When my 5th grader announced that his class was doing a unit on writer autobiographies, it was all I could do not to run off with the list of suggested books. I love knowing the behind-the-scenes stories, which would also explain why I watch VH1’s Pop-Up videos and listen to director’s commentaries on movies. (For more about the curriculum, click here.)
I was not disappointed. While most autobiographies focus on adult lives, autobiographies by children’s authors take their time with childhoods, providing readers with a fascinating look at growing up in different times and places, while some parts of childhood remain the same. Readers can also find the beginnings of some of their favorite stories, and wonder how their own lives might provide similar inspiration. Here is a list of memoirs I enjoyed, along with a suggestion of who might also enjoy them.
Boy by Roald Dahl: Fans of Roald Dahl will be delighted to find many of the roots of his stories in his delightful memoir. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for instance, had its beginnings in Dahl’s childhood fascination with sweet shops, and particularly the love/hate relationship between proprietors and customers. Dahl has a lovely knack for recalling the terrors and pleasures of childhood. There are also bonus points for those of us who can’t resist a good English boarding school story. (Do you know what a tuck box is?!)
Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka: From the comic-book appeal of the cover to the wild-growing-up stories, this book all but dares reluctant readers to pick up the book. As one of six brothers, Knucklehead will show readers that Scieszka comes by his zany sensibilities (Time Warp Trio, Spaceheadz and our family favorite, Cowboy and Octopus) very honestly. Readers will find out how to play Slaughterball (and why it was a good thing Scieszka’s mother was a nurse) and how Jon and his brothers livened up the family crèche with toy soldiers.
The Abracadabra Kid by Sid Fleischman: Born in 1920, Fleischman takes readers to a place that is both familiar and strangely different, with mentions of boot hooks and a level of freedom that most children today would find unsettling. Lovers of magic will find that the book is aptly named, since much of the book focuses on Fleischman’s love of magic, and may want to continue on to his biography of magician Harry Houdini (Escape!) and a novel about a family of magicians set in the Old West called Mr. Mysterious and Company. History buffs will enjoy Fleischman’s accounts of how he made a living with magic and his service during the war years of the United States.
26 Fairmount Avenue by Tomie dePaola: My family and I enjoyed this Newbery Honor-winning book as a recording, done by the author – a rare treat – and it is full of dePaola’s trademark charm. DePaola recounts short stories from his life in 1930’s Connecticut, complete with the first day of school, holidays and living with two grandmothers. Perfect for transitional readers who have fond memories of Strega Nona and The Barkers.
Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers: Myers takes his eye for unflinching detail and trains it on his own life in Bad Boy. Starting with his own complicated childhood – he was raised by his father’s ex-wife and second husband – Myers takes readers on his journey toward being a writer as an African-American man in mid-century America. This memoir is probably best suited for slightly older readers, and I would recommend reading this book with Myers’s very thorough and insightful Just Write: Here’s How. Readers may be especially inspired by Myers generous partnership with a young writer named Ross Workman, with whom he co-wrote the book Kick.
I still have a few books on my to-read list that I should mention here. A Girl from Yamhill by one of my favorites, Beverly Cleary, will be read this year, and my 5th grader, who read Jerry Spinelli’s autobiography and is very picky about his reading, recommends Knots in My Yo-Yo String. For adult fiction writers, I also adored Amy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate, a memoir that proves that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
Please share any recommended writer autobiographies or memoirs in the comments below!