When children are small, the line between fact and fiction is wavery at best. As they grow, it straightens and firms, and whether something is actually true or not becomes very important.
Memoir, with one foot in event and the other in how it’s remembered, is an intriguing genre for middle grade readers. It offers all the pleasures of reading fiction, along with the added gravitas of having actually happened (at least sort of). Memoir is a form that even reluctant young writers can try, since it’s based on what they know best—themselves.
In his wonderful memoir Knots in My Yo-yo String, Jerry Spinelli mentions one of his favorite all-time questions from a young reader. It came during a talk he gave after winning the Newbery for Maniac Magee. So, this boy wanted to know, “Do you think being a kid helped you become a writer?”
Anyone who’s read Knots knows the answer. Spinelli’s fiction springs directly from memory, mixed with imagination. Asked if he does research for his novels, he once replied, “The answer is yes and no. No, in the sense that I seldom plow through books at the library to gather material. Yes, in the sense that the first 15 years of my life turned out to be one big research project. I thought I was simply growing up in Norristown, Pennsylvania; looking back now I can see that I was also gathering material that would one day find its way into my books.”
Knots is hilarious, poignant, achingly real. Any middle grade reader will recognize something of himself in Spinelli’s fears, passions, peculiarities and ambitions. Zeroing in on only a few years of his life, it’s a wonderful example of how memoir differs from biography or autobiography (even though Spinelli subtitles it the latter!) Memoir is as much about how and why as it is what and when. It emphasizes the internal more than the external. For any student who claims he’s got “nothing to write about”, Knots offers a trove of possibility. Spinelli writes short chapters about his beloved dog, his strange neighbors, girls, his short-lived career as a star runner, God, baseball. All could serve as inspiration to a young writer finding the stories in his own life.
“Ideas,” Spinelli has said, “come from ordinary, everyday life. And from imagination. And from feelings. And from memories. Memories of dust in my sneakers and humming whitewalls down a hill called Monkey.”
From Indiebound: A master of those embarrassing, gloppy, painful, and suddenly wonderful things that happen on the razor’s edge between childhood and full-fledged adolescence, Newbery medalist Jerry Spinelli has penned his early autobiography with all the warmth, humor, and drama of his best-selling fiction. From first memories through high school, including first kiss, first punch, first trip to the principal’s office, and first humiliating sports experience, this is not merely an account of a highly unusual childhood. Rather, like Spinelli’s fiction, its appeal lies in the accessibility and universality of his life. Entertaining and fast-paced, this is a highly readable memoir– a must-have for Spinelli fans of all ages.
A far different example comes from Jean Fritz, author of so many wonderful biographies. Considered by many a classic, her memoir “Homesick: My Own Story” describes her early years growing up as an American inChina. Like “Knots”, it includes family photos that make the story all the more accessible and appealing.
From the jacket flap: Jean Fritz was born in China and lived there until 1927, when she was twelve. Young Jean had spent her entire life in China, but her parents’ memories of home and letters from relatives in Pennsylvania made her feel that she was American–and homesick for a place she’d never seen! Family photographs and illustrations by Margot Tomes show us the real people behind Jean’s vivid and unforgettable stories–memories of picnics on the Great Wall, pranks, holidays in the foreign compound, rebellious moments at her British school, close ties to Chinese friends, and how it felt to be called a “foreign devil” and spat upon in the streets of a turbulent China on the eve of revolution. When her family embarks upon its long journey home, Jean is thrilled, but she wonders: When she arrives in America at last, will she fit in after growing up on “the wrong side of the world?”
Another terrific writer to consider is Allen Say, who’s written and illustrated many books on his family’s immigrant experience. His recent graphic novel, Drawing from Memory, has been widely praised.
From Indiebound: Drawing from Memory is Allen Say’s own story of his path to becoming the renowned artist he is today. Shunned by his father, who didn’t understand his son’s artistic leanings, Allen was embraced by Noro Shinpei, Japan’s leading cartoonist and the man he came to love as his “spiritual father.” As WWII raged, Allen was further inspired to consider questions of his own heritage and the motivations of those around him. He worked hard in rigorous drawing classes, studied, trained–and ultimately came to understand who he really is. Part memoir, part graphic novel, part narrative history, Drawing from Memory presents a complex look at the real-life relationship between a mentor and his student. With watercolor paintings, original cartoons, vintage photographs, and maps, Allen Say has created a book that will inspire the artist in all of us.
It’s heresy, but I’m including one other writer who is not, strictly speaking, middle grade. Patricia Polacco writes and illustrates picture books so rich and evocative, they burst with possibility for inspiring middle grade students to tell their own stories. (Plus, many middle graders still secretly love picture books!) Polacco shapes fact with the techniques of a master story-teller. Thunder Cake tells how, with the help of her grandmother, she conquered her fear of Michigan thunderstorms. Instead of trying to describe her whole summer with her grandmother, she zeroes in on this one powerful memory; we get not just what happened, but exactly how she felt and what she learned. My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother is about her childhood rivalry with her brother Richard and their endless attempts to outdo one another—a theme that should appeal to anyone with siblings.
From Indiebound: There’s nothing worse than a rotten redheaded older brother who can do everything you can do better! Patricia’s brother Richard could run the fastest, climb the highest, and spit the farthest and still smile his extra-rotten, greeny-toothed, weasel-eyed grin. But when little Patricia wishes on a shooting star that she could do something — anything — to show him up, she finds out just what wishes — and rotten redheaded older brothers — can really do. Patricia Polacco’s boldly and exuberantly painted pictures tell a lively and warmhearted tale of comic one-upsmanship and brotherly love.
Teachers, librarians, fellow writers and readers: please share your own favorite middle grade memoirs, and any tips for using this genre with kids.