debutmemoirs2021

Debut author Chloe Shaw traces her own emotional development through the roles dogs have played in her life. There was Easy, whom Shaw’s parents had before they had children. Then there was Agatha 1, the Christmas puppy who, days later, went to the veterinarian and never came home. Her replacement was Agatha 2, whose name hinted at the family’s tendency to plow forward through difficult times. As an only child, Shaw turned to her dogs for entertainment and companionship. She wanted to “be the dog,” to lose herself so deeply in connection with an animal that human problems and obligations fell away.

Shaw was exploring these tendencies in therapy by the time she met Booker, the dog who came along with Matt, the psychoanalyst whom Shaw would marry. Together the couple adopted Safari, who seemed the canine embodiment of Shaw’s anxieties. Booker taught Safari how to be a good dog, and both dogs bonded with the couple’s children.

After Booker’s death, Shaw insisted on adopting Otter. Shaw was the family member who clung to the idea of another dog, so she tried to assume all responsibility for Otter’s care. But raising Otter shows Shaw that she can’t be completely self-sufficient. Otter reminds her that she is human, not canine—and that her humanity is good. “When we open ourselves to the possibility of love,” she writes, “we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking; when we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking, we open ourselves to the possibility of being made whole again.” 

What Is a Dog? is a tender memoir that showcases the vulnerable self we often risk revealing only to our pets. The dogs in Shaw’s life show her how to love another being, yes—but that love also leads her deeper into the human experience, flaws, risks and all. Shaw’s sensitive recollection of a lifetime of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to examine their own insecurities and to find acceptance in the process.

Chloe Shaw’s tender recollections of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to accept their most vulnerable selves, which we often only reveal to our pets.

“When emotional truth is the goal, and courage is part of the equation, the process is deeply therapeutic, but it’s not therapy,” writes Grammy-nominated folk singer and songwriter Mary Gauthier in her debut book. Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting is memoir, autobiography, creative process guide and journal of spiritual formation all in one. It’s a true expression of the inseparability of songwriting, spiritual practice, recovery and relationship that have been endemic to Gauthier’s 25-year career.

Saved by a Song is organized topically, with each chapter pairing a song title with an element of craft; for example, “Drag Queens in Limousines: Story/Meaning.” Starting with the song’s lyrics, Gauthier recounts her personal connection to the song through concrete, accessible personal narrative. By the end of each chapter, readers have gained a behind-the-scenes scoop on the real-life experiences that influenced the song and a wise takeaway for their own lives.

Readers also get a play-by-play of how to put art into practice. One of the biggest questions novice writers have is, “How did the artist get from this (their own experience) to that (a polished work)?” The elements of craft can seem like puzzle pieces that don’t fit together. Gauthier creates an external map of the mysterious internal songwriting process not once but 13 times throughout the book.

Alongside these gems from her lifelong study of creative practice—think Anne Lamott meets Julia Cameron meets Patti Smith—Gauthier also shares all the gory details of her recovery from addiction, plus quotations from the artists and writers who influenced her own development. In Gauthier’s words, “I believe songs that heal come from a higher place. They help us with the struggle of being human and by letting us know we are not alone. This is the greatest gift a song can give a songwriter and a songwriter can give the world.”

Anyone who can still write from the heart about writing from the heart after being in the music business as long as Gauthier has is the real deal. Her book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.

Mary Gauthier’s debut book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.

When Alexander Lobrano arrived at a Paris bistro one evening, the maitre d’ led him to a table where an older woman sat sipping a glass of white wine. Eventually, with “an avalanche of awe,” Lobrano realized his companion was none other than Julia Child. After confessing that he hoped to someday become a food writer, she replied, “That’s a good boy. But you don’t want to get too big for your britches.”

That memorable scene epitomizes Lobrano’s memoir, My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris. It’s a scrumptious, humor-filled love letter to Paris and its food, written by a James Beard Award-winning writer who is the first to admit that his life’s trajectory sounds highly improbable: “suburban Connecticut guy becomes a restaurant critic of a leading French newspaper.”

Lobrano’s childhood memories are rich, although laced with sadness, loneliness and sexual abuse. His father worried that Lobrano was “a bit of a fruit loop” and sent him off to a two-month “Adventure Camp” in hopes of transforming him into a “regular boy.” Gradually, food became Lobrano’s savior: “my muse, my metaphor, and my map for making a place for myself in the world and finding my place at the table.”

By happenstance, as a young man in 1986, he landed an editorial position at Women’s Wear Daily in Paris to write about menswear, a topic he found “excruciatingly dull.” His slow, steady attempts to transition to food writing are fascinating fun, and Lobrano’s nonstop curiosity and enthusiasm are particularly engaging—especially when they lead him to a dinner with Princess Caroline of Monaco and several encounters with Yves Saint Laurent.

Lobrano’s culinary heritage is hardly sophisticated; in fact, his mother was a Drake of Drake’s Cakes fame. (Remember Ring Dings and Devil Dogs?) At one hilariously recounted dinner with renowned food writer Ruth Reichl, Lobrano’s mother told her, “Andy’s favorite foods when he was little were Cheez Doodles and Sara Lee German Chocolate Cake.” But by the end of Lobrano’s transformation into a cosmopolitan restaurant critic, readers will find themselves longing to be seated at a Parisian table alongside him. (If this can’t be achieved, his memoir contains the next best thing: Lobrano’s list of his 30 favorite restaurants in Paris, with descriptions.)

Lobrano concludes that “gastronomic expertise is dull and can be irritating unless it’s leavened by humility, humor, and emotion.” Rest assured, there’s never a dull moment in My Place at the Table. It’s a veritable feast of humility, humor and emotion.

There’s never a dull moment in Alexander Lobrano’s memoir of becoming a food writer in Paris. It’s a veritable feast of humility, humor and emotion.

In one of the most disturbing and tender scenes in Somebody’s Daughter, a middle-aged Black woman lights a match and sets a snake nest ablaze. “These things catch fire without letting each other go. We don’t give up on our people,” Billie Coles explains as her granddaughter, the author Ashley C. Ford, looks on. Coles is attempting to demonstrate how families shouldn’t abandon each other, but Ford’s memoir offers an alternative survival strategy—one that sometimes depends on a person leaving.

Somebody’s Daughter is part Midwestern Black girl bildungsroman and part family saga about the rippling effects of incarceration. Ford’s father was jailed shortly after her birth, and her mother’s quests for new love often ended in frustration, which she unleashed on her eldest child. Their relationship was so volatile that after an adult kissed Ford when she was a child, and later when her first love sexually assaulted her, it took decades for her to reveal the truth to her mother.

In the meantime, she coped with her pain through daydreaming, dissociation and wandering the halls of her local high school, a precursor to the peripatetic life that would lead her away from her family in Indiana. It’s tempting to view Ford’s mother antagonistically throughout this book, but the author’s familial bonds aren’t that simple. Ford’s contentious relationships with her parents—a mother who often withheld affection and a father who was physically unavailable to express it—loom large, and it’s fitting that the book begins with a phone call from one parent and ends with a reunion with the other.

This book’s title is deceptively simple. In African American Vernacular English, it can be a euphemism for a woman in danger; but when Ford reunites with her father, it becomes a revelation of the author’s self. Finally, it makes clear that the life one builds in the aftermath of a tragedy can, in time, coexist with the life left behind.

After returning to her hometown near the end of the book, Ford writes, “However complicated, I could exist in both [New York and Indiana], as me, fully me.” Perhaps the greatest lesson of Somebody’s Daughter is that a Black child marked by poverty and sexual violence can create multiple spaces in which to thrive—and that anybody’s child can do the same.

Somebody’s Daughter is part Midwestern Black girl bildungsroman and part family saga about the rippling effects of incarceration.

In Danielle Henderson’s memoir, The Ugly Cry, she renders her family with searing honesty and wit. There’s the brother whose greatest gift is flouting all the rules and surviving the damage; the abused mother who cannot protect her children or herself; and the mother’s boyfriend, the malevolent Luke, who ravaged the family with verbal and physical abuse.

And then there’s Grandma—foulmouthed, hardworking and loyal, whose favorite television show is “The Walking Dead.” She delivers frequent smacks to the head alongside gusts of equally fierce unconditional love. She also advises 9-year-old Henderson that she “should never get married, but . . . sleep with as many people as possible before settling down.” This is the family that, in the tumultuous 1970s, Henderson somehow survived. Now she brings them to life with her indefatigable sense of humor, which is as quick and sharp as the violence she lived with as a child.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Danielle Henderson reflects on a memoir’s ability to create connection, and connection’s ability to heal old wounds.


The author of the popular book and Tumblr Feminist Ryan Gosling, Henderson grew up poor, mostly motherless and often left to figure things out on her own, in a small New York town that made it difficult to be different—and Black. But Henderson opts for mirth over pathos, and the results are often shocking and funny simultaneously.

Her unflinchingly honest voice especially shines through when treading softly around the sexual abuse she endured. Luke, her abuser, is villainous, too mean to even share a single takeout French fry while a hungry child watches. As she lays out the details of their relationship, Henderson uses understatement so masterfully that her pain acquires the force of a snowball careening downhill. When she finally reveals how Luke has treated her, Grandma says, “I’m going to kill him, and then I’m going to kill your mother, okay? . . . Good. Can I give you a hug?”

Henderson survived a terrible childhood, and it’s her resilience that comes to define her. She has girlfriends who know her better than she knows herself and an aunt who teaches her how to nurture and display her differences. And Grandma hangs on no matter what, steadfastly following, if not leading, Henderson toward something better.

Danielle Henderson brings her family to life using humor as quick and sharp as the violence she survived as a child.

When Krys Malcolm Belc sees pregnant women, he turns the other way. He doesn’t want to hear pregnancy stories and finds it difficult to share his own. But in The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, the transmasculine author doesn’t turn away from his story. Instead, he lays it out page by page, with pictures and legal documents juxtaposing his poetic prose.

Belc’s process of becoming himself—the growing realization that he identified as male, the move toward a nonbinary and eventually masculine presentation, the decision to start taking hormones—happened alongside the rest of his life, as he married his partner, as she bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well, only a few months after his wife gave birth. 

The result is a family that looks one way now—a father, a mother and three boys—but looked another way several years ago. This is the story of how that family came to be, and of the erasures (often painful) that happened along the way, including the legal erasure of the friend who donated sperm for all three pregnancies. There’s also the erasure of the body Belc had, which he generously laid out to birth his son Samson. “He has permanently altered my composition,” Belc writes.

But in the midst of these erasures, something new emerged: an identity and presentation that was always there but in shadow, just beyond view. Bearing Samson clarified the man Belc wanted to be.

The Natural Mother of the Child refuses easy stories or pat answers. Instead, Belc tells a counterstory that resists hegemonic narratives and pushes toward something messier and truer. Belc’s devotion to his son—and especially his bodily devotion—comes through powerfully, a clear signal. By comparison, some of the other signs that supposedly tell us who we are—birth certificates, marriage certificates, adoption certificates—seem desperately incomplete.

Krys Malcolm Belc’s growing realization that he identified as male happened as his wife bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well.

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