Archives For Memoir

Books read in Grade 12 as part of the Memoir Class

Stephen King scares me. I have read only a handful of his books: Christine, The Green Mile, Carrie, but those have left a residue in my brain. My fear, created by the gruesome images in his fiction, would probably please him: he likes to tell stories that unsettle the reader.

I have, however, become a fan of his non-fiction book On Writing. While I am not as rabid as Annie Wilkes of Misery, I push this book on as many readers as possible. When I mention King’s name, however, I recognize the same uncomfortable flicker in their eyes. King scares them.

“No, really,” I urge, “this is nothing like the Stephen King books you don’t like. This is the Stephen King book you will like.”

On the surface, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is King’s memoir mixed with writing tips. The book is divided into three parts; the second part has two subsets of witty literary criticism.

In section one, the reader learns about King’s childhood, the history of his writing career, and the inspiration for several stories. He discusses his addictions, his stories, and his marriage to Tabitha, an author and his chief literary critic. In the second section, King discusses the craft of writing, first through the use of a “toolbox” of grammar  and then with application of these tips in various works of literature. The third and final section of the book covers his near death experience in June of 1999 when he was hit by a motorist on a side road in Maine.

We assign this book to our juniors who are taking the Advanced Placement English Language class, a course in familiarizing students with rhetoric and argument. The critical commentaries he offers in his “toolbox” section are especially helpful in helping students develop a style of writing.

He lectures the reader in a voice that is informal and wise. He gets the respect that English teachers struggling to impart the importance of subject-verb agreement crave to have from students. Plus, he swears; he swears a lot:

“You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t annoy me with your moans of exasperation or your cries that you don’t understand grammar, you never did understand grammar, you flunked that whole semeste rin Sophomore English, writing is fun but grammar sucks the big one. Relax. Chill. We won’t spend much time here because we don’t need to. One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or not.”

Some of his other observations include:

“Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word — of course you will, there’s always another word — but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.”

“Bad grammar produces bad sentences.”

The adverb is not your friend. … Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.”

I have had some success in locating used copies of the book in its various editions. There are hardcovers and paperbacks in the secondary markets of thrift stores and library book sales, but I need to look close at the book spines since they are different in size and appearance. Our class set is a mish-mash of all editions.  The most frequent edition’s cover art is a picture of the cellar door, and if there was a book cover design that was dead wrong for the contents, this cover gets my vote. The cellar door may mean entrance to the “foundation” of writing, but the cream colored clapboards, bright window, and potted plant are an odd chice for King. The cover art with the letters of rejection nailed to a wall is macabre, perhaps a better choice for King and the contents. My favorite cover, though, is the most recent and centers on a photo of King working at his desk.

Cover simply did not match content!

Cover disconnect from content.

The macabre cover with rejection letters nailed to the wall

The macabre cover with rejection letters nailed to the wall; blood red title.

The most appropriate cover; one that matches the content

The most appropriate cover; one that matches the content-King writing On Writing

Last week, I offered this book to my own book group, an adult group of educated readers. Our discussion led to the question, “What is good writing?” We failed like so many others to come up with a definitive answer, but we did appreciate KIng’s four pages of suggested titles listed at the end of the memoir to read as examples of good writing. This list brings me to a major point in On Writing, King likes to read. This is repeated many times in the text:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

“If you want to be a writeryou must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

King’s dedication to the craft of writing is inspiring; the final paragraph captures his passion:

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

On Writing has changed how I write. Because of On Writing, I hesitate to add an adverb (see? I consciously did not use “frequently hesitate”). I hear his voice say “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs” when I craft sentences,

My favorite part of the “toolbox” deals with his disdain for the passive voice. King tells the writer to “energize your prose with active verbs. … good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”  My students tell me they write in write in passive voice to sound smart, so I need to counter with a clear example of why the use active voice is more powerful. King provides me a hilarious example:

“Everyone’s entitled to his/her opinion, but I don’t believe ‘With a hammerhe killed Frank‘ will ever replace ‘He killed Frank with a hammer.’”

“But how do you know when you are using passive voice?” my students ask. I offer my new “tool” to test, a tool I found on a Facebook post.

“If you can put ‘by Zombies’ after the verb, then you have passive voice,” I respond.

“Frank was killed…by Zombies?”

“Passive voice. To make the sentence active, you would have to write, ‘The Zombies killed Frank’. Much clearer, don’t you think?”

Passive voice and Zombies? I think Stephen King would enjoy that discussion.

Jack Gantos stood on the steps of the altar at NYC Riverside Chapel blinking through large black glasses as he addressed the large crowd of educators who sat eager to hear him speak, “I feel compelled to throw a little fairy dust teaching into this…to educate and illuminate simultaneously.” Then, looking back at the large screen that projected the cover of his Newbery Award winning book, Dead End in Norvelt, he grinned broadly, “Yes, I wrote this book!”

Jack Gantos was the final keynote speaker at the Teachers College 83rd Saturday Reunion on Saturday, October 27th, and he was clearly enjoying this opportunity to talk about his evolution as a reader and as a writer.  The large screen projected other images, handwritten notes and neatly drawn “spy” maps. “Here are some pages from a journal I kept,” explained Gantos, “ and you should know, that the boy that wrote this journal in fifth grade is the same man who writes today.” And write he does. Gantos is the author of the Rotten Ralph series and several books dedicated to the character Joey Pigza. In addition to this most recent Newbery Award, Gantos has also won Michael L. Printz and Robert F. Sibert honors, and he has been a National Book Award Finalist.

“The very first award you give yourself to set the bar high,” he intoned earnestly. “What everybody needs to do is to honestly come to some sense of literary standards, and those standards are defined by your reading.”

As a teacher, I am most familiar with Gantos’s memoir A Hole in My Life, which is a core text for our 12th grade Memoir elective. At 208 pages, the small paperback is much less intimidating than other memoirs, but its small size packs an amazing punch. With brutal honesty, Gantos details the year when just out of high school he became involved in smuggling drugs, and how he survived his prison sentence. A pattern of his prison mug shots covers the front of the text, and Gantos remarks about that picture early in the memoir:

“The prisoner in the photograph is me. The ID number is mine. Th ephoto was taken in 1972 at the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky. I was twenty-one years old and had been locked up for a year already -the bleakest year of my life-and I had more time ahead of me” (3).

The memoir also chronicles Gantos’s development as a writer, and how, “dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.” (Amazon)

I have one class set (30) of these memoirs, and I occasionally find additional copies at used book sales which indicates that the book is often assigned for summer reading.

When they read A Hole in My Life, many students have strong reactions to the prison scenes, which take place in the last third of the memoir. “This is NOT a kid’s book,” more than one of them has told me, “this guy cannot be a children’s author!”  They are notorious for trying to “protect” younger readers from any sordid incidents recounted in a book, and Gantos spares no details in describing some of the violent injuries he witnessed while working in the prison’s hospital ward. A Hole in My Life carries differences in age recommendations. Publisher’s Weekly suggests ages 12 and up, the book is a 2003 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year, and the Amazon recommendation is for ages 14 and up.

During his address, Gantos talked about the importance talking to teachers and students had in his creative process. Pointing to a picture of the cover, he said proudly, “This is the book that gets me into the front door of some high school where I can I get to talk about books and writing. This book is just like a key where I get to meet those high school kids.”

Usually, I usually assign the memoir to be read and discussed in literature circles and frequently students take these instructions to simply restate plot, “what happened? What happened next?” However, since Gantos was eager to share his structure with his audience, I may employ this strategy with this text. “When you think about a story,” he paused to show a graph projected on the big screen, ”you don’t think about the 50% invisible side called the structure. When I write, I draw 16 boxes and I fill them” he gestured to his sketches, “Beginning, middle,…action, story, character,” proving to this audience that their time pushing graphic organizers onto their students is still a worthwhile endeavor. As for the ending? “A book always has a double ending; the first is the physical ending, but the second is the emotional ending.” This is true in A Hole in My Life. Gantos relates the heartbreaking loss of his prison diary, written in between the lines of The Brother’s Karamazov, Gantos sharing the page space with the words of Dostoevsky. This diary was the more expensive the price to pay for his felonious actions, not the physical time he had spent behind bars.

He explained to his audience, “the reader wants to know how has the character been changed by an experience…the reader wants to have been inspired.” Gantos continued with more passion as he continued, “You read a book, and the next day, the book will be the same, but that you won’t. The that book will infects you and add to that little Library of Congress you have in your head.”

Gantos’s use of the Library of Congress, with the marble and beautiful domed ceiling as a metaphor for the reader’s brain is particularly vivid. The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with millions of books, recordings, photographs, maps and manuscripts in its collections. That powerful image is one every teacher in the room hopes for their students.  After all, what could be better than producing a nation of graduates who have the resources of Library of Congress readily available in their brains?

The holidays are upon us, so several of the writing projects at the high school have been “seasonal” in nature.
Journalism students have a running poll on pumpkin or apple pie (pumpkin is ahead). They have also asked faculty members to contribute a favorite Thanksgiving memory for a special holiday issue.
I will probably contribute my 17 years of memories sitting at the “kid” table.

A traditional “kid’s” table at Thanksgiving needs at least one unhappy older kid. While this is not a photo of my family, this photo accurately captures the frustration of being excluded from the main table during the holiday meal. There are a plethora of similar photos available on the Internet!

The kid table is that humbling Thanksgiving tradition that separates the china from the melamine, the goblet from the tumbler, the ladder-back chair from the booster seat, in order to keep the adults from the five year old. The kid table is a table strategically placed within hearing distance, but not necessarily viewing distance, of the main table. The kid table is usually close enough for a surprise inspection by a suspicious aunt, but far enough away for a muffled paper napkin spitball contest. Should the conversation at the adult table increase in volume, burping contests are also an option.
The kid table is supervised by….well, more kids. Little kids are placed under the care of big kids. Little kids are usually delighted; big kids, not so much. Older cousins always recognize they are being exploited as unpaid babysitters.
Several of my students have also commented about their stints at the kid table. More than one has calculated the number of years it will take him or her to  travel the circuitous route from kid table to finally gaining a seat at the main table. I can sympathize. Ours is a large family and there were 14 cousins ahead of me, an accident of birth order that relegated me to the kid table my entire adolescence. A seat at the main table was in a distant horizon.
The main table! An affirmation of age. A holiday dinner free of toddlers and away from the din of childish chatter. The main table! With glowing candles on the table, crystal goblets filled with jeweled liquids and fresh flowers in the centerpiece…. The main table promised a meal free from spilled milk, piles of uneaten vegetables, and sticky sticky tablecloths.

Except there are adults at the main table as well…and good manners are expected.

While I sympathize with my students and all other adolescents stuck at the kid table this Thanksgiving, I would like them to consider the advantages of being able to sculpt mashed potato mountains, hang a spoon from one’s nose, and yes, engage in a paper napkin spitball fight.
When the year came for me to finally graduate from the kid table, it was time for me to host my own Thanksgiving dinner. My first Thanksgiving was for a small gathering of in-laws and nephews who were very few in number.While the dining table comfortably could seat a dozen adults, I still put a small kid table in the corner.

Traditions must continue.

The second quarter of school has started, and The Glass Castle has been assigned to the seniors in Memoir class. There is much grumbling; “You’re kidding…we have to read a book when we are leaving in a few months????” (It’s November-graduation is in June) There is even more grumbling when I tell them they will need to do about five pages of responses; “You mean we have to write about a book when we are leaving in a few months???” (Again, it’s November-there are seven months to go).

There are about 50 copies in the book room-total investment of $250

So, I distribute the books, and I read aloud the opening paragraph,

“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading. Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash. It had been months since I laid eyes on Mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she’d see me and call out my name. I slid down in the seat and asked the driver to turn around and take me home to Park Avenue” (3).

That certainly caught their attention.

Jeanette Walls, author and gossip columnist for MSNBC, incorporates both the misery of living in a dysfunctional family with the excitement and joys of childhood in her page-turner of a memoir. Chapter Two opens with the deadpan line-“I was on fire,” where Walls mater-of-factually recounts how she was set ablaze by the fire on the stove while cooking herself a hotdog at the young age of three. Her resilience is remarkable, but more remarkable is her generosity in the remembering her father who  employed the “skedaddle” staying one step ahead of the authorities, who bestowed stars as Christmas presents, and who promised a home to his children -a glass castle. Similarly, the portrayal of her mother as an talented artist who prized independence and who believed that “being homeless is an adventure” is unflinchingly honest.

I first bought 20 copies of The Glass Castle three years ago at the retail price of $10.50 each. This memoir was one of the first offered in the newly designed Memoir Class, in fact, the course was built around the book as a core requirement. Since then, there have been some 30+ copies added ranging in price from $.50-$2.00 from used book sales. The total investment for the 50 copies now in the book room is about $250.00. The book’s popularity with area readers makes it relatively easy to find at Goodwill and public library book sales.

After the students were introduced to the book, I showed a short video of Walls with her mother. At first, several of my students were outraged that Walls would admit to avoiding her mother who appeared so desperate. Indeed that was Walls’s fear when she first drafted the memoir, but as the students read the text, they have become more forgiving and understanding. In the memoir parental failure was complicated by a toxic mixture of mental illness and alcohol, problems unfortunately not unknown to some of the students. The video helped to reassure them that Walls is not the heartless daughter they initially believed.

Walls is a great storyteller in the genre of non-fiction. Her episodes in the The Glass Castle recalls to mind the work of the great fiction writer Tolstoy who famously stated, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ” Walls combines the happy and the unhappy in an engaging read….especially since there are seven months left in the school year.

Danbury, Connecticut, is the closest metropolitan area near me (population 80893), and this past weekend, the Friends of the Danbury Public Library held their annual sale. The first remarkable fact about this event is that the 80,000 books available to the public for sale, transported several miles from the library location to the Danbury PAL building at the other side of town, arrived in alphabetical order! This was a very well-organized sale; browsing the fiction tables was a breeze.

The second remarkable fact about this event would be the surprisingly large number of biographies, auto-biographies, and memoirs donated by Danbury residents. Three long tables laid end to end were laden with all manner of biographical materials, and under these tables, there were boxes filled to overflowing with additional selections. Interestingly enough, most of these books were “solo” copies; duplicates, with the exception of  Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (an area favorite) and The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, were hard to find. A cultural anthropologist attending the sale could speculate as to what the fascination biographies, auto-biographies, and memoirs have for Danbury readers. Are the residents “people”-people? Is there a strain of  voyeurism running through their veins? Or are they simply curious about the lives of the rich and/or famous? (Did former Danbury resident Robin Leach have anything to do with this trend?)

One of the many titles available to add to Memoir class

The plethora of memoir titles provided the following as selections for independent reading for the 12th grade memoir class:
Madhur Jaffrey– Climbing The Mango Trees: A Memoir Of A Childhood In India.
Gail Caldwell- A Strong West Wind
Ann Patchett- Truth and Beauty
Lucy Grealy- Autobiography of a Face
Meredith Hall –Without a Map: A Memoir
Patrick Moore-Tweaked: A Crystal Meth Memoir
Rory Stewart- The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq
Janice Erlbaum- Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir
Claire Fontaine and Mia Fontaine- Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back (P.S.)
Linda Greenlaw- The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain’s Journey 

For Grade 11, there were multiple copies of  Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine Sebastian Junger’s War, and Michael Sharra’s The Killer Angels.

Multiple copies of The Bluest Eye were available. This text is under a book challenge by a neighboring community

There were also multiple copies of Nobel prize winning author Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, an indication that the book is on a Danbury school or local book club’s reading list. Currently, this book is being challenged by parents in the neighboring town of Brookfield. According to the local media, the Brookfield challenge to have the book removed (Honors Grade 11 class) is largely led by individuals who have not read the book but who have read, and are circulating, excerpts of some graphic scenes; one complainant does claim to have read the SparkNotes.

For grade 10, there were multiple copies of Ishmael Baeh’s A Long Way Gone, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson’s Kabul Beauty School.  There also multiple copies of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and  Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quite on the Western Front in the same editions we have in our classroom libraries.

For Grade 12 independent reading, usually Creative Writing classes, I found multiple copies of Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, and enough copies of Melissa Bank’s The GirlsGuide to Hunting and Fishing as a “test” to see what students think.

I located some “hard to find” titles of books that are always needed including Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, Bobbi Ann Mason’s In Country, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Joseph Bruchec’s Codetalker, and Laurie Halse Andersen’s Chains. Since we are a vocational-agriculture school, an elective under consideration for seniors is Animals in Literature.  Both of Ken Foster’s books Dogs I Have Met: And the People They Found and his other book Dogs Who Found Me will be added to that bookshelf.

I have noticed that a number of books that currently occupy positions on the NY Times best seller lists have been available at these local library sales. At Danbury’s sale, these titles included Like Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hossani. The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo by Stieg Larsson, and its sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest escaped the stigma of being limited to the mystery table; all three were placed for readers of fiction who may want to “cross-over” for a thrilling mystery.

An entire side wall was dedicated to VHS tapes. Given the current state of technology, I wonder how much longer VHS will be featured at these sales; their value must be falling as the popularity of online movie streaming or DVD/Blu-ray grows. There were also two tables of audio books, CDs and DVDs. The organizers of the sale had a rather uncoventional approach to the literary canon; the classic literature section was divided from the poetry section with an expansive section of books devoted to humor. Was this placement a commentary on humor as the offspring of the classics? Or was this partition a statement about the lack of humor in the classics? I am not sure.

Unlike other area sales, there was no admission charge for early arriving buyers, so shopping during the first hours of the sale meant contending with book dealers and their ISBN readers. Fortunately, the aisles were wide enough to accommodate people carrying large bags filled with books. Prices ranged from $.50-$2.00;rare books had their own section and were priced accordingly. Volunteers wearing blue shirts and aprons were plentiful. By noon many were engaged in re-stacking tables and filling in gaps created by eager shoppers. Checkout was a breeze. The bill for five large bags of books, roughly 87 books, came to $101.00. The Friends of the Danbury Public Library will reduce the number of books to pack up by having a “bag sale” on Monday, 10/17.

80,000 books donated by residents in a city of 80893 means at least one donated book for each person. That is also remarkable; make this 80,000 Books and Three Remarkable Facts.


This first day of October in Connecticut was not emblematic of classic cool crisp fall days. Instead, a blanket of humidity hung over the rain-soaked state which received another several inches the night before the Saturday book sales in Brookfield and Washington.  Separated by 17 miles but sharing the same weather, the make-up of the two sales could not have been more different.

Brookfield Library

I arrived several minutes early to the Brookfield Public Library and found volunteers poking a rain-saturated tent that was bowed holding several gallons of water and looming precariously over a table. Fortunately, the bulk of the sale was held indoors in the community room.  Tables were filled with books; boxes were stacked below. This year residents donated generously and as a former resident myself, I was also familiar with many of the volunteers who year after year tirelessly support the library. They were very helpful with other patrons, (“Jodi Picoult books? Oh, we have as many as you want…take them, take them all, please!”). They restacked tables and manned the checkout tables very efficiently. Some titles were misplaced (non-fiction slipped into the fiction section and vice versa) which meant that a careful perusing of the titles was necessary.  However, this strategy could also be a clever sales ploy, so I spent time and examined books on every table on the off chance there would be a misplaced book that I could use. Such diligence paid off because I found copies of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods on five separate tables.

Five additional copies brings the classroom library total to 75 copies for the English II classes

Bargains at this sale included five copies of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, four copies of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and two copies of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. There were also multiple copies of Mark Salzman’s Lost in Place from a town-wide read several years ago. I also turned up a boxful of copies of Khaled Hossani’s The Kite Runner but left them for others; we already have a class set!  The presence of multiple copies means, of course, that Brookfield has many book groups (I am speaking from personal experience). Only book clubs can explain the multiple copies of titles such as Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitterage, and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. Other excellent finds in the young adult section included Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, and Jarry Spinelli’s Stargirl. I filled two bags.

Washington, CT-Gunn Library

In contrast, the book sale at Washington’s Gunn Library was filled with singular copies of books. The basement of this deceptively large library was filled to capacity with books, which was surprising given the steady stream of people leaving with bags filled with books. Titles were displayed along the walls on well-marked shelves and on tables, and the variety of titles was impressive. There was an array of biographies, history, fiction, self-help and cookbooks, but duplicate copies of titles were almost impossible to find.  Performing arts literature was subdivided into music, art and dance on an overflowing table. Romance was relegated to two boxes under the fiction paperback table. A section of the sale at the entrance was dedicated to autographed copies of books. Rare books were provided a separate space. All of these genres contained singletons. Considering the number of solo copies, one wonders about the reading habits of the residents of Washington.  Is breadth of literature a community goal? Do they pass single copies from resident to resident rather than buy in bulk? Is this book sale a giant exchange site?

In any event, there were excellent new choices to add to the memoir class shelves including Ying Ma’s Chinese Girl in the Ghetto and Meredith Hall’s Without a Map: A Memoir. There were also new copies of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead and Michael Paterniti’s Driving Mr. Einstein. The young adult’s section included a copy of Suzanne Collins’s Gregor the Overlander. Needed titles located included Bobbie Anne Mason’s In Country, Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God  and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. In addition, I located a a copy of Tim O’Brien’s Going after Cacciato and Cormac MacCarthy’s Cities of the Plain to add to English III independent reads. Volunteers at the sale were also efficient re-stacking the tables throughout the morning, while wisely choosing to keep their distance from the heavily trafficked children’s section.

The difference in titles available from each of these communities in the Northwest corner of Connecticut could not have been more different, but I spent the exact same amount at each (about $62.00)  for almost the exact same number of books. In total, I purchased 111 books for $123.50. It was the best of book sale days; it was the worst of weather starts for October.

Two years ago, the senior English classes at Wamogo High School were reorganized to provide student choice in electives. One of the choices offered is Memoir, a class where students read two or three assigned memoirs and create their own memoirs in response to prompts-ex: “My Favorite Food Memory” or “That’s Me in the Photo”. Students are also required to read memoirs independently. Because of the used book market, we are able to offer a wide selection of memoirs and allow for student choice.

The department had previously purchased a class set  (20-30 copies) of A Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson. These memoirs have been assigned as the course texts over the past two years. I have added at least 10 additional copies of each of these titles through the secondary market.

I have also purchased a minimum of 4 to 20 copies of the following books in the secondary market to offer students to read independently:

Lucky by Alice Sebold
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Lost in Place by Mark Salzman
Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman
A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself By Becoming an EMT by Jane Stern
Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany  by Bill Buford
All over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
The Tender Bar: A Memoir by J. R. Moehringer
A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive by Dave J. Pelzer
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog by Ted Kerasote
Marley & Me  by John Grogan
Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress
by Susan Jane Gilman
The Road to Coorain by Jill Ker Conway
Waiting For Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire
It’s Not about the Bike: My Journey Back to Life by Lance Armstrong

If the average cost of each of the above books is around $12.00 (trade copy), four new copies of each of the 23 titles above would have cost $1,104.00. In contrast, by purchasing four of the 23 titles above for $1.00, our total cost is $92.00. That marks a savings of $1012.00. Furthermore, students have the opportunity to try out texts that might interest them at little expense to the department.

I have started to collect other titles that are starting to find their way onto used book tables:
Lit by Mary Karr
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison
Escape by Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy and Ann Patchett

Investment so far on these six titles? $11.00 total.

12th graders are particularly interested in authors that discuss life-changing decisions since they themselves are in the process of making many life-changing decisions. Many of my students are already adults (18 years or older), so I am comfortable providing memoirs that would not be recommended for younger students. The variety of personal experience offered in memoirs informs students about the real world; for some students, authentic voices are more credible than standard high school fiction selections.

The pressure is on. School starts in another two weeks. Summer reading still needs to be done!

Right about this time, there are some parents who are reminding (nagging?) students about their summer reading assignments, there are librarians and book stores scrambling to locate books posted on reading list, there are some students trying to cram in a little reading, while there are some students trying to cram in a few Spark Notes instead of the summer reading book. Is this commotion necessary? Is all this activity to have students read books over the summer vacation a worthwhile endeavor?

Yes. Yes, it is.

On the New York State Department of Education website, there is a summary of research on summer reading:

“In a 2009 government web cast, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described summer learning loss as ‘devastating.’ This is what researchers have often referred to as the “summer slide.” It is estimated that school summer breaks will cause the average student to lose up to one month of instruction, with disadvantaged students being disproportionately affected (Cooper, 1996).”

“Researchers conclude that two-thirds of the 9th grade reading achievement gap can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years, with nearly one-third of the gap present when children begin school (Alexander, Entwistle & Olsen, 2007).”

“The body of existing research demonstrates the critical importance that the early development of summer reading habits can play in providing the foundation for later success.”

We assign summer reading for all grades 7-12. Academic level students in grades 7-11 have a choice of books, fiction and non-fiction, from suggested lists. Our excellent media specialist is a great resource for making recommendations and coordinating these lists for distribution. Honors level students are required to read specific titles; Advanced Placement students are assigned four to five books. Seniors read books that are directly connected to the elective they have chosen. All summer reading is due the first week of school.

We use the dialectical journal as an assessment tool. Students are required to find passages (5 from the first half of the book, 5 from the second half) that they think help them better understand the bigger issues of the book– theme, characterization, narrative voice, the author’s attitude towards his subject (tone), etc. The passages can be either narration or dialogue. Students respond to each passage in one of several ways such as:
1. Make a connection
2. Interpret/make a prediction
3. Ask a question (attempt to answer it)
4. Extend the meaning
5. Challenge the text

Dialectical_Journal Instructions
The first weeks of school are all about assessing individual student and evaluating class learning. Reading student responses in dialectical journals is one method a teacher can use to quickly assess a student’s comprehension and writing skills at the beginning of the school year.

I have located many of the required texts for summer reading in the used book market to make access easier for honors level students. We are able to offer gently used copies of all of the assigned texts including:
Grade 9 Honors: The Alchemist, Paul Coehlo
Grade 10 Honors: Nectar in a Sieve, Kamala Markandaya OR The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy OR The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Grade 11 AP Language: On the Road, by Jack Kerouac AND The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards AND On Writing by Stephen King AND The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Grade 12 AP Literature: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck AND The Tempest Shakespeare AND The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski OR The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver AND Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie OR Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
Grade 11 & 12 Journalism:
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers OR Firehouse by David Halberstam
Grade 12 Drama
: Our Town, Thornton Wilder
Grade 12 Creative Writing: On Writing, Stephen King
Grade 12 Memoir: A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel OR Lost in Place by Mark Salzman OR Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs OR Lucky by Alice Sebold

Unfortunately, the agrarian school calendar has created summer months where many students do not engage in any academic activity. Summer reading requirements for students at any grade level, choice or assigned, are speed bumps in slowing down the “summer slide.”

If you happen to find yourself in Boise, Idaho, as I frequently do, and you need a used book, check out Rainbow Books at 1310 West State Street. My family lives in Boise, and I have driven past Rainbow Books for about 20 years. I am sorry it took so long for me to discover this little  book store.

Rainbow Book Store in Boise, Idaho....in case you are ever in Boise!

According to its website, “Rainbow Books was moved to its current location at 1310 West State Street in 1993 and continues to add more shelves for more books all the time. Rainbow Books was chosen ‘Best of Treasure Valley’ in 2003 not only for its incredible selection, but also because of the staff’s unbelievable knowledge of its stock.”

On this very hot afternoon, the store had several “browsers” including a young couple canoodling in the air-conditioned book stacks. They were quite preoccupied and paid little attention to me as I crawled along the expansive classic section. The store is a reconverted house, and there are many different rooms to explore; all are well lit, and there is no musty odor one sometimes associates with used books.

I found the shelves very well organized by genre. The children’s literature was appropriately divided into sections: picture books, chapter books and YA literature; and there were many “finds” for my classroom. The military section was small, but there was an entire room shelving unit devoted to Westerns. Should I discover that my students would like to read Westerns, I will certainly be in touch with Rainbow Books! The biography and memoir section also had a wide range of titles. I did ask if they had a copy of October Sky by Homer Hickam, but I was informed that if there was a copy available, it would be shelved under a section called “Men’s Books”; apparently, most people do not look for this title as a memoir, so the staff adopted a genre change!

There were nearly all of the trade books I pick up at used book sales (The Bean Trees, The Road, The Kite Runner), but since I am traveling, all  purchases will be mailed to the school, so I was careful to select books that were both “hard to find” and in excellent condition.

What books go into the used book classroom? I found a copy of Feed by M.T. Anderson (9th grade), Nothing but the Truth by Avi (8th grade), and Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo (summer reading). All these titles are hard to find.

Books purchased at Rainbow Books for $44.30

The best discovery was locating four copies of the newest edition of  Night by Elie Wiesel which is a required reading text in grade 10. I also picked up three copies of Fat Girl: A True Story by Judith Moore to add to the independent reading selections for the 12th grade memoir class.

These 10 books cost $44.30 with a 10% teacher’s discount, or a little under $5.00 per book. I will have to spend $7.99 in postage (USPO media mail), bringing total expenses to $52.29. What did I save by shopping at Boise’s oldest, friendliest, and most generous used bookstore? Well, the retail price for these texts $108.60; so, including the postage, my total savings $56.31.

There are buying, trading, and selling policies listed on the Rainbow Books website; a sign at the register also indicated they sell through Amazon as well.  However, shopping online means you miss a great opportunity to shop in this pleasant used book store….or buy doughnuts next door….or ice cream up the street!

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt is a text that is used in Memoir, a 12th grade semester elective. The book was first published in 1996 and won the Pulitzer Prize for autobiography. McCourt recounts the story of his impoverished childhood in Limerick, Ireland. He successfully recaptures the perspective of a child watching his mother Angela struggle with his father’s alcoholism and the loss of several of her young children to disease and malnutrition. Surrounded by overwhelming tragedy, McCourt manages to communicate his understanding of the world with great humor and grace.

Initially, students can have some problems reading the dialect of an Irish brogue and many of the colloquial phrases. Students can have problems developing the “voice” of the author as they read any text. For that reason, an audio tape or CD of Angela’s Ashes is imperative. Once the student hears McCourt’s reading the memories of his younger self, young “Frankie”, they have a much better understanding of the humor which makes the book so entertaining. Listen to McCourt read a selection from the text in a clip on YouTube:

There were 40 copies of Angela’s Ashes purchased at full price in the classroom library, so there is little reason to pick up additional copies even though there are always copies available in used book sales. The memoir’s trade paperback edition retails currently for $9.86 at Amazon. I did, however, find a copy of the audio text unabridged for $8.00 which normally retails for $32.87, a savings of $24.87.

I do let students choose memoirs to read, and Angela’s Ashes will be a choice this coming year. Listening to McCourt read a few pages from an audio text is enough to convince students they would enjoy reading this excellent memoir.