What’s a “YA Memoir”?

Dear Kellie…

“YA memoir” is tricky to pin down since it’s just emerging as an “official” category, but Gretchen Hirsch, an associate editor at Atheneum, took a stab at defining it for us: “The unifying theme seems to be people who grew up in unusual or even tragic circumstances – with hope for the future.” While these memoirs are written in first person, past tense, the narratives put readers in the moment with their immediacy and their ability to ditch the preachy sophistication that often accompanies an adult’s critiquing of his childhood. Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff and Three Little Words: A Memior by Ashley Rhodes-Courter are two of Gretchen’s favorites. Both narratives use a straightforward, declarative style. There are also notable YA writers who’ve marketed their autobiographies to their YA audience, with crossover appeal to adult fans: Walter Dean Meyers’s Bad Boy: A Memoir, Jack Gantos’s Dark Hole in My Life, and David Small’s highly visual Stitches. While YA Memoir doesn’t seem to be a trend per se, there’s definitely growing interest in this category. If you’ve got an “unusual” past, might be time to revisit it in your writing.

Happy writing!

The Editor


  1. Thanks for fielding my question. My teen years were void of drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll, so not sure I could find anything in my life worthy of a YA memoir. Makes me wish now I lived it up a little!! Appreciate the titles and the definition. My TBR list is growing!

  2. A couple of other YA memoirs: MODEL: A Memoir by Cheryl Diamond and GRIEF GIRL by Erin Vincent. I have a feeling narrative non-fiction for young adults is going to take off in the next year. Not every teen is a Gossip Girl, in love with a vampire, or trapped in a dystopian death-match reality show. There should be at least a couple stories for the rest…

    • Good ones, Aaron. Note that Diamond’s MODEL is told in present tense. Great to compare its sense of immediacy with memoir’s more traditional past tense style.

  3. Does the YA memoir genre have to be 100% true and real? What if it is based in some very real events that happened..but fictionalized and remembered by a character close to what I am???

    • Maureen: Strictly speaking, a “memoir” is the real scoop about you, storytelling embellishments acknowledged. Yours strikes me as being more of the “inspired by a true story” variety of fiction. Or “semiautobiographical,” as with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, which won the National Book Award and at least a dozen other major awards. There’s definitely a place for your tale.

      • Thanks so very much for the wonderful reply! I had a childhood of being the fat kid…then I lost it in High School. What a change in people’s reaction to me!
        I am encouraged to start gathering the stories of my life. It might help those kids out there who struggle like I did.

  4. Update, October 2012: Zest Books, founded in 2006 to publish nonfiction for teens, has added a line of memoirs and first-person accounts called True Stories. Here is a link to the announcement in Publishers Weekly: http://bit.ly/SJlsrR

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