Memoirs: Stories From a Life | Focus On

These first-person narratives introduce readers to the subjects' lives and experiences and help to preserve history through the eyes of someone who was there. They make for compelling reading—and are great choices for meeting the Common Core requirements for nonfiction.

A memoir is a narrow form of autobiography that tells a story from a life rather than the story of a life. Written in the first person, memoirs are created with attention to literary style and techniques more closely associated with fiction, including elements of plot structure, character development, and themes. Whether a life is unconventional or relatively normal, these glimpses into personal experience can be fascinating. The subject of the memoir comes alive, preserving history through the eyes of someone who experienced it firsthand, which makes compelling reading.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy place added emphasis on reading nonfiction, reflecting the current assertion that understanding and analyzing nonfiction is crucial to a student’s ability to integrate knowledge and ideas. This shift has the potential to significantly increase student enthusiasm. By tapping into readers’ interests, informational texts allow students to explore a broad array of subjects. Readers realize that the real world can often be just as surprising and intriguing as make-believe. Memoirs are a good place to start.

Teachers across the grades will find memoirs a rich resource to enhance the “Integration of Knowledge and Ideas,” a key component of the reading standards for informational text, as students learn to gather evidence in order to identify, describe, and evaluate particular claims from a text. Librarians who actively curate and promote the library’s collection of memoirs will both support Common Core standards and engage readers.

Picture Books

Elementary Grades

COLLINS, Suzanne. Year of the Jungle. illus. by James Proimos. Scholastic. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-42516-2.

K Up–Collins’s first picture book vividly portrays the impact of war on children. Young Suzy learns that her dad “has to go to something called a a place called Viet Nam.” As time passes, she begins to understand the danger her father faces. Proimos’s simple stylized illustrations, depicting Suzy with oversize eyes, accentuate a child’s viewpoint.

POLACCO, Patricia. Thunder Cake. illus. by author. Philomel. 1990. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-39922-231-3.

K-Gr 3–Grandma provides a creative solution to young Patricia’s fear of thunderstorms: Thunder cake! Together they search for the ingredients and then concoct a special confection as the lightning crashes and the thunder rumbles. Illustrations echoing Polacco’s Russian heritage add vitality and warmth to the tale. The included recipe contains an unusual ingredient. Audio version available from Spoken Arts.

ROBINSON, Sharon. Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson. illus. by Kadir Nelson. Scholastic. 2009. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-05251-1; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-0-698-11581-1.

K-Gr 3–Although Robinson couldn’t swim, his daughter affectionately recounts how he bravely tested the ice near the family’s Connecticut home so that his children and their friends could play on the frozen lake. Nelson’s expressive illustrations rendered in pencil, watercolor, and oils add to the richness of the story.

RYLANT, Cynthia. When I was Young in the Mountains. illus. by Diane Goode. Dutton. 1982. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-525-42525-0; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-14-054875-4.

K-Gr 3–Rylant delights in the simple joys of living with her grandparents in the Appalachian Mountains: fresh cornbread, the swimming hole, bathing in the tin tub, snakes, and the community church. Surrounding all of these memories is the loving relationship with her grandparents. Warmly rendered illustrations complement the lyrical text. Audio version available from Audible.

SAY, Allen. The Favorite Daughter. illus. by author. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-17662-0.

K-Gr 3–While spending the weekend with her dad, Yuriko confesses that she is teased by her classmates for her blond hair and Japanese heritage. Through talking with her father, Yuriko learns to appreciate her biracial identity as they visit her favorite sushi restaurant and Golden Gate Park. Say supplements his tender watercolor illustrations with family photographs.

SHULEVITZ, Uri. How I Learned Geography. illus. by author. Farrar. 2008. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-374-33499-4.

K-Gr 3–In this story based upon Shulevitz’s childhood, a World War II Polish refugee living in Turkestan purchases a map of the world instead of food for his family. Enchanted with this treasure, his young son envisions faraway places. Illustrations provide a stark contrast between the reality of the boy’s bleak existence and the wonders of his imagination.

Middle Grades

BRIDGES, Ruby. Through My Eyes. Scholastic. 1999. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-590-18923-1.

Gr 4 Up–At age six, Ruby Bridges became the first African American student to attend an all-white school in New Orleans. In addition to her childhood memories, she shares her adult perceptions of the role she played in the Civil Rights Movement. Compelling sepia-toned photographs enhance this personal narrative.

SAY, Allen. Drawing from Memory. illus. by author. Scholastic. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-17686-6.

Gr 4-7–This “journey through memories” uses a scrapbook format featuring the author’s photographs, sketches, drawings, and comic-style panels. Say shares his love of comics and the important influence they have in his art. The book is a poignant tribute to his mentor, Japanese cartoonist Noro Shinpei.

SÍS, Peter. The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. illus. by author. Farrar. 2007. Tr $18.99. ISBN 978-0-374-34701-7.

Gr 5 Up–In parallel stories, Sís chronicles his early years as an artist learning to draw and the rise and fall of communism in the former Czechoslovakia. Sís intersperses his developing awareness of freedom of expression with fanciful illustrations, maps, and journal entries in this picture book for older readers.

WEBB, Sophie. My Season with Penguins: An Antarctic Journal. illus. by author. Houghton Harcourt. 2000. Tr $15. ISBN 978-0-395-92291-0.

Gr 5 Up–Biologist and artist Webb records her two-month stay in the Antarctic to study Adélie penguins. Her expressive watercolor art highlights the characteristics and behavior of penguins in this harsh polar environment, while the challenging work of researchers is amply illustrated in this record of her experiences.

YOUNG, Ed. The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China. illus. by author. Little, Brown. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-316-07628-9.

Gr 3-6–Young’s father builds a house for his growing family and for others who join them. Against the background of World War II, the author shares childhood memories of changing seasons, raising silkworms, and picnicking by the pool. This oversize book with foldout pages is illustrated with photos, drawings, and collage. Includes a time line and a diagram of the house.

Graphic Novels

Middle Grades

ABIRACHED, Zeina. A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return. tr. from French by Edward Gauvin. illus. by author. Lerner/Graphic Universe. 2012. lib. ed. $29.27. ISBN 978-0-7613-8568-4; pap. $9.95. ISBN 978-1-57505-941-9; ebook $21.95. ISBN 978-1-4677-0047-4.

Gr 5 Up–In war-torn Beirut, apartment residents care for Zeina and her younger brother while their parents are away. The cartoon format features bold black-and-white images that are visually and emotionally striking. Abirached contrasts the warmth and humor of daily family life with the terror of Lebanon’s civil strife.

KNISLEY, Lucy. Relish: My Life in the Kitchen. illus. by author. First Second. 2013. pap. $17.99. ISBN 978-1-59643-623-7.

Gr 6 Up–In 12 autobiographical vignettes, a comic artist recalls growing up surrounded by a love of food. Knisley shares coming-of-age experiences in tandem with recipes for some memorable dishes. All are illustrated with full-color cartoons that guide readers step-by-step to the creation of these culinary delights.

LAT. Kampung Boy. illus. by author. First Second. 2006. pap $17.95. ISBN 978-1-59643-121-8.

Gr 5 Up–Malaysian cartoonist Lat shares the story of his 1950s childhood in a small village through comical drawings and an entertaining text. Children, often pictured either bare-bottomed or dressed in a sarong, enjoy a simple life. Lat affectionately depicts Muslim traditions, village politics, and jungle explorations with warmth and humor.

LIU, Na & Andrés Vera Martínez. Little White Duck: A Childhood in China. illus. by Andrés Vera Martínez. Lerner/Graphic Universe. 2012. lib. ed. $29.27. ISBN 978-0-7613-6587-7; pap. $9.95. ISBN 978-0-7613-8115-0.

Gr 4 Up–Based on her childhood experiences, Liu and her husband have created a rich, multilayered memoir, incorporating history, geography, language, culture, and mythology. Eight short stories are woven together to form an exquisite, picturesque tapestry of life in China during the 1970s. Liu introduces Chinese culture through a personal perspective that is delightful and thought-provoking.

SIEGEL, Siena Cherson. To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel. illus. by Mark Siegel. S & S/Atheneum/Richard Jackson Bks. 2006. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978-0-689-86747-7; pap. $9.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-2687-0; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-1-4814-1617-7.

Gr 4 Up–Siegel leaves her home in Puerto Rico to study at the School of American Ballet where she dances with the New York City Ballet. Her deeply rooted love of dance permeates this touching memoir. The graphic format and her husband’s lyrical art bring to life the preparation and dedication required of performers.

TELGEMEIER, Raina. Smile. illus. by author. Graphix/Scholastic. 2010. Tr $21.99. ISBN 978-0-545-13205-3; pap. $10.99. ISBN 978-0-545-13206-0.

Gr 5 Up–Sixth-grader Raina falls and severely damages her two front teeth. Through middle school and into high school, she struggles with peer relationships, discovering her own strengths while enduring painful orthodontia. The concluding pages reveal a self-assured high school student who can indeed smile. Full-color comic panels perfectly capture young adolescence.

High School

CANADA, Geoffrey. Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence. adapted by Jamar Nicholas. illus. by adapter. Beacon. 2010. pap. $14. ISBN 978-0-8070-4449-0.

Gr 7 Up–A comic adaptation of Canada’s 1995 memoir illustrates 10 situations from his childhood and teen years on the streets of the South Bronx. Based on the author’s personal experiences, this study of the cycle of violence explores the destructive power of escalating hostilities on individuals and communities. Nicholas’s drawings effectively accentuate facial expressions and emotions.

GLIDDEN, Sarah. How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. illus. by author. Vertigo. 2010. Tr $24.99. ISBN 978-1-4012-2233-8; pap. $19.99. ISBN 978-1-4012-2234-5.

Gr 10 Up–Glidden travels to Israel on a program that offers Jewish young adults first-time trips to the country. She details her two-month excursion through cities and deserts, seeking to view Israel with an objective eye. The soft watercolor palette and realistic art complement this thoughtful exploration of the role that cultural heritage plays in the search for personal identity.

GUIBERT, Emmanuel. The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders. tr. from French by Alexis Siegel. photos by Didier Lefèvre. illus. by author. First Second. 2009. pap. $32.99. ISBN 978-1-59643-375-5.

Gr 10 Up–Originally published in France, this graphic novel follows photojournalist Lefèvre during his three months in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1986 where he documented the medical missions of Doctors Without Borders. The unique format combines traditional comic-style art and Lefèvre’s photographs and journal entries corroborating the horrors of war.

LEWIS, John & Andrew Aydin. March: Bk. 1. illus. by Nate Powell. Top Shelf. 2013. pap. $14.95. ISBN 978-1-60309-300-2.

Gr 8 Up–Lewis, a sitting congressman from Georgia, reflects on his early life and his role in the Civil Rights Movement. Lewis’s eyewitness account, particularly recalling the lunch counter sit-ins in 1959 and 1960, provides significant insight into this momentous period of history. Powell’s realistic black-and-white ink wash art intensifies this riveting personal narrative.

STEINBERGER, Aimee Major. Japan Ai: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan. illus. by author. Go! Comi. 2007. pap. $16.99. ISBN 978-1-933617-83-1.

Gr 9 Up–Accompanied by two friends, Steinberger travels to Japan to experience Asian pop culture, which includes cosplay and Volks dolls. Although at six feet tall she is an anomaly, Steinberger seems in her element. Her journal entries, illustrated with black-and-white drawings, serve as a captivating introduction to Japan.

WHITE, Tracy. How I Made It to Eighteen: A Mostly True Story. illus. by author. Roaring Brook. 2010. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-1-59643-454-7.

Gr 9 Up–White relives the pain of her residence in a psychiatric hospital in this thinly veiled personal account of angry 17-year-old high-school graduate Stacy Black. This memoir will resonate with those searching for an authentic representation of psychotherapy, bulimia, and other difficult physical and emotional issues. Black-and-white line drawings reveal White’s slowly evolving self-understanding.

Informational Narratives

Middle Grades

FLEISCHMAN, Sid. The Abracadabra Kid: A Writer’s Life. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. 1996. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-688-14859-1.

Gr 5 Up–Fleischman’s varied life includes performing as a magician, panning for gold in the Sierras, and serving onboard a destroyer escort ship during World War II. The Newbery Medal-winning author’s entertaining and highly readable book includes writing tips for young authors. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs.

KEHRET, Peg. Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio. Albert Whitman. 1996. Tr $14.95. ISBN 978-0-8075-7457-7; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-0-8075-7458-4.

Gr 5-8–Twelve-year-old Peg contracts polio in 1949, but she survives the initial paralysis and eventually learns to walk again. Her engaging account will fascinate readers as she relates the symptoms, treatments, and effects of the disease. Kehret also describes antiquated treatments such as the Iron Lung. Black-and-white photos add to the story’s appeal. Audio version available from AudioGO.

LEYSON, Leon with Marilyn J. Harran & Elisabeth B. Leyson. The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible… On Schindler’s List. S & S/Atheneum. 2013. Tr 16.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-9781-8.

Gr 5 Up–Leyson was 10 years old when the Germans invaded Poland and his family was forced to relocate to a Krakow ghetto. Separated from most of his family, he describes his struggles to survive the brutal treatment inflicted on Jews. As one of the youngest Jews on Schindler’s list, Leyson’s record provides a child’s perspective of the Holocaust.

PAULSEN, Gary. How Angel Peterson Got His Name: And Other Outrageous Tales About Extreme Sports. Random. 2003. Tr $12.95. ISBN 978-0-385-72949-9; lib. ed. $14.99. ISBN 978-0-385-90090-4; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-440-22935-3.

Gr 5 Up–Paulsen recounts his escapades as an adventurous 13-year-old who believed that he and his friends could do anything, including wrestle a bear, ride a waterfall in a barrel, and hang glide with an Army surplus kite. Told with humor and a strong tall tale flavor, these accounts will have readers laughing aloud. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.

SCIESZKA, Jon. Knucklehead: Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka. Viking. 2008. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-670-01106-3; pap. $12.99. ISBN 978-0-670-01138-4.

Gr 4-8–A family with six overactive brothers is a breeding ground for a multitude ofantics and inventive amusements like watching the youngest brother eat cigarette butts, slipping toy soldiers into the Christmas crèche, and playing games like Slaughter Ball. Packed into short, easy-reading chapters, Scieszka’s over-the-top humor adds to the book’s appeal. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.

TILLAGE, Leon Walter. Leon’s Story. illus. by Susan L. Roth. Farrar. 1997. Tr $14. ISBN 978-0-374-34379-8; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-374-44330-6.

Gr 4 Up–Tillage, the son of North Carolina sharecroppers, looks back on his experience of growing up black in the Jim Crow South. Told in simple, straightforward language, this heart-wrenching memoir was transcribed from taped recordings of Tillage’s spoken story and edited with his assistance and consent. Striking black-and-white collage designs separate chapters. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

High School

CRUTCHER, Chris. King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. 2003. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-050249-2; lib. ed. $17.89. ISBN 978-0-06-050250-8; pap. $9.99. ISBN 978-0-06-050251-5.

Gr 8 Up–Crutcher was an awkward youngster, always chosen last for sports and the object of constant ridicule. While episodes of his life are often laugh-out-loud funny, Crutcher explores some of the more painful elements of his childhood. These include his mother’s alcoholism, his uncontrollable temper, and strained family relationships. Audio version available from Listening Library.

GANTOS, Jack. Hole in My Life. Farrar. 2002. Tr. $16.99. ISBN 978-0-374-39988-7; pap. $9.99. ISBN 978-0-312-64157-3.

Gr 8 Up–Gantos centers this memoir on his time as a drug smuggler, focusing on his arrest, conviction, and subsequent incarceration for 15 months in a federal prison. His straightforward account and honest reflection on his journey to become a writer makes for compelling reading. Audio version available from Listening Library.

JENKS, Andrew. Andrew Jenks: My Adventures As a Young Filmmaker. Scholastic. 2013. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978-0-545-41727-3.

Gr 8 Up–Now a successful 26-year-old maker of documentary films, Jenks transformed his dream into a career that includes feature-length movies and an MTV series. Filled with engaging anecdotes about filming his various subjects, the book highlights the personal qualities needed to achieve goals. Short paragraphs with ample photographs make his story highly accessible to teens.

WALLS, Jeannette. The Glass Castle: A Memoir. Scribner. 2005. Tr $24. ISBN 978-0-7432-4753-5; pap. $16. ISBN 978-0-7432-4754-2.

Gr 9 Up–Growing up in rural Appalachia in extreme poverty, Walls (a former journalist and recognized author) and her siblings had to fend for themselves, supporting each other as they weathered their parents’ wildly erratic and dysfunctional behavior. She presents an objective portrait of her circumstances that is both poignant and forgiving. Audio version available from S & S Audio.


By Barbara M. Moon

StoryCorps: Every Voice Matters.StoryCorps. (Accessed 08/20/13). Gr 8 Up–With over 45,000 personal histories, this vast audio collection has been indexed and can be searched by key word as well as by theme. The audio clips may also serve as companions to traditional print resources. Recordings provide a useful model for conducting interviews and preserving memories.

SMITHTeens. Larry Smith and Tim Barkow. (Accessed 08/20/13). Gr 8 Up–A component of SMITH Magazine and its Six-Word Memoirs© project, this site provides a forum for contributory online storytelling with a focus on personal narrative and invites young contributors aged 13-19 to create a memoir using just six words.

TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. The Sapling Foundation. (Accessed 08/20/13). Gr 8 Up–Started 25 years ago, the annual TED Conference invites the world’s leading thinkers and doers to speak for 18 minutes. Recordings of over 1500 talks are available online. In 2013, a TEDxTeen conference featured speeches by young “trailblazers.” These can be accessed at

Barbara M. Moon is a Youth Services Consultant with the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Bellport, NY

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