Take your tough childhood and write about it. The result? Another sure-fire best-seller

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When Dave Pelzer's horrific tale of a life of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his alcoholic mother, A Child Called 'It', topped the bestseller lists, the publishing world thought the phenomenon would be short-lived.

When Dave Pelzer's horrific tale of a life of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his alcoholic mother, A Child Called 'It', topped the bestseller lists, the publishing world thought the phenomenon would be short-lived.

But readers cannot get enough of books chronicling the horrors of an unhappy childhood. Last week, four of The Bookseller's top 10 hardback non-fiction titles and three of the top 10 non-fiction paperbacks were real-life memoirs of domestic abuse.

At number one in the paperback charts was Just A Boy, the story of Richard McCann whose mother was the first victim of the Yorkshire Ripper, which has sold 40,000 copies.

At number four in the hardback charts was The Little Prisoner, the tale of Jane Elliott, who was confined in a fortress-like house and subjected to ritual abuse by her sadistic stepfather from the age of four, which has sold more than 36,000 copies.

Dave Pelzer's younger brother Richard has also got in on the act, with A Brother's Journey, in which with the help of a ghost-writer he relates how he became their abusive mother's new target when his brother was rescued by social workers in 1973.

Time Warner has just ordered a reprint of A Brother's Journey, which is at number six in the hardback charts and has sold 25,000 copies. Next year, Time Warner is publishing the sequel, A Teenager's Journey.

Richard Humphreys, non-fiction buyer at the bookstore chain Borders, says the fashion for confessional books is part of the reality television culture. He said: "I think it has a lot to do with the culture of airing and sharing problems. With the rise of reality TV and shows such as Jerry Springer and after the 9/11 grief-sharing experience, it's the norm now to talk about the problems in your life. People no longer suffer in silence. Because of this our customers are interested in other peoples' private lives."

Barbara Daniel, editorial director at Time Warner, believes the trend is the result of "a mix of voyeurism and a macabre fascination". She said: "It has to be something to do with a "rather them than me" attitude. It cheers them up because there are people worse off than they are. It must be comforting to find you have a much nicer life than others. There's also an amazement and disbelief that it happens."

Alexandra Pringle, editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, the publisher of Judith Kelly's Rock Me Gently, about her abuse at the hands of nuns in a Catholic orphanage, said: "It might be to do with an individual will, people wanting to think you can make your way against tremendous odds. I think there's a real desire to read strong stories whether fiction or non-fiction."

It is a literary fashion that shows no sign of abating. Joel Rickett, deputy editor of The Bookseller, said: "Each book that's published I think isn't going to work then it sells more than the previous one. It's a market a lot of people feared would be over-saturated, but these books are selling and we don't seem to have reached the peak."


A Child Called 'It' by Dave Pelzer (Orion)

One of five brothers who grew up near San Francisco, Dave Pelzer suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of his alcoholic mother until he was rescued by social workers at the age of 12 in 1973. Dehumanised by the name 'It', Pelzer was forced to live in the basement and subjected to beatings and starvation. In order to survive, he learned to play his mother's chilling games.

A Brother's Journey by Richard B Pelzer (Time Warner Books)

When Dave Pelzer was taken away from his abusive mother, she found a new target, his nine-year old brother Richard. Having previously been his mother's willing accomplice in picking on his brother, Richard now became the victim of her abuse - including savage beatings that led to hospital visits, being denied clean clothes and being forced to drink bottles of hot tabasco sauce. The sequel, A Teenager's Story, is due out next year.

The Little Prisoner by Jane Elliott (Element)

When she was four years old, Jane Elliott's sadistic stepfather began to subject her to daily ritual abuse. Tormented by mind games and physical abuse, she escaped into her own fantasy world. Although her family and neighbours were aware of the abuse, they were too terrified of her stepfather to help. She ran away at the age of 21 and started a new life. Several years later she found the courage to take her abuser to court.

Moving On Kevin Lewis (Penguin)

In The Kid, Kevin Lewis recounted his childhood on a poverty-stricken London council estate, where he was beaten and starved by his parents, bullied at school and abandoned by social services. He was eventually taken into care, but soon ended up on the streets in a criminal underworld. In the sequel, Moving On, Lewis tells of the reaction to his first book, from his parents, family, friends, teachers and social workers.

One Child Torey Hayden (Element)

A teacher tells the story of a little girl whom she helped to recover from horrific abuse. At the age of four, Sheila's mother abandoned her. She never spoke or cried, but after committing an extremely violent act against a fellow pupil, she was placed in a class for severely retarded children. No one believed anything could be done to help her, except for Torey Hayden, who recognised a spark of genius and employed patience and love to help her recover.

Just A Boy Richard McCann (Ebury Press)

In October 1975, Richard's mother became the first victim of the Yorkshire Ripper. Once the press furore over the murder had died down, he and his three sisters were forgotten, passed from one violent home to another. This is McCann's account of his struggle to overcome his violent upbringing. It is an inspiring story of a young man who pulled back from the brink of suicidal depression to turn his family's life around.

Rock Me Gently Judith Kelly (Bloomsbury)

At the age of eight, Judith Kelly was placed in the care of nuns at a Catholic orphanage after her father died and her mother was searching for somewhere to live. She found herself in an institution where emotional and sexual abuse were the norm. When her mother fails to return to collect her, she seeks comfort in her friends. In a dual narrative, Kelly tells how, years later, she befriends an elderly Holocaust survivor on a kibbutz in Israel.

Sickened Julie Gregory (Arrow)

Julie Gregory's mother suffered from Munchausen by proxy, a disorder which led her to mistreat her daughter in order to gain medical attention. No one recognised the condition until it was too late and in the meantime Julie was starved and dragged from doctor to doctor. This harrowing tale about a child who was willing to sacrifice herself to make her mother happy is interspersed with Julie's medical records.