In a year that saw the death of a true 20th-century hero, it seems appropriate to begin the list of best biographies and memoirs with the life of a new one for the 21st: I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb (W&N, £18.99). It is barely a year since Malala was shot in the face for speaking up for girls’ education in Pakistan, and now the girl-who-would-not-be-shut-up is surviving being a global icon. Honest, insightful, and piercingly wise, this is the celebrity memoir to give your teenaged daughter this Christmas.
Malala credits the support of her father, while two other writers discuss less straightforwardly inspirational relationships with their mothers. Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou (Virago, £12.99) revisits some territory that will be familiar to fans of her writing, while She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me, by Emma Brockes (Faber & Faber, £16.99) is a tribute to another peculiar and fabulous woman. Another indomitable matriarch overshadows Damian Barr’s Maggie & Me (Bloomsbury, £14.99), the surprisingly funny and positive story of growing up gay in a working-class town in Thatcher’s Britain. It’s worth the cover price for the Dirty Dancing scene alone.
Childhood provides fertile ground for two more of the year’s best memoirs. An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins (Bantam Press, £20) is the sweet and rather touching memoir of a young boy becoming an inquirer after scientific truth. The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, David Mitchell and Keiko Yoshida (Sceptre, £12.99) was written by a 13-year-old boy who was diagnosed with severe autism when he was five, and has been translated into English by the Man Booker Prize-shorlisted novelist and his Japanese wife. This is not a medical textbook or a “how to” guide, but a fascinating insight into a life, subtitled “One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism”.
Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time (Fig Tree, £14.99) aims to write from the other end of life: it is, she says, “the view from old age”. She is a wry and quite laid-back companion through a brief history of the 20th century; this is the memoir of a reader, and her only regret is not doing enough gardening.
Finally, publishers have rushed to print with new editions of biographies of Nelson Mandela, but the best remains his own Long Walk to Freedom, just reissued in a film tie-in paperback (Abacus, £14.99).