10 books of shattered childhoods

In many ways, our childhood defines the rest of our life. Books about childhoods shattered by pain and suffering – both fiction and non–fiction – are commonplace today but they have a long history dating back to the English tale of the Babes in the Wood in the 16th century. Some like Oliver Twist and Anne Frank's Diary illustrate a period of history, while others, such as Lord of the Flies and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, have become deeply symbolic.

Many of the real-life stories are intensely painful to read because war, violence, poverty or abuse in the home turns childhood into a battle for survival. And then novels – such as The Wasp Factory, Flowers in the Attic and The Cement Garden – have been criticised almost as much as they have been praised because they challenge taboos about how youngsters should behave.

Enjoy, or perhaps it should be endure, our selection of 20 books (in chronological order) about shattered childhoods.

Shattered childhood - 10 books

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1839)

Oliver Twist is packed with grim realism and satire on Victorian poverty from the injustice of the workhouse to children sweeping chimneys and thieving on the streets. Slums abound. The ‘Please, sir, I want some more’ line is literature’s most famous culinary request. Dickens’ second novel and originally published in serial form, the book is far from perfect with its Jewish and upper class stereotypes but still occupies an important spot in literary history.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)

One of the most influential and remarkable books published in the 20th century, Anne Frank′s diary describes her two–year stint hidden away in a secret alcove inside an Amsterdam office building during the Nazi occupation. Anne, who started writing on her 13th birthday, died in the Belsen concentration camp shortly before the end of the war. A totally unique book that illustrates the suffering of the Jews during World War II.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)

Can there really be anyone who hasn’t read this novel? A group of schoolboys are marooned by a plane crash on a desert island and their attempts to remain civilised (and nice toward the fat kid) fail very badly. School teachers love this novel because it poses so many questions about morality, power and what holds together society. Consider checking out The Coral Island by RM Ballantyne from 1857, Lord of the Flies was written as a reposte to this novel.

A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines (1968)

A fixture on most school curriculums in the UK, this novel is virtually unknown in North America. It has a desperately sad ending. Set in Barnsley, in the heart of working class Yorkshire, schoolboy Billy Casper finds and attempts to train a kestrel, which he names Kes. A Kestrel for a Knave shows a downtrodden class where retribution, at all levels, is swift and brutal. The book is a 24–hour insight into ignorance versus hope.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)

Angelou’s 1969 autobiography is a landmark book about how racism and hatred can be overcome. The book charts Angelou’s life from three, when she goes to live with her grandmother in Arkansas, to when she becomes a mother at 17. The narrative is dominated by the author’s rape at the age of eight. It won the National Book Award in 1970 and is frequently used in schools because it encapsulates racial suffering in the States.

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (1971)

A very controversial book on its publication, Go Ask Alice is supposed to be a diary of a troubled teenage girl who died from a drugs overdose. As it includes drug addiction, kids living on the streets, sex with strangers, swearing and a rape, the book has been banned many times in America. The diary’s writer is the middle class daughter of a university professor, whose suburban life goes to pieces when her parents move to a new town.

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan (1978)

There is a train of thought that McEwan’s edgy, dark early books are better than his later bestsellers – in fact, they used to call him ‘Ian Macabre’ when he was an up-and-coming writer. The father of four children dies and then their mother dies too. The children encase their mother’s body in cement in the basement to avoid being taken into care by social services. There’s an incestuous relationship to make things even more complicated.

Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews (1979)

This disturbing novel was the first in Andrews’ Dollanganger Series – Petals on the Wind, If There Be Thorns,Seeds of Yesterday, and Garden of Shadows came later. The four Dollanganger children lose their father in a car crash and end up living in their grand-parents house. However, the children are imprisoned in the attic by their mother and grandmother. The novel was an instant bestseller in 1979 and courted controversy due to an incest theme.

Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski (1982)

A semi-autobiographical novel written in the first person, Ham on Rye describes the painful childhood and teenage years of Henry Chinaski in ultra-tough Los Angeles during the Great Depression. The boy is described as a loner, frequently beaten by his violent father and alienated from other school children. Henry is eventually thrown out of the house by his father who discovers his writing.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)

A remarkable book by any stretch of the imagination and is essentially a gothic novel about the abuse of power. The Wasp Factory describes the childhood of Frank Cauldhame, who lives on an island with his father. Frank has several bizarre rituals including hanging dead animals from so–called sacrifice poles. As the story unfolds, his brother – interned in a mental hospital – is introduced. It’s a gruesome, violent book but very hard to put down.


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