Archives For Memoir

In the classroom, the authors of children’s books are celebrities; the authors of young adult literature are rock stars. So when the National Conference of English Teachers (NCTE) and associated independent organizations the Council of English Leadership (CEL) and the The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN) converged on Las Vegas last week, publishers made sure their authors were front and center, delivering keynote addresses and personally meeting and signing books for some of their greatest fans-teachers.

Highlights of the convention included Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) delivering a keynote address to an enthusiastic audience of readers who know how he can reach their reluctant readers. Scott Westerfield (Uglies, Pretties) was there representing the oh-so-popular dystopian fiction. Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook) was there for the older readers, including the teachers themselves, with new educational materials for high school classrooms. Newbery Award winning Lois Lowery (The Giver, Number the Stars) spoke to an enthralled crowd of middle school teachers at ALAN.

The convention had invited many authors; book publishers arranged to bring even more to the exhibition hall. There were over 200 “signing” stations in exhibitor booths advertised in the conference program to alert teachers where to purchase and get books autographed.

Most booths were mobbed, but on Sunday morning, I came upon a table where a solitary Jon Scieszka sat with a exhibitor. I could not believe my luck. For those who do not know, Scieszka is the author of  Math Curse,  The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,and the series The Time Warp Trio, which was made into a TV series. His retelling of the The Three Little Pigs is told from the point of view of A.Wolf. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs was my first Scieszka book experience.In the book, A. Wolf explains how his requests for a cup of sugar from each of the pigs eventually led to his “sneezing” not “huffing and puffing” which sets off the unfortunate demise of the pigs. Illustrated by Lane Smith, this book was one of the “Top 100 Picture Books” of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal. I concur, and I use the book to explain literary point of view to all grade levels. In 2008, Scieszka was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Librarian of Congress.

There Jon Scieszka sat, and there was no teacher in sight!

“Jon Scieszka!” I exclaimed, ” I can’t believe you are alone!”
“Neither can I,” he grinned.
“Me either,” said the exhibitor with him, much more uncomfortably..
“Well, now that I have you all to myself,” I was ready with a question I had asked so many times in my head, “Can I ask how you know so much about my brothers?” I was referring to his hilarious YA memoir Knuckleheads in which Scieszka relates his

experiences growing up. The publisher’s review:

“Growing up as one of six brothers was a good start, but that was just the beginning. Throw in Catholic school, lots of comic books, lazy summers at the lake with time to kill, babysitting misadventures, TV shows, jokes told at family dinner, and the result is Knucklehead. Part memoir, part scrapbook, this hilarious trip down memory lane provides a unique glimpse into the formation of a creative mind and a free spirit.”

The book is almost a mirror reflection of watching my younger siblings compete with each other, set fire to things, and survive Catholic school (with fewer nuns). “I swear you must have been watching my three brothers grow up!” I babbled on.
“You’d be surprised how many people say that,” he chuckled.
“And your short stories in Guy’s Read?” By this time, I was positively gushing, “they are exactly what I need for my 9th grade boys who only want a short read.”
“That’s why we wrote them,” he nodded appreciatively, “for short reads. Now, what name do you want in this book?”
Yes, I got a signed book Spaceheadz by Jon Scieszka! For free. A conversation and a book.

20 minutes later, I passed by the table again, but I caught only a glimpse of him. He was surrounded by a throng of teachers,the serpentine line of fans waiting to talk to him went down the long aisle. My brief and personal moment was obviously a fluke. That’s because he’s Jon Scieszka, children’s book author. Jon Scieszka, Rock Star.

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 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.

Student choice is the driving force behind purchasing used books, and we (the junior English teacher and I) just finished loading in the 800+ books purchased at the Newtown, CT, and Stockbridge, MA, book sales into the closet we use as a book room. (They certainly FELT like 800 books!) The room is conveniently (?) located behind a large bathroom, and teachers must patiently wait for us to leave when we rummage for texts during the school year. There are shelves along the walls and a set of two mobile (and very unstable) wooden rolling shelf units. We have successfully expanded our holdings enough in one year to crowd out all other groups using the room as storage.

Since the books I am purchasing average $1.00 in cost, I have the ability to experiment with texts for independent reading. Before I started purchasing used books, I would spend a great deal of time researching a book, looking for the best price, and anxiously await complaints from students (“…this is the worst book EVER!”) or teachers (“…does not work in this unit…”). I have had my successes in The Things They Carried and The Road; I have had few takers with Nectar in a Sieve. When new trade paperbacks average $8/copy from discount booksellers, I have concerns about committing $240.00 of the department’s money for 30 copies of an untested title. However,  at $1.00/text, or $30 for a class set, I can afford to make a few mistakes in determining what students might read.

One required text

As I have shopped, I have been adding to the Memoir elective that runs during the fall semester for 12th grade students. Students are assigned two core texts, one of which is A Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos but this title is never available in used book sales.

One Required Text

The other assigned text is The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, and there are usually several used copies at each book sale. Students will have to choose at least two other memoirs to read independently during the course as well as write an abbreviated  memoir of their own.

Seniors are 17-18 years old, so I do not have the same concerns about censorship due to topic or language. Since independent reading is a matter of choice, I am comfortable offering some of the more “mature” texts. This year, there are several new titles I will be offering to students as independent choice books this fall since I have found 5-6 copies of each of the following:

New option for Memoir Class

Ambulance Girl by Jane Stern-$11.16/paperback at Amazon: “Ambulance Girlis the absorbing true story of how and why Jane Stern, a depressed and anxious borderline agoraphobic, decides to become an Emergency Medical Technician.” ($55.80 for 5 new copies versus $5 for 5 used copies)

New Option for Memoir Class

Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman – $11.19/paperback at Amazon: “Gilman has a gift for showing the humor in the ordinary. Her memoir takes readers from her childhood in the late 1960s and early ’70s through adulthood and marriage.” ($55.95 for 5 new copies versus $5 for 5 used copies)

New Option for Memoir class

Beautiful Boy by David Sheff- $9.60/paperback at Amazon: “Sheff chronicles his son’s downward spiral into addiction and the impact on him and his family. A bright, capable teenager, Nic began trying mind- and mood-altering substances when he was 17. In months, use became abuse, then abuse became addiction.”
($48.00 for 5 new copies versus $5 for 5 used copies)

Total savings of including offering used titles versus new? $144.75

These new titles will be placed alongside the other titles I have already collected in the used book market including:

Lucky by Alice Sebold
Lost in Place and Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Zippy by Haven Kimmel
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (Yes, I know….a discredited memoir, but some students like this gritty story)
The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer

The other book used during the course is Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. There are already 60 copies in the bookroom that were purchased new. I could always add extra copies because there are always copies of this title on used book tables and shelves. Students are also free to choose another memoir from the school library if they want.

I give students some time to choose a book, so I need to have copies available for them to try. When a student lingers over a text on the shelf, I’ll say, “Try it…you might like it!”