The last decade has been a boon for YA nonfiction. The category is one rich in diverse voices and stories, and it offers teen readers books that explore topics of interest to them in an audience-friendly way. But what about teens who are not interested in YA nonfiction but still like real life stories? Perhaps those readers prefer adult nonfiction and/or are doing a class assignment and want to choose from an even wider array of options? Enter some excellent adult memoirs for teens.
Although there are tremendous YA memoirs for teens, so too are there awesome adult memoirs perfect for teen readers. They either tell gripping personal stories from the author’s younger years or their coming-of-age, or they share stories that haven’t yet been seen in YA but connect with adolescent readers.
A memoir, being a first-person narrative from a specific period of time in an individual’s life or covering a particular experience within their life, connects with YA readers in particular because of the immediacy of the storytelling. There’s a natural crossover for voice, and pairing that voice with a story of appeal to teen readers means that the possibilities are wide open. This list includes only 20 of the best adult memoirs for teens, a mere slice of the world of great adult-published titles teens and YA readers might love. I’ve mostly avoided including titles with a young reader’s adaptation.
Find below stories of immigration, of adoption, gender identity, race, culture, and so much more. There’s something here for every kind of teen reader eager for a good book.
The Best Adult Memoirs for Teens
Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School by Kendra James
James works as an admissions counselor for an elite boarding school and in the course of her work, realized what she was doing brought up an array of memories of her own experiences as a young person of being the only Black person at boarding school. This memoir explores James’s experiences, what it is to be “the only” in a room, and how education is still a system stacked against people of the global majority.
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Chung’s memoir is a moving look at what it means to be a transracial adoptee. She grew up not seeing many (any!) other Koreans in her life, as both of her adoptive parents were white. But, the curiosity around her adoption had kept at her, and in her adulthood, she sought out the story of her biological parents and family. This is tender and kind, while also honest and raw.
Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang
Immigrating to the U.S. is no small feat, and Qian and her family — who came when she was 7 — were “illegal” in their new land. Where once her mother and father were highly educated and respected professors, in the U.S. they took jobs in Chinatown sweat shops. Qian herself struggled in school, chided especially for her lack of English skills. This powerful read comes to a head when Qian’s mother collapses from an illness she’s kept secret, and in order to survive, Qian has to keep her head down and repeat the family’s mantra that she was born in the U.S. and always lived here.
Several vital immigration memoirs pepper this roundup, showcasing how wide-ranging the experiences are, as well as the threads which unite them all.
Boy Erased by Garrard Conley
What happens when you grow up in a strict Baptist household in rural Arkansas and know you’re gay? When he was outed to his family at age 19, Conley found the answer: he’d either have to attend a conversion program or lose everything he had.
He made the choice to attend the program, and the brutal experience not only showcased the deep homophobia within the church but also that no matter what “deprogramming” exists, a person who is queer cannot erase who they are.
This book was made into a 2019 film, so readers may already be familiar with the story.
Crossing the Line: A Fearless Team of Brothers and the Sport That Changed Their Lives Forever by Kareem Rosser
Kareem and his brothers grew up in one of the most socioeconomically challenged communities within Philadelphia. But when his brothers made a surprise discovery on one of their bike rides, they were all invited to take part in The Work to Ride stables, which offered them horse riding lessons in exchange for after school work.
Once they began to ride, the brothers learned about polo and pursued the sport with aplomb, leading to Kareem becoming part of the first all-Black national interscholastic polo championship team.
This is a sports memoir, as well as a story of keeping a family riddled with challenges together.
The Deeper the Roots: A Memoir of Hope and Home by Michael Tubbs
Growing up, Tubbs was told not to tell anyone his story. His family included three “moms” — his grandma, his aunt, and his mother — and a father who was incarcerated. They struggled financially, and Tubbs himself felt like he lived two lives: one as a nerdy book lover and one as the kid keeping up with the latest styles to fit in.
Tubbs earned a scholarship to Stanford and earned an internship in the Obama White House after high school. When he came back to his hometown of Stockton, California, he became the first Black mayor, as well as its youngest one, at the age of 26. That was when he realized how important telling his story of the complexities of being Black in America was vital.
Educated by Tara Westover
Born into a family of survivalists, Tara didn’t see the inside of a classroom until she was 17 — the time when others her age prepare to graduate high school. This is a story of growing up isolated from mainstream society, about a family eschewing modern medicine and education in favor of prepping and religious devotion, and how Tara took schooling into her own hands in order to find a way out.
This is a story of family violence, but it’s also one of hope, resilience, and of reclaiming one’s power and individuality.
Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen
Iversen’s family lived near the Rocky Flats, a once-secret nuclear weapons facility. This book stitches together the experience of growing up with secrets — both family ones and those of her own community’s experiences with plutonium contamination covered up by the government — as well as brilliant investigative journalism that exposes those very life-altering secrets covered up by the local news and federal bureaus otherwise tasked with keeping people safe.
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
An incredible coming-of-gender and coming-of-age memoir from a writer and artist who perfectly captures adolescent confusion and fascination with what it is to understand emself and eir place in the world. Maia grew up never feeling like e fit into a gender box, and with exposure to more books, media, and fandoms offering perspectives on gender and identity, found eirself able to finally connect with one that fit.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya
Clemantine and her sister Claire left Rwanda, traveling through seven countries looking for safety. Clemantine was 6 years old. They experienced everything imaginable, from hunger to incredible kindness, and through it all, they worried about whether or not their parents made it out alive from their war-torn home country.
At 12, both girls became refugees in the U.S., and when they landed in Chicago, they were separated. The sisters remained close, but their lives could not have been more different. Clemantine shares her story of survival, including thriving at Yale and in athletics, and how her young experiences continue to play a major role in who she is as an adult.
In The Country We Love by Diane Guerrero
Guerrero’s book is about growing up as a child of immigrants following the detainment and deportation of her parents. How do you make a life in the U.S. when you’re 14 and have no family to turn to? Guerrero’s story is heartbreaking and hard to read, especially as she talks about struggling with learning disorders and mental health issues, but it’s also an important one to read because, as she notes throughout, her story is the story of so many people in the U.S.
This should be required reading anyone who cares about immigration, inclusivity, and how terrible the U.S. government is toward those who just want to make a better life for themselves.
My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
A fascinating and sad graphic memoir about Jeffrey Dahmer’s teen years. What works so well about this is precisely what Backderf lays out in the introduction: this isn’t meant to elicit sympathy for or empathy for Dahmer, but rather, this is about a very mentally unstable individual.
Backderf’s art and story line work together; one does not outshine the other one. You watch as Dahmer goes from being a social outcast to being wildly ill and deranged. His family life was terrible — especially in light of the social conventions of the mid-1970s — and Dahmer himself experienced alcohol addiction, to the point he skipped classes to drink.
For readers who love true crime or notorious individuals like Dahmer, this pulls back the curtain of popular mythologies surrounding these stories.
Nowhere Girl: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood by Cheryl Diamond
Imagine growing up across the world, staying for a short time, taking on an entirely new identity, then moving to the next place and next identity. That was Cheryl’s experience. In her youngest years, it was a fun adventure. In her teen years, though, she began to suspect something else was at play.
What transpires is a story of a family fleeing from international law enforcement agencies and what it takes to escape that situation to find out who you truly are…especially when you have no proof of existence at all.
Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz
This complex story of identity, of family challenges, and of coming-of-age will resonate with readers who love stories like Educated or The Glass Castle. Jaquira grew up in the housing projects of Puerto Rico, living with a mother who lived with schizophrenia. While she had tremendous support from her friends, she desired the connection with her family, her culture, and her identities — sexual, historical, and otherwise. A survivor of assault and violence, Jacquira offers a generous story of becoming wholly herself in colonized and conservative world.
The Pale-Faced Lie by David Crow
David and his siblings loved and looked up to their hardened father while growing up on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Their father’s stories of heroism in World War II enthralled them. What they didn’t realize, though, was how their father’s intimidation techniques allowed him to coerce David and his siblings to engage in criminal activities on his behalf.
This raw story of growing up with an ex-con as a father, a mentally ill mother, and the lengths at which children need to go to protect themselves — as well as to find forgiveness for their parents’ actions — is a challenging but unforgettable read.
Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington
While the legacies of Native and First People assimilation programs in the U.S. and Canada are becoming much more widespread, these histories aren’t limited to North America. Australia, too, created and funded residential schools.
At the Moore River Native Settlement, three girls were stripped of all the things that made them who they were, in order to assimilate into white culture. But the girls escaped the school and made a journey back to their homeland, to reconnect with their Aboriginal heritage.
Readers who are engrossed with this story of survival and resilience will be eager to tune into the film made from the book, too.
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
Ford is a voice of the Millennial generation, and her memoir speaks to an experience which will resonate with so many. Eager to connect with her father, she knows it’s not possible, as he’s incarcerated. She doesn’t know why nor for how long. During her adolescence as her body begins to change, so, too, does the attention Ashley sees from men.
When her grandmother tells her the truth about her father, Ashley’s entire world is upended.
This is a moving story of growing up poor and Black in Indiana and what it is to discover the truth behind troubling family secrets. It’ll especially reach young readers struggling to understand the personal and political ramifications of their changing bodies.
Soviet Daughter by Julia Alekseyeva
Told in two timelines, Julia’s graphic memoir follows her coming-of-age in an immigrant family in Chicago, as well as her great grandmother Lola’s story of coming of age outside Kiev as a poor Jewish girl.
Lola lived through several political and cultural revolutions under the USSR, eventually becoming a U.S. refugee. Julia finds inspiration in Lola’s story as she herself becomes more politically engaged in her community.
This particular story makes for a timely read, despite being published in 2017.
The Ugly Cry by Danielle Henderson
Danielle grew up with her grandmother in a very white area of upstate New York after her mother abandoned her. Her grandmother wasn’t prepared to be a parent again, but she helped raise Danielle to be a strong, independent, funny, socially conscious Black girl–turned-woman with the help of a sharp tongue and horror films.
This is a memoir that epitomizes the ugly cry: sometimes it’s funny because it’s funny and other times, it’s funny because the sadness and darkness need that outlet to diffuse.
Wild Life: Dispatches from a Childhood of Baboons and Button-Downs by Keena Roberts
For readers hoping for a memoir of a unique childhood, Keena’s is a winner. She, her sister, and her parents, who worked as research primatologists, spent half of their year in Botswana in “Baboon Camp” and the rest of the year off the Main Line in the Philly suburbs at a private school. It’s a really fascinating story of falling in love with Africa and growing up understanding what it is to be privileged enough to live such a life, as well as what it is to have a really wild and free — yet at times downright terrifying — childhood. The ability to interweave her less-than-happy American experience makes this one stand out, and without question, this book has loads of crossover appeal to teen readers. It’s told in anecdotes, with a number of pictures, as well as entries from Keena’s diaries.
This book would make a particularly interesting contrast with Admissions.
Want more great adult books for teens? Here are 20 outstanding crossover books, as well as excellent books for the college bound. For the teens and YA readers especially taken with true stories, dive into these works of narrative journalism.