Given the long-standing popularity of the family memoir -- especially the crazy family memoir, like "The Glass Castle," "The Liar's Club" or "Running With Scissors" -- it's curious that this genre has not caught on in young adult literature. Most teenagers think their families are crazy in some way. They are learning to view their parents as others might see them; this is a large part of why adolescents find their parents so uniformly embarrassing.
The question of what makes a book suitable for a YA audience must have been particularly knotty with Jason Schmidt's memoir, "A List of Things That Didn't Kill Me" (FSG, $18.99, ages 14 and up). Schmidt's story of being raised on the margins of society, in broken-down houses, crash pads and squats, by a father who rarely worked a legitimate job, often sold drugs, contracted HIV and died of AIDS, is, to say the least, gritty.
Jason's early memories of a drug bust reflect a fine understanding of his father's basic rule: Never tell the straights anything. "The straights" were people with normal lives. The straights were everyone who could get Jason's people in trouble. Such a stance made life difficult for a kid who would have to put in at least occasional appearances at school. Jason's outsider status ensured that he would always be viewed with suspicion by the authorities. He would only be accepted among kids who, like him, might be uprooted in an instant. The most painful part of this memoir is Jason's thirst to connect with people, and his utter inability to do so.
He learned to negotiate the world by triangulating between his father's rules -- enforced with capricious and often brutal discipline -- and those of polite society. Some of Jason's father's actions were clearly wrong (not to mention illegal), but he also had a core of tolerance that was undeniably humane, and that formed the kernel around which Jason's moral self-instruction took shape. Jason's father might scam social services, but he was horrified by a game called "smear the queer," which Jason learned during a brief stint in Bible class. Reflecting on his father's outrage, Jason realizes that at his grandparents' church, "everything they did seemed designed to teach the kids in the group how to identify, isolate, and attack outsiders."
From Judy Blume on, YA writers have held that young readers deserve honesty, and there are floods of YA novels about hard lives. The general understanding in fiction, though, is that the story has been thought out beforehand, and the main character is going to be OK -- or if she is not going to be OK, it will be for a reason.
Memoir is different. It's not at all certain in Jason's mind as he is growing up that he will be OK, nor is it certain in the mind of the grown-up Jason that he is now OK. All he knows is what he says in the title: All the things that happened to him didn't kill him.
Jason's recollections are poignant, horrifying, darkly hilarious and completely compelling. This is not young-adult literature; it is literature good enough to engage a young-adult audience. It should be left lying about in those rundown video arcades where you often see kids hanging out at odd times of day. "Why aren't those kids in school?" polite society sniffs as it drives by in its nice clean car. Heaven knows there are many of those kids, and Jason's memoir stands as an encouragement to them that they can survive the chaos of their lives.
3 more YA memoirs
Young adult fiction is always popular, but YA memoirs have the powerful appeal of being true. Some recent genre standouts: "I Am Malala" by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick (Little, Brown; $17) is a young readers edition of the bestselling book by the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a Pakistani girl who fought for her right to be educated and was shot by the Taliban. In "Laughing at My Nightmare" (Roaring Brook, $17.99), 21-year-old Shane Burcaw describes, with refreshingly zany humor, what it is like to grow up in a wheelchair from the age of 2, diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy. Aaron Hartzler's "Rapture Practice" (Little, Brown; $9 paper) is an unexpectedly warmhearted account of growing up gay in an Evangelical Christian family that really does drill for the Second Coming.—TOM BEER