and serve them eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. When she was ten, her captors moved to Orange County, California, and smuggled Shyima with them. Two years later, an anonymous call from a neighbor brought about the end of Shyima’s servitude– but her journey to true freedom was far from over. Now a US citizen, she regularly speaks out about human trafficking and candidly reveals how she overcame her harrowing circumstances.