Memoirs too Good to Miss
Compiled by Rachael Walker
Memoir is a great way for readers to really immerse themselves in a new perspective, broaden their understanding of the world, and discover empathy for others. These first-hand looks into the lives of people from all walks of life will take middle grade and YA readers on journeys where they can put themselves into someone else’s shoes to learn, think about, and be inspired by lives that may be different from their own. We all have experiences to share and stories to tell. After reading one of these too-good-to-miss memoirs, young readers may even be motivated to write their own.
Chasing Space (Young Readers’ Edition) by Leland Melvin
Get an inside look at the rigorous training and work required to make it all the way to outer space from athlete-turned-astronaut Leland Melvin. In this inspirational memoir, the former Detroit Lion’s wide receiver turned engineer and NASA astronaut shares how he continually set goals and adjusted them to new realities in order achieve his dreams.
I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust by Livia Bitton-Jackson
Livia Bitton-Jackson, who was born Elli L. Friedmann in Czechoslovakia, was 13 years old when she, her mother, and her brother were taken by the S.S. to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Through riveting first-person narrative, she talks about surviving the roundups, forced labor, shootings, starvation, torture, and illness, and how she maintained her humanity and held on to her dreams.
The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor by Sonia Sotomayor
Meet the family, friends, and mentors that nurtured a determined young Latina with a clear vision all the way from a South Bronx housing project to the United States Supreme Court. Adapted from her memoir for adults, Sonia Sotomayor’s recounting of her life’s story for young readers was the 2019 Grateful American Book Prize Winner.
March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
John Lewis tells his own story in three graphic novels in March. The trilogy, written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated and lettered by Nate Powell, begins with March: Book One and Lewis’ upbringing in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his work with the Nashville Student Movement. March: Book Two depicts Freedom Rides, the growing pains of the SNCC, the progress of the Civil Rights movement, and the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. March: Book Three opens with the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, Lewis’ involvement in Bloody Sunday, and his work and experiences leading up to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson by Katherine Johnson
Using a hearty, conversational tone, Katherine Johnson tells her own incredible story from her early days as a curious and gifted child to her time at school as an exceptional mathematics student to her decades working at NASA. Candid about the racism and sexism she faced throughout her life, Johnson writes of her disregard for limitations put in place by society, and encourages readers to set their own expectations.
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka
In this raw graphic memoir, author and illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka shares what his day-to-day life was like growing up with his loud, but caring alcoholic grandparents who encouraged his interest in and talent for art, the sporadic, difficult interactions with his heroin-addicted mother, and never meeting his father until he was seventeen.
Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March by Lynda Blackmon Lowery as told to Elspeth Leacock
During the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the youngest marcher, Lynda Blackmon Lowery, turned 15. In this memoir, Lowery shares what it means to fight nonviolently as she recounts her many experiences in the civil rights movement on and before that march, including her previous arrests, time spent in a jail “sweatbox,” and the brutal beating she got from a state trooper during Bloody Sunday.”
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston & James D. Houston
In this moving memoir, Jeanne Wakatsuki recalls her childhood of glee club and baton-twirling under armed guard at Manzanar, the California concentration camp where she and her Japanese American family are imprisoned during World War II. Importantly, she shares what life was like after leaving the camp, the consequences of internment for her and her family, and how she found closure as an adult.
Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi
Sara Saedi, who has lived in the United States since she was two, learns at age 13 that she’s in the county illegally. In this moving, funny memoir, Sara shares the hurdles she and her family faced to rebuild their lives after fleeing Iran and the anxiety that being an undocumented immigrant added to her awkward teenage years.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker
Actor, author, activist George Takei uses flashback to tell the story of his family’s incarceration in an American concentration camp during World War II, sharing his perspectives as his younger and older selves. This exemplary graphic memoir deftly covers the injustices and harsh experiences endured by the Takei family while celebrating their resilience and faith.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Sharing memories, family stories, and the turbulent history of the times, award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson uses powerful verse to relate what it was like for her to grow up as an African American girl in the 1960s and 1970s in Greenville, South Carolina and New York City.
October Sky (originally published as Rocket Boys) by Homer Hickman
In this appealing memoir, Homer Hickman tells not only the story of his Sputnik-inspired rocketry experiments with his teenage friends, but also the story of Coalwood, the small mining town in West Virginia where he and the “rocket boys” launched mine scraps toward the stars.
Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx by Sonia Manzano
Multiple Emmy award-winner Sonia Manzano shares her early dream of becoming an actress in this honest, colorful coming-of-age memoir. Follow young Sonia’s struggles as she looks for ways to see beyond poverty, abuse, and troubles at home, finds her place in theater, and sets off on a path that eventually leads her to Sesame Street.
How Dare the Sun Rise by Sandra Uwiringiyimana with Abigail Pesta
In this remarkable memoir, Sandra Uwiringiyimana, who was forced to flee Democratic Republic of the Congo with her family, chronicles her life as a refugee, sharing how she survived a massacre at a refugee camp in Gatumba, Burundi at age 10, dealt with feeling unwelcome after immigrating to America, and overcame her trauma through activism.
Apple (Skin to the Core) by Eric Gansworth
An enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation, Eric Gansworth offers his memoir focused on family history, reservation life, Native and pop culture, and identity issues in verse, paintings, and photographs.
Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang
Ji-li Jiang offers a look at the advent of China’s Cultural Revolution in 1966 through the eyes of a twelve-year-old growing up in Shanghai. In this passionate memoir, she shares the suffering, losses, and humiliation that take place when her family’s own bourgeois heritage is attacked, the hard choices she had to make, and the deep scars this terrifying movement left on her and her country.
A Girl from Yamhill / My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary
In two lively volumes, beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary shares the fascinating story of her life—from her spirited adventures as an only child on an Oregon farm, through toughing out the Great Depression, to embarrassing moments in her adolescence in Portland, joyful college years in California and Washington, and elopement to Clarence Cleary, to the publication of her first book.
The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess
Amra Sabic-El-Rayess shares the intense true story of her life after the tanks rolled into Bihac, Bosnia, just after her 16th birthday and brought her city under siege. Amra recounts how throughout the brutal war and blockade, she found comfort in the unconditional love of a stray cat, which bolstered her determination to continue her education, sustain friendships, and build community.
Rolling Warrior: The Incredible, Sometimes Awkward, True Story of a Rebel Girl On Wheels Who Helped Spark a Revolution by Judith Heumann with Kristen Joiner
In this young readers’ edition of her memoir, Being Heumann, Judy shares her battle for equity and inclusion. Paralyzed by polio at 18 months of age, Judy tells the story of navigating New York City and public schools in a wheelchair in the 1950s and 60s and how that led to her to speak up and work as an advocate for disability rights.
It’s Trevor Noah: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Adapted for Young Readers) by Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, recalls his childhood in South Africa and shares stories of his parents’ illegal interracial relationship, apartheid, bullying, and poverty as well as dating, dancing, and daring entrepreneurship.
The Distance Between Us (Young Readers Edition) by Reyna Grande
Follow Reyna Grande on her personal journey that begins when she’s left behind in Mexico while her parents work to establish a new life in the United States and Reyna grows up watching her family grow apart. Eventually, Reyna’s father takes her and her siblings to the U.S. where Reyna struggles to understand the language, the culture, and the father she grew up without.
Rachael Walker has more than 30 years of experience developing partnerships and educational products with nonprofit organizations, corporations, and public agencies to benefit at-risk children and families. She launches national campaigns, coordinates special events, and develops original content for the National Education Association, Random House Children’s Books, PBS, and WETA’s Learning Media initiatives (Reading Rockets, Colorín Colorado, and AdLit.org).