Three “just right” texts to investigate the craft of memoir.
I love our writing workshop shift from personal narrative to memoir. It comes at the perfect time of year: our notebooks have filled up with writing lists and entries, our weekly slice of life writing has opened us to new writing possibilities, and we have grown into a writing community ready, willing, and able to support each other. Best of all, my sixth graders are ready to be reflective – even they have tired of the best-roller-coaster-ride-ever story, or the last-time-I-went-to-Disney story.
Katherine Bomer, in her wonderful book Writing a Life: Teaching Memoir, places great emphasis of the value of writing memoir in young lives beyond just practicing the writing process :
“We write memoir to awaken the “I” and come to know who the “I” is…. For young people, the process of memoir writing can be a way not only to discover who they are but also to learn how to reflect – to learn that one can place an image, a remembered conversation, or an event under a microscope, study it, and have things to say about it… When children and teachers share their memories, their personal stories resonate with others in the classroom. We can build a community of persons who know how life is for one another as human beings…”.
This idea, then, that memoir writing is about reflecting about our lives and discovering ourselves, is at the very core of everything I do to plan and teach this unit of study. This is what I hope my students will gain through the weeks we spend reading mentor texts, analyzing structure, quick writing, drafting, and eventually publishing. And the first step is to find mentor texts that my kids can connect with – texts that are rich stories with all the characteristics of memoir for them to identify, appreciate, and use to inspire and model their writing.
Here are three texts I return to time and time again:
This picture book centers around a memoir worthy moment in the life of Mario Cuomo, former Governor of New York, legal scholar, and writer extraordinaire. In this story, Cuomo shares a life lesson he learns when the blue spruce that stands before the family’s new house comes crashing down in a fierce storm. Young Mario sees his father struggle valiantly to push the tree back into place – and realizes in that moment what the tree, and their new house signify: “That is how it is when you have a dream. You work and you wait, you never give up.”
The next two stories are from When I Was Your Age: Volume One – Original Stories About Growing Up , a collection of memoir-worthy moment from the lives of beloved YA authors such as James Howe and Avi. The first is James Howe’s Everything Will Be Okay. In this story, the young Howe brings home a sickly kitten in the hopes of keeping it for his very own. But, his mother and older brother have other ideas, and Howe learns that “I am on my own and I know somethings so clearly that I will never have to ask an older brother to help me figure them out…I will decide for myself what kind of boy I am, what kind of man I will become.”
And, from that same volume of stories, I also love sharing Mary Pope Osborne’s All Ball . Here, Osborne’s soldier father announces that he will have to leave his family behind for his new post in Korea. In all the tumult of his leaving and the family’s move to strange new town, Osborne holds on to a rubber ball – a gift from her father, and all she has to hold on to until his safe return home.
All three stories are beautifully told, with rich emotional arcs. We read through and mark up each memoir, taking note of structure, content, and memoir worthiness:
Each student hangs on to their copies of these memoirs through their planning and drafting stages, and we return to them as we confer, revise, and fine tune our writing. These stories become our go-to places when we are figuring out where to insert dialogue, how to slow down moments, and if we need more details. We also read excerpts, poems, and picture books along the way, but I see these three stories as our anchor texts – our gateways into the world of thinking like memoirists, and writing like memoirists. They allow us to see that memoirs hide in our everyday lives, and that with some purposeful digging we can craft writing that reflects who we are, and what has shaped us. Which is pretty awesome work for sixth grade.