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Like a Train Wreck: Tragic Memoirs

DEPRESSION_by_optiknerve_grAnnie Dillard, our memoirs would probably not attract much readership. Like literary voyeurs, readers are drawn to memoirs that are sensational in their catastrophe. David Pelzer’s A Child Called “It” (2002 Popular Paperbacks) has been fascinating youthful readers for almost two decades. Such memoirs allow readers to experience horrible things vicariously, and, more importantly, witness the healing aftermath.

Most memoirs are written from an adult perspective for understandable reasons. Often the focus, however, is on younger selves that lived through the trauma-scarred years. For this reason, nearly all of the books below are published for adult audiences. Many of them have been recognized with YALSA awards or inclusion on a YALSA list.

all over but the shoutin coverOften tragic memoirs recall a childhood marred by a parent’s illness or bad behavior. One of the very first Alex Awards (1998) went to Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’, a moving account of the author’s impoverished childhood in Alabama, including his relationship with his alcoholic father. Bragg’s mother worked ceaselessly to raise Bragg and his two brothers.

It is a common condition of being poor … you are always afraid that the good things in your life are temporary, that someone can take them away, because you have no power beyond your own brute strength to stop them.
— Rick Bragg, All Over But The Shoutin’

Bragg took a job at the local paper when he was 18. Eventually he made it as a journalist for The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer Award.

In her memoir, Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard (2010 Alex Award), Liz Murray recalls her childhood nights spent on subway trains until dawn. In an interview, Liz Murray talks about going from homeless to Harvard:

Not every story has a happy ending. But if misery loves company, it’s a solace for teens in their own desperatoin to know that others have survived worse. And it’s very human to gawk at train wrecks. What happens to children when their childhood is destroyed? How do they survive without enough food, or proper clothing, or friends who can understand their lives? The memoirs mentioned here mainly deal with adult-inflicted tragedy. Of course, there are many other things that can go wrong. Stay tuned.

Other titles to check out:

  • Gonville: A Memoir by Peter Birkenhead
  • Overlay: A Tale of One Girl’s Life in 1970s Las Vegas by Marlayna Glynn Brown
  • Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
  • As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto
  • A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard
  • Finding Fish by Antwon Fisher and Mim Eichler Rivas
  • Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood by Julia Gregory (2006 Popular Paperbacks)
  • The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
  • Fat Girl: A True Story by Judith Moore
  • Three Little Words: A Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter
  • Jesus Land: A Memoir by Julia Scheeres (2006 Alex Award)
  • Favorite Wife: Escape from Polygamy by Susan Ray Schmidt
  • Stitches: A Memoir by David Small (2010 Alex Award, 2010 Best Books for Young Adults)
  • The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls (2006 Alex Award)

— Diane Colson, currently reading The Lifeboat by Charolotte Rogan and listening to The Windup Girl by Paola Bacigalupi and narrated by Jonathan Davis

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Diane Colson

I have been a librarian working with youth since 1998, beginning at the Alachua County Library District, and later at Palm Harbor Library and Nashville Public Library. Possibly because of the edgy nature of teen literature, or possibly because my maturation process crashed at the age of fifteen years-old, I love YA books. And I enjoy working with YAs as well, although I'm just as happy doing Toddler Time. By some good fortune, I have served on a number of YALSA selection committees (Outstanding Books for the College Bound, Popular Paperbacks, Alex Award, Odyssey Award, Nonfiction Award, Morris Award, and Printz) as well as a smattering of process committees. Currently I am serving on the YALSA Board. .I also review books for VOYA, School Library Journal's Adult4Teen Blog, BookPage, and Booklist.


  1. Emily Calkins Emily Calkins

    Great timing! The teen book club at my library wants to read memoirs next month and they specifically asked for “books where people have bad things happen to them.” Now I have a whole list for them to chose from!

  2. Thank you for mentioning Overlay: A Tale of One Girl’s Life in 1970s Las Vegas. I’m truly honored!

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