31 Days, 31 Posts: 2021 Autobiographies for Kids!
A brand new category! You know, I’d never really done a list of memoirs and autobiographies in the children’s book sphere before. That’s probably less to do with an objection to the form and more because there just weren’t that many out there. Enter 2021 and it’s a WHOLE new ballgame! If I don’t miss my guess, the upcoming ALA award season is going to have to take into consideration at least some of the titles shown here today. How could they not? They exist in ABUNDANCE!
For your convenience we are placing today’s books into three categories: Picture Book Memoirs, Graphic Novel Memoirs, and Memoirs for Older Readers. Read! Enjoy! Assign! Whatever floats your proverbial boat.
2021 Autobiographies for Kids
Picture Book Memoirs
Areli Is a Dreamer: A True Story by Areli Morales, a DACA Recipient by Areli Morales, ill. Luisa Uribe
[Previously Seen On the Informational Fiction List]
The trickiest titles I read are the ones that say straight out that they’re nonfiction, but pull from a number of different fictional techniques. Take Areli Is a Dreamer. It’s a rare bit of autobiographical picture booking, which is a good thing. We always need more of these. I know I’m not the only librarian stumped when a seven-year-old comes to the desk asking for reading level appropriate autobiographies. The tricky part comes via my old nemesis: Fake dialogue. You could argue that since this is a memoir that the dialogue is as Areli herself remembers it. What Ms. Morales has written here is a stirring and sadly timely tale. In 2020 we saw a judge rule that new DACA applications could not be processed, and at that time I was reading this book. Looks like we need it now, more than ever.
How to Make a Book (About My Dog) by Chris Barton, ill. Sarah Horne
I’m certainly straining against the classic definition of “autobiography” and “memoir” with the inclusion of this title, but since the entire premise rests on showing what it is that Chris does for a living, I’m slapping in on here. Remember that old Reading Rainbow sequence from back in the day where you learn how a book gets made? It featured the Aliki book named (appropriately enough) How a Book Gets Made. I suspect that book is still on a lot of library shelves, even though its 1986 copyright date means that it is incredibly out of date now. Maybe it’s time to get something just as charming but a little more contemporary? When Aliki made her book, digital editing was a glimpse into the future. Now we have Chris Barton to the rescue, killing two birds with one stone. Kids always ask him about how he creates his books, and kids also always ask him when he’s going to do a book about his dog. Why not combine the two things into one very clever nonfiction text? This book is a nice (and surprisingly accurate) look into all the people and work that goes into bringing a book to life. Visually, it’s an eye-popper. Sarah Horne was clearly the right artist to pair with this text. And as an author myself, my favorite two-page spread was the list of questions everyone involved in book production must keep asking. I appreciated that Chris fills the book with dog jokes, so that those kids who aren’t quite as intent on a future career into authorship have something to keep them engaged as well. All told, a marvelous update to the kind of book teachers everywhere will find useful.
Roots and Wings: How Shahzia Sikander Became an Artist by Shahzia Sikander and Amy Novesky, ill. Hanna Barczyk
I’m always rather fascinated by picture book biographies penned by their subjects. And at first glance I thought that this book was going to be similar to last year’s Flying Paintings: The Zhou Brothers: The Story of Revolution and Art by Amy Alznauer, illustrated by ShanZuo Zhou and DaHuang Zhou. It wasn’t a crazy thought. Like that book, this one is about Sikander’s journey into art as a child and then, subsequently, what it meant for her when she left her country to come live in the States. The difference, though, is that the Zhou brothers illustrated their own book and Sikander wrote hers. Still, do not fret that you don’t get to see any of her art. The book, thankfully, has some nice backmatter where you can see what she’s talking about in the text of the tale. In terms of the writing I think Sikander does a strong job. I was a little disappointed that artist Hanna Barczyk didn’t always represent what was in the text on the page. For example, when we read that Shahzia’s mother shakes the jamun branches and “We catch the dark fruit in bedsheets” that is absolutely nowhere on the page. Likewise later when we read that she learns to paint with “a single sable hair; the smallest gesture” nothing that you see on her canvas represents that. A timeline of her life is also conspicuously absent. Nonetheless, it’s lovely art, and a cool title to have on hand. Worth considering adding to the pantheon of international artist picture book autobiographies.
Sharice’s Big Voice: A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman by Sharice Davids with Nancy K. Mays, ill. Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley
How did a Bruce Lee-obsessed Native American kid grow up to become one of the first Indigenous women in Congress? Sharice Davids tells her inspiring tale. An interesting one! I’m not crazy about picture book bios of congresspeople as a general rule, but Ms. Davids at least did some work on this one herself. She’s a Ho-Chunk Nation member, gay, and a woman, elected to represent Kansas. The book has the usual peppy vibe, but the story’s interesting and I do like the art of its Ojibwe Woodland artist. Plus there is some killer backmatter going on about the history of the Ho-Chunk, written by Jon Greendeer, the Ho-Chunk Nation’s former president. All told, this is some of the strongest Indigenous content I’ve seen in 2021 and I think it deserves some serious consideration.
Thao by Thao Lam
A first person account of Thao’s life as a child that had to contend with a horrifying array of nicknames and mispronunciations of her first name. It’s a wild mixing of photography and her more familiar cut art style. Look, I don’t usually quote other reviewers when I talk about books on these lists, but I feel like Kirkus had some particularly intelligent things to say about her art: “Dressed in a festive outfit with matching red shoes, Thao literally sticks out, as her image appears to have been trimmed from a photograph and superimposed on a plain background, against which ethnically diverse children and adults are affixed as paper-collage figures gazing at her, the newcomer. The white border outlining her cutout concretizes the physical relocation and emotional reframing of the creator’s lived experience as an immigrant.” Isn’t that beautifully put? A great book to use when talking to kids about how the art informs the text (and vice versa).
Zion Unmatched by Zion Clark and James S. Hirsch, photography by Wikkie Hermkens
[Previously Seen on the Photography List]
Meet Zion Clark, a true champion. Born without legs, Zion takes his talent and strength and shows kids how, in his own words, “If I can do it, so can you.” This one was a surprise to encounter. For one thing, I had no idea it was coming out. Zion Clark was born without legs and was shuffled between foster homes, some of them abusive, for years until he was finally adopted at the age of 17. It’s notable that his charisma just vibrates off the page. As far as inspirational stories go, I like this design. I like how it’s laid out and I like the selection of photographs. It’s not quite on the same level as something like Shane Burcaw’s Not So Different, but it’s got a charm entirely of its own.
Graphic Novel Memoirs
Bad Sister by Charise Mericle Harper, ill. Rory Lucey
I have two children. An older girl and a younger boy. This pairing is pretty ideal. They don’t always get along, but they do pretty well. I am an older sister to a brother myself. So was my mother. So too, I believe, was my grandmother. I mention this because in each generation, I truly believe that the mother will look to the older sister and at some point say, “You are much nicer to your little brother than I ever was.” And the older sister will squirm, knowing that out of the watchful eyes of the parent, this is not true. Charise Mericle Harper is an artist in her own right, but she chose to allow Rory Lucey to illustrate this book, and I think that was the right choice. Could Harper’s art have so perfectly brought to life the grimy glory of the late 70s, early 80s? A time when parents let their kids play in dumpsters as long it was local dumpsters and not one down the street. A time when you played until there was an injury and then tried to gaslight the victim into believing their cuts and scrapes weren’t so bad. It’s a miracle any of us are still alive today! Harper and Lucey perfectly capture not just that time but the guilt and self-righteous anger and cruelty that comes with sisterhood. I was a “bad sister” too, absolutely. This book is strangely cathartic for all the bad sisters of the world.
Chunky by Yehudi Mercado
What do you do when your parents push you to try out for sports? If you’re Yehudi, the only Jewish Mexican kid in your neighborhood, you create Chunky: A personalized mascot. But what happens when Yehudi stops listening to Chunky’s advice? Now here we have some fine intersectional comic art at work. Finding Latinx comics is ridiculously hard sometimes. And fictionalized autobiographies almost always go to girls and a couple white boys. Yehudi is Mexican-Jewish and is told constantly to lose weight. His response is to create Chunky, his own personal mascot. And yes, this isn’t what we’d call a strict autobiography but if you look at it in terms of metaphor, it works. This had so many fun elements to it too. The fact that the coaches were all identical. His love of Saturday Night Live. And, of course, the fact that his low point is when he becomes exactly what his dad wanted him to be… and it breaks his dad’s heart. Definitely give this a read!!
Just Pretend by Tori Sharp
This one took a read and reread before I discovered what it is about this book that truly makes it stick out. We’re none of us unfamiliar with middle grade comic memoirs. Raina Telgemeier didn’t birth the form, but she certainly made it the most popular with kids. Tori Sharp doesn’t have anything as drama worthy as extreme dental surgery to fall back on, of course, but that’s part of her charm. Set in the 1990s, it’s the story of young Tori, dealing with divorced parents, mean siblings, and shifting friendships. She’s also writing a fantasy novel with a pretty cool pre-Amulet / post-Secret of NIMH feel to it. When I read it to myself I liked it but wasn’t quite feeling it yet. When I read it to my daughter, I began to appreciate Sharp’s ability to embrace parts of her family’s dynamics that both do and don’t make sense. At first, the book felt disjointed, with moments like the dad and older brother separately kicking or knocking holes into the walls and then regretting it. I was soon to realize that this is what sets Sharp apart. In one sequence the dad is forced to act like a dad by the daughter and take his son’s friend to task for bad behavior. Afterwards, however, rather than comforting his daughter he goes and hides in his car like a pouty child. And so, to a book unafraid to show those moments when people don’t always make sense, I salute you!
Other Boys by Damian Alexander
Why would a kid take a vow of silence upon entering his new school? For Damian, nothing in 7th grade is easy. Can he take a risk and start talking again? This is a tough one. It reminded me in a lot of ways of Jarrett Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo, particularly in how it discussed a kid living with their grandparents. Of course, the slow reveal of what actually happened to Damian’s mom is horrifying. You definitely just want to give this kid a hug. I know I complain about the sheer number of books with bullying in them this year, but this one works better than most. By the end, things aren’t perfect but they have improved a little, and you get this glimpse into a better future. It’s rough but worth a read.
Sylvie by Sylvie Kantorovitz
School, friends, art, love, and writing all influence young Sylvie as she tries to figure out what she wants to do with the rest of her life. All told, a delight of a book! I didn’t know what to expect but I was encouraged by the Dylan Meconis blurb on the cover. My 9-year-old daughter was very into this story since she herself likes to plan out her life 15 years on down the road. The art is particularly simple but effective. It’s a cool slice of life from an average Jewish family living in France, without much unpleasantness at all (aside from the mom who has some serious issues that she is just not working on). Consider pairing it with the somewhat similar Why Is Everybody Yelling (see below).
A Tale As Tall As Jacob: Misadventures With My Brother by Samantha Edwards
Joey Pigza? Meet your match. Being the older sister of a kid that pretty much sucks all the energy out of a room and pulls it into himself isn’t easy. Many might say that one of the purposes of children’s literature is to provide empathy for others. Since ADD and ADHD kids were identified, they’ve had their stories told in children’s books for a while. Edwards takes a slightly different tactic by providing a story of growing up with an ADHD little brother. It’s a raucous ride, and not without its perils and pitfalls. Reading this book, it reminded me so much of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, right down to the fate of the pet in a bowl. In fact, it convinced me that in those early Judy Blume books, Fudge was probably undiagnosed. You feel for Samantha, Jacob’s sister, of course but there’s a nice moment when you actually get to see a day in school from his point of view too and it isn’t fun for him. I know Ritalin and other mood altering drugs are highly controversial, but it sure sounds like it was the saving of Jacob, at least for a while. A complicated story from a kid’s eye view. The good, a lot of the bad, and a nice sweet ending.
Why Is Everybody Yelling?: Growing Up in My Immigrant Family by Marisabina Russo
This memoir is a deeper, darker, less satisfying read than some of the others on this list. I might almost characterize it as YA, no because of the content but because the ending isn’t the usual happy dappy epilogue. Marisabina delves deep into her family’s complicated history. But what else would you expect from a girl raised Catholic by a Jewish refugee mom in NYC? Her entire family is Jewish but she doesn’t understand anything of her history. Her much older Italian father is completely uninterested in her life, her brothers (also older) have their own issues they’re working out, and her mom is unpredictable. This book is packed with story, plot, and complex characterizations. Don’t pick it up if you think it’s going to be anything like some of the other reads on here. This story takes time to read, absorb, and digest. One of the most mature comics for kids of the year.
Memoirs for Older Readers
The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Eugene Yelchin
Poor Yevgeny. Growing up in Cold War Russia, all he wants is to find his talent, the way his figure-skating older brother has. But nothing Yevgeny does ever seems to turn out well. Will he ever find his genius gift? It took me a while but I’ve really warmed up to Eugene Yelchin’s wacky style. I wasn’t a huge fan of Breaking Stalin’s Nose back in the day, but ever since then it’s like the man can do no wrong. Now he’s lightly fictionalized his own memoir for kids and it is FASCINATING. Particularly the part where Mikhail Baryshnikov defects and Eugene ends up with his blue jeans. I interviewed him about this and asked him if that was true and it most certainly is. Probably the funniest, accurate depiction of living in Cold War Russia you’re ever going to see.
Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen
None of us expected to lose Gary Paulsen this year. Last January I had the chance to interview him about this book and hear firsthand his responses. The man was hale and hearty, explaining how he came to write a book that centers his trauma right at the start and goes on from there. This is a man who never had an easy life. Whether he was being shipped off by himself on a train by an uncaring mama or witnessing various horrors as a young adult, you come out of this just marveling that the man was able to carve as illustrious a career out of that wreckage as he did. If you are looking to hand a kid a memoir that is nothing short of gripping, this is the one you fork over. Unforgettable.
While I Was Away by Waka T. Brown
As you can see, 2021 turned out to be a remarkably good year for personal memoirs for kids. Whether it’s Paulsen’s Gone to the Woods or Yelchin’s The Genius Under the Table, rich and complicated childhoods yield even richer rewards. Now Waka didn’t experience the abuse of Paulsen or the Cold War of Yelchin, but her story is just as engrossing as she deals with something a lot of kids could be sympathetic towards: Getting sent to live with your tough grandma in Japan for the entire summer AND part of the school year. AND you’ll be attending school in Japan the whole time. Waka’s surprise at finding herself transformed from the smartest kid in school to a dumb jock (her words) is funny in and of itself. But Brown has this remarkable way of placing her finger directly on the pulse of that late elementary/middle school age. The details of living in Japan in the late 80s are marvelous, and there’s honestly never a dull moment. Brown has a new middle grade coming out in 2022 and I’ll be first in line to read it now. A book that’ll make you want to learn to read and write Japanese yourself!
And here’s what else we have happening this month:
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists, Best Books, Best Books of 2021, Booklists
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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