Recommended reading in the Middle School - Autobiographical Writing
Each week the English Department at AKS will recommend books that are (we hope) interesting to a readership of Middle School students. This time, we are looking at autobiographical writing.
Strictly speaking, autobiography is not fiction, but, of course, writers embellish the truth, and leave out the ‘boring bits’ so that their lives can read like amazing stories. We hope you enjoy this range of true-life writing.
Tez Ilyas: ‘The Secret Diary of a British Muslim Aged 13 ¾’ (2021)
We start off with a bang-up-to date book by British Muslim comedian, Tez Ilyas. Tez grew up in Blackburn during the 1990s, and this book tells us his teen thoughts about his relatives, his horrible stepdad, his football-coach father, periodic long visits to Pakistan, and his friends and family.
The book is a hilarious catalogue of life in the SE Asian community in the late 1990s. Much of the book’s humour comes from Tez’s personality. He can’t help blurting out a joke or pun – sometimes the teachers are amused: 90% of the time he is sent out into the corridor in disgrace. This is an easy read, very funny, and provides a real insight into life as part of an ethnic minority in a British town.
James Herriot: ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ (1970 and 1972)
This next book is one of the most loved autobiographies ever published. It is a combination of two books written by a vet in Yorkshire detailing his dealings with Yorkshire folk in the Dales, and his interactions with his irascible eccentric boss, Siegfried Farnon, and his fun-loving, woman-chasing younger brother, Tristan. James Herriot was the pen name chosen by James Alfred “Alf” Wight, whose semi-autobiographical stories about caring for animals in the Yorkshire Dales have been enjoyed by generations.
His gift is an easy, conversational style that captured a fast-disappearing way of life in the 1930s and 1940s and offers insights into human nature with warmth and humour. The three men get up to incredible adventures as they tend to the sick animals both at the surgery and at outlying farms.
Adeline Yen Mah: ‘Chinese Cinderella’ (1999)
The subtitle of this book gives away the heartbreak at the centre of it – ‘The Secret Story of an Unwanted Daughter’. The story takes place in Hong Kong in the 1950s.
In Chinese culture, there is a strong belief in fate and luck. Adeline’s mother died after giving birth to her, and she (through no fault of her own) became associated with ‘bad luck’. Adeline seeks comfort from her grandparents although they are taken away so they cannot influence her.
Like the Cinderella of the fairy tale, her father remarries a wicked stepmother who ignores Adeline and lavishes money and affection on her own children. Adeline is sent away to school by her wealthy father, where she pours her efforts into escape by becoming an academic superstar and being sent to the UK to study and escape her family.
Adeline’s story is told with great honesty, but with an ironic humour which is testament to her steely character, and her refusal to allow herself to be ‘gaslighted’ by those who seek to do her down. The memoir is an inspiring story of finding personal strength against the obstacles of life.
Sathnam Sanghera: ‘The Boy with the Topknot’ (2009)
Sathnam Sanghera is a British Asian writer from a Sikh culture. He grew up in Wolverhampton in the 1980s in a humble home, but through scholarships and encouragement from his teachers, won a place at Cambridge to study English – the first person in his family to go to university.
Yet his sister had more academic potential than him. The book tells of the humorous life of the Sikh community – the patriarchal society, family arguments, and the strange amalgamation of Asian and British life that Sathnam was exposed to. Yet the most striking aspect of this story is his father’s mental illness which, sadly, was passed on to his elder sister.
The story combines an unflinching look at the impact of this mental illness for his immigrant parents when they arrived in the UK in the 1960s and a very funny insight into Sathnam’s child-like view of the world.
Matt Lucas: ‘Little Me’ (2017)
Matt Lucas is a famous comedian, who is perhaps best-known for the series ‘Little Britain’, created by him and David Walliams. This autobiography is an honest account of Matt’s childhood, adolescence, university life, and comedy life. There is tragedy along the way and a lot of self-criticisms – particularly about his comfort eating and lack of concentration.
Unlike most autobiographies, which are chronological accounts, Matt’s book is written in his own invented alphabetical order. He picks a topic (e.g ‘Bald’) and presents his feelings and experiences about this: in this example, it is how he went bald following an accident as a child, and the problems this has brought.
Matt is unsparing about his failures, and his ‘outsider’ status at his highly selective and sporty school (being overweight, unacademic, and bald), and gives us the low-down about being both gay, Jewish, and the son of a convicted fraudster. He is never self-pitying but humorously sends himself up.
This is a very readable and hilarious account of a fascinating life full of amazing highs, and terrible lows, but all told with vigour and imagination and an energetic vocabulary.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1947)
Anne Frank was a teenaged Jewish girl who, with her family, was forced to go into hiding in Amsterdam during World War 2.
Anne’s diary begins in 1942 on her 13th birthday, when she receives the diary as a gift, and she continues to address her imaginary friend “Kitty” in entries over the next two years of her life; detailing the experiences of an average Jewish family under the threat of Nazi occupation, and later going into hiding into the annexe of her father’s factory. To escape being captured by the Nazis - who had invaded Holland- the Franks lived in a storehouse in specially converted rooms behind a false wall. Anne kept a diary of her experiences whilst the family were holed up.
It is well known that the Franks were captured unfortunately, and Anne did not survive being sent to a concentration camp. That sad fact should not blind us to the joys and relatability of this wonderful diary which lays bare all the humour, teen tantrums, first loves, and sheer determination of Anne. It is a wonderful insight into this period of history, which everyone should read.
Nina Stibbe – ‘Love Nina: Despatches from Family Life’ (2014)
In 1982 Nina Stibbe, a 20-year-old from Leicester, moved to London to work as a nanny for a very particular family. It was a perfect match: Nina had no idea how to cook, look after children, or who the weirdos were who called round. And the family, busy discussing such arcane subjects as how to swear in German or the merits (or otherwise) of turkey mince, were delighted by her lack of skills. ‘Love Nina’ is the collection of letters she wrote home gloriously describing her 'domestic' life, the unpredictable houseguests, and the cat everyone loved to hate.
This book is a laugh-out-loud story of the trials and tribulations of a very particular family. It is set in the 1980s but is very relatable to a reader today. The joy of the book lies in its ‘artlessness’ – the family live in Gloucester Terrace in London; the estranged father and live-in mother are well-known in literary circles, and their friends and neighbours are famous people in the intellectual world, but Nina (hired as the nanny to two boys) doesn’t know who they are. She treats everyone the same and her brand of common sense pricks all pretentiousness. There are hilarious scenes with the famous playwright, Alan Bennett, who pops round for lunch most days.