Childhood Studies Autobiography and Childhood
by
Kate Douglas
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0263

Introduction

“Autobiography” derives from the Greek terms autos (self), bios (life), and graphein (writing), and is most commonly understood as a cultural text in which a person represents their own life. The practice has long been associated with the written word: well-known, published books in which significant people record their remarkable lives. Traditionally, autobiography has been characterized by so-called “great men,” usually white and European, recounting their lives as they approach their later years. However, cultural change in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—particularly second-wave feminism, decolonization, globalization, the rise of technology, and mass and digital media—have changed “self-life-writing” radically. The development of alternative types of first-person and life storying, including memoir, documentary, reality television, blogs, vlogs, and diverse and ever-emerging forms of social media (e.g., YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok), has consistently brought new voices and subjects into the public sphere. Life narration, in its various forms, has become a diverse, global genre. It is now steeped in the various written and oral traditions in which people have told stories about their lives for thousands of years and across myriad locations. The terms “autobiography,” “life writing,” and “life narrative” have become umbrella descriptors for the plethora of ways in which people of all ages, cultures, and locations represent themselves, their lives, or the lives of others on a daily basis. Childhood is, unsurprisingly, a common theme within autobiography. Childhood is where life begins, and autobiographies of childhood have brought a greater understanding of the diverse ways in which people experience childhood.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

Children have been telling their life stories, and adults recounting their childhoods across cultures, for as long as people have lived, including examples such as African folktales and Indigenous Australian oral histories, as Coe 1984 and Douglas 2010 contend. Yet most of what we know about autobiography and childhood as a form comes from European contexts, where writing about childhood inevitably aligns with shifts in the cultural position of children. Augustine’s Confessions (397–400 CE) is one early and notable example of autobiographical writing about childhood. However, childhood was of little interest in European life writing until the eighteenth century. Prior to the eighteenth century, though childhood was not afforded the same interest as it is today, there was a growing curiosity about children’s lives. Childhood was becoming understood as a separate developmental stage to adulthood that was worthy of consideration, and this was reflected within writing and art. As Douglas 2010 notes, by the nineteenth century, childhood was a cultural preoccupation, but most commonly framed within the stereotypical binary of innocence (childhood) to experience (adulthood). Children and childhood were most commonly seen as a window into the adult the child would become. Prominent authors here included the Romantic poets (e.g., William Wordsworth) and those novelists engaged in the Bildungsroman mode such as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, and Thomas Hardy, who used autobiographical fictions to explore the challenging emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual growth of the protagonist from childhood to adulthood. Such novels also introduced themes related to the rights of the child, such as childhood mortality, class, and gender inequality. As McCooey 1995 argues, in the twentieth century, representations of childhood featured commonly across autobiographical writings. Childhood was still often represented as foundational to the adult the protagonist became, but was increasingly of interest in itself as a means of understanding more about children’s histories. Notable texts include the memoirs of Virginia Woolf, the diary of Anne Frank, and the academic and activist writings of Christa Wolf, Annette Kuhn, and Richard Rodriguez—all of whom were preoccupied with the relationship between the child and the social world. As Douglas and Poletti 2016 argue, 20th-century autobiographers sought to understand childhood developmentally and socially—to understand their experiences of the world—but also to explore how experiences of childhood impact upon adult life. The autobiography of childhood mode experienced a significant boom in the 1990s with the rise of so-called “misery memoirs” recounting difficult or traumatic childhoods. Notable in this trend were Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996) Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (1995), and James McBride’s The Color of Water (1995). These autobiographies of childhood most commonly took the form of a middle-aged adult writing about their childhood long before. As Cardell and Douglas 2014 and Douglas 2010 argue, the circulation of these memoirs opened up larger conversations about diverse experiences of childhood in history. They offered counter-histories to idealized versions of mid-19th-century childhoods—for example, through their representations of childhood poverty, neglect, and abuse. This trend has continued well into the 2000s and shows no sign of waning. The 2000s have seen notable trends in autobiographical writings about childhood and youth, including the representation of drug and alcohol abuse (see, for example, Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood [2005] by Koren Zailckas), of eating disorders (Empty [2020] by Susan Burton), of mental health struggles (Maybe I Don’t Belong Here [2021] by David Harewood), of family separation and trauma (Somebody’s Daughter [2021] by Ashley. C. Ford), and of sex and sexuality (Caught in the Act [2021] by Courtney Act). Such texts, through the stories they enable and what they overtly or covertly limit, reveal the cultural preoccupations and investments that surround and affect childhood and youth in the twenty-first century. Much autobiography scholarship engages in discussions of childhood simply because most autobiographies and biographies offer representations of the subject’s childhood. As previously mentioned, childhood is traditionally thought to be significant in signaling the adult the child will become. But childhood and children have become of increasing interest beyond this. This is due to the shifting social position of children and wider recognition of children as social actors whose lives and contributions to the world are as valuable as those of adults. Scholars who have researched autobiographical representations of childhood are interested in children’s lives as they are represented retrospectively by adults (whether the self, or by another) and contemporaneously by children themselves (Lynch 2013, Douglas and Poletti 2016, Douglas 2017, Douglas 2019). These scholars consider the diverse styles for representing childhood, from autobiography to biography, memoir, the graphic memoir, the archive, independent media, and digital media. As Douglas 2017 discusses, research on auto/biographies of childhood evaluate the myriad themes that emerge from these texts, including children’s rights and activism, child abuse and neglect, childhood memory, coming-of-age, education, and children’s creativity. Some significant critical issues to emerge from this scholarship include the significant contribution that children and youth have made and continue to make to auto/biographical genres, the importance of children’s participation in life narration in terms of their cultural agency, the prevalence of trauma narratives in children’s autobiography, and the ethics of reception and methods for reading children’s narratives.

  • Cardell, Kylie, and Kate Douglas, eds. Telling Tales: Autobiographies of Childhood and Youth. London: Routledge, 2014.

    This edited collection acknowledges the many texts and forms in which people tell stories about their childhood and youth. It offers a series of case studies from leading scholars in the field, including Leena Kurvet-Käosaar, Claire Lynch, and Anna Poletti. Some of the key themes explored include sexuality, coming-of-age, trauma, prejudice, and conflict. The chapters also consider the diverse forms in which childhood is represented via autobiography, including graphic memoir, archives, anthologies, and digital modes.

  • Coe, Richard N. When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

    This is the pioneering text in this subject area. Coe surveys over six hundred autobiographies of childhood to map the form. In considering literary autobiographies from Europe and Asia, Coe posits that certain themes recur, such as coming-of-age through reading, fear, and boredom. He also finds a (perhaps unsurprising) focus on parents, teachers, and other influential figures. Coe’s study prompts reflection on the representation of childhood in nonfiction and a mandate for thinking more broadly about literary childhoods.

  • Douglas, Kate. Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma and Memory. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2010.

    Contesting Childhood considers the wave of popular autobiographies to emerge in the memoir boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. The author reviews primarily texts from Australia, Britain, and the United States to point to the prevalence of autobiographies recalling traumatic childhoods during this period. Contesting Childhood also considers autobiographies in the nostalgic mode as another dominant trend in the 1990s and 2000s, but does not set up trauma and nostalgia as binaries.

  • Douglas, Kate. “Malala Yousafzai, Life Narrative and the Collaborative Archive.” Life Writing 14.3 (2017): 297–311.

    DOI: 10.1080/14484528.2017.1328299

    Once a single autobiography was the expected practice of those telling a life story. Now it is not uncommon for notable people to tell their live stories across multiple nonfictional texts and practices. This is particularly true when the author is a younger person such as Malala Yousafzai. Malala’s life narrative “archive” includes a blog, a film, a documentary, a memoir, a memoir for young adult readers, and a children’s picture book.

  • Douglas, Kate. “Autobiographical Writing for Children.” In New and Experimental Ways of Writing Lives. Edited by Jo Parnell, 22–31. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2019.

    This chapter explores the autobiographical writings of Australian author, comedian, and artist Anh Do, and of activist and author Malala Yousafzai. Both have written memoirs of their childhoods intended for adult readers. Both then wrote versions for child readers, following a significant recent trend toward auto/biographical writings for children. This chapter asks, what happens when trauma stories are adapted for child readers, and it considers the literary and visual strategies employed to build an age-appropriate version.

  • Douglas, Kate, and Anna Poletti. Life Narratives and Youth Culture: Representation, Agency and Participation. London: Palgrave, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-55117-7

    Children and youth have been telling stories about their lives forever, though their creations have not always been recognized. This book examines the contributions that children and youth have made to auto/biographical forms including memoir, letter writing, diaries, and in social media.

  • Lynch, Claire. “The Ante-Autobiography and the Archive of Childhood.” Prose Studies 35.1 (2013): 97–112.

    DOI: 10.1080/01440357.2013.781414

    This essay outlines a notable means by which children tell stories about their own lives in everyday modes: drawings and writings completed during childhood. Lynch uses the term “ante-autobiography” to explain the ways in which children commonly produce autobiographical texts. They are not intended to be autobiography but can be retrospectively read as such. Lynch explores the implications of this through a reading of her own childhood texts. These texts provide knowledge of how children practice autobiography.

  • McCooey, David. “Australian Autobiographies of Childhood: Beginning and Myth.” Southerly: A Review of Australian Literature 55.1 (1995): 132–155.

    For McCooey and other literary scholars, autobiographies of childhood appeal because they draw on literary techniques to represent remembered experience. These texts reveal a protagonist looking inward to reveal truths about their life.

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