Posted on December 10, 2020 at 6:00 am
Unlike biography, which is the story of a life, memoir is a story within a life—a moment or a thread of moments that shed light on a larger truth.
Everyone has stories like these: little moments in our lives that illustrate something bigger about how we see the world, our relationships, and ourselves. They can be entertaining—my uncle loves to share the story about taking a dollar to let a bee sting him. They can be educational—my mom used to tell us about the time she was almost bitten by a rattlesnake as a caution when teaching us what to do if we ever saw one.
If you’re interested in exploring memoir with your child, I suggest starting with a book they’re interested in. I’ve included some recommendations below. Talk with your child about the memory the author shared and what made that memory significant.
Memoir is a great way to grow your child’s writing skills.
In difficult times, memoir writing can help with processing what their experiences mean to them. Maybe this holiday season is a strange or sad one for them.
It’s okay if your child hasn’t encountered a rattlesnake or caught bees for money (in fact, I kind of hope they haven’t!). They don’t need to take big risks or go to exotic places to tell a good story. Something as simple as a family outing or mealtime experience can define a feeling, a relationship, or a sense of self.
The beauty of memoir is that it meets children at their level. Everyone can do it. Memoir is simply writing about what you know best: yourself.
Most stories have a problem and a solution. In memoir, the writer takes one story (one problem and one solution) and draws meaning from it. It should focus on the writer’s relationship to a person, place, object, or event.
Try asking questions like the following to prompt ways of deriving meaning:
Some children will be bursting with answers. Others may feel stymied by such open-ended questions. You can build up to memoir storytelling by starting off with journaling.
Set aside some designated journaling time for your child in the evening or morning, or even just a half hour on the weekend. You can reflect together about what you’re going to write about this week. One easy way to get words flowing may be to talk about “highs and lows” or your child’s favorite and least favorite thing that happened.
Sharing yours may help them come up with their own ideas. Once they’ve brainstormed a few, they can choose one to write out (or draw! Graphic memoir is a great way to learn storytelling, too). By the end of the first month, your child will have a notebook full of rough drafts.
Once your child has a few ideas, try mapping out an idea web like the one below to help them narrow down which ideas have the most potential for memoir storytelling. Those who are still struggling to come up with ideas may find the web helps to generate them, too.
Ready for a challenge? Talk about memories you and your child have in common but remember differently.
Memory can be tricky. If you or your child write dialogue, you’re quoting someone else’s words. But can you be absolutely certain you remember those words exactly? Discussing memory and certainty and keeping those top of mind when writing will help your child become a better reader and writer. It will help them recognize the choices they are making in storytelling and the choices the authors they read are making too.
It is good to remember that memoir isn’t fiction and facts are still important. But memoir is a representation, not a report. In the same way a photo of the Eiffel Tower taken from above tells a different story than a photo of the Eiffel Tower taken from below, memoir can use different angles to share particular representations of an experience.
Ask your child to tell their version of a story as convincingly as possible. Ask them to put you in their shoes. It’s okay if the quoted dialogue isn’t just exactly right: what we’re practicing here is the art of conveying a sense of the experience.
Reading memoirs written for children and teens can help get your child started thinking about memory. Here are a few good ones available at the library.
How I Learned Geography, by Uri Shulevitz
Shulevitz lightly fictionalizes his childhood as a Polish refugee in Kazakhstan during WWII.
La Frontera: El Viaje Con Papa = My Journey with Papa, by Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva
Alva shares the true story of the time he and his father crossed the border from Mexico into Texas.
No, David! by David Shannon
Shannon uses illustrations and minimal words to describe his naughtiest preschool moments.
The Remember Balloons, by Jessie Oliveros
While not a memoir, this is a book that can help you discuss the nature of memory. The Remember Balloons illustrates a grandfather losing his memory while his grandson gains new memories.
Being Jazz, by Jazz Jennings
Jennings discusses her public transition as a very young transgender girl, inspiring others to embrace their differences.
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson uses poetic verse to explore how she found her voice during her childhood as an African American during the Civil Rights movement.
Drawing from Memory, by Allen Say
In this graphic novel, Say shares how his apprenticeship under Japanese cartoonist Noro Shinpei during WWII inspired him to become the artist he is today.
El Deafo, by Cece Bell
The graphic novel El Deafo tells the story of Bell’s elementary school experiences as a deaf child. When she realizes her Phonic Ear hearing aid allows her to hear the teacher not just in front of her but anywhere in school, she starts to think of it as a superpower.
Fatty Legs, by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
The authors use photos to supplement this story of dignity and courage during the experiences of Margaret as an Inuit child in a residential school.
Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-Li Jiang
Jiang navigates ambition, courage, and responsibility as her family is targeted in the 1966 Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Small Steps, by Peg Kehret
Peg Kehret tells the story of her harrowing journey with polio at the age of twelve and the way it changed her view of herself and the world.
Almost American Girl, by Robin Ha
When Robin Ha was surprised with the announcement that she and her mother would be moving from Korea to Alabama, she wasn’t exactly thrilled. In this graphic novel, Ha reflects on what it was like to navigate America as a young immigrant while still figuring out who she was.
Enchanted Air, by Margarita Engle
Engle spent most of her youth in Los Angeles during the Cold War. In this poetic memoir, she speaks of her love for her other home, Cuba, and the fear that she might never see that beloved place again.
I Will Always Write Back, by Martin Ganda and Caitlin Alifirenka, with Liz Welch
Martin, from Zimbabwe, and Caitlin, from the U.S., became pen-pals through a class assignment. Little did they know, their letters would foster a lifelong friendship.
Life in Motion, by Misty Copeland
Copeland, the first Black principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre, discusses what it took to achieve her dream.
SHOUT, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Anderson writes in free verse, sharing her experiences with sexual violence and advocating for societal healing and change when it comes to rape culture.
To This Day, by Shane Koyczan
Koyczan’s autobiographical anti-bullying poem is accompanied by illustrations in this moving short volume.
Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, by Lynda Blackmon Lowery
As the youngest marcher at Selma, Lowery shares what it was like to be jailed nine times before her 15th birthday and still choose to fight for the civil rights of African Americans.
Here’s a story from my life, written as memoir, that may help illustrate (along with all of the suggested books) some of the ideas I’ve shared in this post.
Around age four, I had that “chicken-nuggets-or-death” pickiness ubiquitous in preschoolers. My younger toddling sister was quite the opposite. She would eat anything in sight, including, when she could access it, the food on my plate. My family still teases her for that childhood vacuum appetite.
Although I’m told she stole off my plate often, I only remember it happening once. And I remember it vividly.
We were having meatloaf, a dish I loathed. I couldn’t choke down another bite of ground meat, but I knew the family rule: you stay at the table until your plate is clean.
So I did the only thing I could do. I asked to go to the bathroom.
My parents, probably eager to encourage my still tenuous habits regarding potty training in the right direction, sent me on my merry way. I tottered down the hallway. I neatly shut the door. I used the toilet. Unrolled and rerolled the toilet paper a few times. I flushed twice for good measure and washed my hands for several rounds of the ABCs.
Finally, when I thought enough time had passed, I emerged, and returned to the dinner table.
My plate, as I had hoped, was nearly empty. Meat was smeared across my sister’s tray and hands and mouth.
“Oh,” I announced with what I thought was reasonable disappointment. And here it was—the trick.
“She ate all my food,” I said.
Poor me! I tried to make my face say. A martyr of the supperest (and most super) kind! No longer a treasured only child with all the food and time in the world, but merely fate’s plaything, subject to the whims of another’s stomach! How could I, a humble preschooler, have anticipated this outcome?
Mom and Dad made noises of pity. Dad’s eyes turned to the Corning Ware loaf pan, still half full of ground and compacted meat.
This was key: if I overplayed my hand, I’d be served up another vile helping.
“It’s okay,” I said—magnanimous, weary. “I’m not really hungry anymore.” I picked at the plate and lifted a salad leaf to my mouth to show my commitment to accepting my fate.
A moment of suspense. My fate and my sister’s in the balance. A glance between my parents.
And the lid went back on the loaf pan.
I was free.
I think of this story often as a defining moment in my sister’s and my childhood relationship. My parents recall us being very close in those early days, even speaking in some kind of made-up baby speak only we could understand. But I don’t remember those days.
What I remember is using my sister. The inferiority of her years made me feel clever and puckish in comparison. She was a tiny baby fool, too young to express herself, always either eating or pooping or snuggling. I was a towering preschool intellect, capable of stacking blocks as tall as my own head.
(I feel I must point out: my sister, now an art teacher in rural Alaska, is in fact very clever. But looking back on our youth, I can see how I clung to that intellect-and-innocent power dynamic, and I can imagine how it might have affected her when trying to navigate or resist it.)
Looking for more memoirs to read? Take a look at my post on LGBTQ memoirs for adults and this one about reading memoir for a more empathetic understanding of history.