Although memoirs and autobiographies are largely shelved in our biography section (with a few exceptions: war memoirs can be found in the history section, travel memoirs in travel, etc), there is a difference between memoirs and autobiographies. A memoir focuses on one specific aspect of the writer's life, while an autobiography covers the entirety of the writer's life (up to the point of publication). Dreams From My Father and Decision Points are considered memoirs and not autobiographies for this very reason: Dreams From My Father focuses on Barack Obama's childhood and early adulthood with a strong emphasis on how his biracial identity and his absent father affected him, while Decision Points covers key aspects and crises of George W. Bush's presidency, how he dealt with them, and lessons that he learned from them.
With that in mind, here are some outstanding memoirs for children, young adults, and adults:
Brown Girl Dreaming is a National Book Award finalist and at the top of many people's Newbery 2015 picks (including mine). You can read my review of Woodson's exceptional memoir in verse here.
I first read The Endless Steppe when I was in elementary school; it's a harrowing read of a Polish family exiled to Siberia during World War II.
Although some elements of Beverly Cleary's childhood found their way into her stories, the mostly united and supportive families that she wrote about (save for her Newbery Medal book, Dear Mr. Henshaw, which was a significant departure) were a far cry from her Depression-era childhood and her chronically-depressed mother. Girl From Yamhill/My Own Two Feet (two volumes) are must reads for Cleary fans (My Own Two Feet ends just after the publication of her first book, Henry Huggins).
Fans of Jon Scieszka's weird and wacky humor will be delighted by Knucklehead; his stories of growing up with five brothers will resonate with those who grew up in large families and those that wish they did! Adults who went to Catholic school in the 1960s will also get a kick out of this.
I reviewed The Pregnancy Project in 2012 (read my review here). Gaby Rodriguez's fake pregnancy project (undertaken with the knowledge of her boyfriend and several key adults) is a great springboard for discussions on stereotypes and gossip. (Young adult)
Under a Red Sky: Memoirs of a Childhood in Communist Romania is a striking read of a young girl growing up in an unusual family at the height of Romania's communist era. (Young adult)
Graphic memoirs (that is, written in graphic novel format--I wish we had a better term for graphic nonfiction!) have really exploded in recent years. Here are my favorites:
March: Book One is one of my top favorite reads of 2014; I cannot wait for the January 2015 release of the second entry in this trilogy. I reviewed Congressman John Lewis's memoir in January; this is exceptional reading for young adults and adults. (Adult nonfiction)
You can't talk about amazing graphic memoirs without mentioning Maus or Persepolis. Maus is a brilliant evocation of Art Spiegelman's attempts to come to terms with his father's experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, which have understandably affected their relationship. Persepolis recounts Marjan Satrapi's childhood in Iran shortly after the overthrow of the Shah. (Adult nonfiction)
I'm a fan of everything created by Lucy Knisley, but Relish remains my favorite. I reviewed this treat in February; don't read it if you are hungry! (Shelved in YA, but adults would enjoy as well.)
Smile is my favorite Raina Telgemeier graphic memoir. I reviewed this irresistible read in 2013. (young adult)
I reviewed To Dance in 2006; this middle-grade graphic memoir is ideal for preteen and teenage ballerinas. (children's nonfiction)
Of course, we have many riveting memoirs in our adult nonfiction collection:
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a food memoir like no other; while most food-oriented memoirs are full of lush descriptions of plentiful eating, Anya von Bremzen's memoir is a tough read about her family's often harsh life during Russia's communist era. I reviewed this in December 2013, and it remains one of the most distinguished memoirs I have read.
There are many worthwhile memoirs about beloved dogs (Merle's Door, for one), but many end with the adored elderly dog dying. The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout is a welcome reprieve.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is an eye-opening and inspiring account of the author's secret book club for Iranian women.
Finally, The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, And the Power of Family is an occasionally irreverent (the author is a practicing Mormon who struggles with his faith at times), dark, and funny read about dealing with Tourette's, a complicated adoption process, and public librarianship.
Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library