Monthly Archives: February 2014

Memoir or Biomythography?

This is my last blog post in the month of February. I’ve been posting what I’ve learned from the memoirs I’ve read for two months now, and I still have plenty of books to cover.

I want to talk to you about other subjects, too, but I’m reluctant to ignore the rest of my memoir books. So I think I’ve worked out a compromise. I’ll try posting about a memoir once a week, and that way I will gradually work my way through them. It’s not only fun to share the books, but writing these posts reminds me of what I learned about each book, which is such a good review for me.

Then I can write about other things in my other posts–yay!

Today’s memoir is poet Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. On the cover it calls itself a BIOMYTHOGRAPHY.

So I didn’t think of it as a memoir when I read it in grad school. I was immersing myself in the work of Lorde for a possible chapter in my dissertation. Unfortunately, Lorde passed away of cancer while I was in grad school. She was 58 years old, the same age I am now. This chapter never got finished, although my dissertation did.

On a related note, here is my favorite Lorde poem, “Coal.”

Anyway, back to how Lorde wanted to think of this book–as a biomythography. In it she writes about her origins, as a Caribbean child growing up lesbian in Harlem, and she writes about some of the women she loved in her life. She tried to create a new literary genre, by combining a personal mythology with biographical events, but it reads to me as an experimental memoir.

Does that word experimental annoy you or turn you off? It does me. But this is a beautiful book.

In its play with language and boundaries, the book is representative of feminist texts of the early 90s. You won’t notice that so much as you will fall into Lorde’s world and find out what it was like to be an African-American lesbian poet of her time period. That’s what I learned from Lorde’s book.


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Yippee for Zippy

So you’ve gotten the impression that most memoirs are about trauma?

If you want to read something upbeat, you can’t miss A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel.

After the Prologue and a piece about the protagonist’s Baby Book as written by her mother, the first chapter from the voice of Zippy herself starts out this way:

Somehow my first wig and my first really excellent pair of slippers arrived simultaneously.

Now my hair, my actual human hair which grows out of my head, was slow in coming. I was bald until I was nearly three. My head was strangely crooked, and it happened that the little patches of wispy bird hair I did have grew only in the dents. Also my eyes were excessively large and decidedly close together. When my mother first saw me in the hospital she looked up with tears in her eyes and said to my father, “I’ll love her and protect her anyway.”

This book is absolutely delightful. Haven (Zippy) Kimmel’s life is described as both so typically middle class middle America and so hilariously funny, that you will be hooked from the first pages of Kimmel’s engaging voice. (Here’s a secret: I.

So what did I learn from it? I learned that underneath the knee-slappingly funny self-deprecation and the obvious love of her town and her people, that there was still (lots of) dysfunction in Kimmel’s family.  It is possible to write a funny book about your family, even if your family is, well, normal in its problems.

I can’t resist telling you one of the funny things in the book. Throughout, Zippy’s mother is portrayed as lying on the couch, reading, eating, watching TV. A permanent couch potato.

When Kimmel was on her book tour for the book, she was asked by so many people if her mother ever did get up off the couch, so she wrote a sequel called She Got Up Off the Couch.

Yes, she did get up, and the sequel explains what Zippy’s mother ended up doing with her life.

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20 Holocaust Books for Children and Teens

On Monday, I wrote about  Johanna Reiss’s Holocaust memoir The Upstairs Room. As a follow-up I pulled together a list of 20+ Holocaust books for children and teens.


  • Adler, David A.  The Picture Book of Anne Frank.
  • Bishop, Claire Huchet.  Twenty and Ten.
  • Bunting, Eve. Terrible Things. This picture book is subtitled “An Allegory of the Holocaust.” Illustrations by Stephen Gammell.
  • Drucker, Malka and Michael Halperin. Jacob’s Rescue, a Holocaust Story.
  • Frank, Anne.  The Diary of a Young Girl. Most important text for adolescents by a girl who dies in the camps after writing the diary; the diary, though, is coming of age and doesn’t continue after they are in hiding and into the camps. Note that the PLAY written about Anne’s story is called Diary of Anne Frank.
  • Greene, Bette.  The Summer of My German Soldier.
  • Hurwitz, Johanna. Anne Frank: Life in Hiding. Anne Frank for younger readers.
  • Goldston, Robert.  Sinister Touches: The Secret War Against Hitler.
  • Heuve, Eric. A Family Secret. A graphic novel, shared by blogger Ian in a comment on my last post.
  • I Never Saw Another Butterfly.  Poetry and art from actual concentration camp children.
  • Ippisch, Hanneke.  Sky
  • Isaacman, Clara.  Clara’s Story. (Actual memoir of Jewish Holocaust survivor)

  • Kerr, Judith.  When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. This is a true Holocaust story—but the protagonist barely knows she’s Jewish.
  • Levitin, Sonia.  Journey to America.
  • Lowry, Lois.  Number the Stars. Non Jewish protagonist.
  • Meltzer, Milton.  Rescue: The Story of How Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust.
  • Mochizuki, Ken. Passage to Freedom by Ken Mochizuki. A picture book that describes how a Japanese official helped save Jews during the Holocaust.
  • Orlev, Uri.  The Island on Bird Street. Fictional Holocaust story by actual Holocaust survivor who now lives in Israel.
  • Reiss, Johanna.  The Journey Back.
  • Reiss, Johanna.  The Upstairs Room.
  • Rogasky, Barbara.  Smoke and Ashes: The Story of the Holocaust.
  • Siegal, Aranka. Upon the Head of the Goat:  A Childhood in Hungary 1939-1944. Memoir of actual survivor and description of being carted off to a camp; for adolescents.
  • Tene, Benjamin.  In the Shade of the Chestnut Tree.
  • Yolen, Jane.  The Devil’s Arithmetic. Fiction about an American child who goes back in time to the Holocaust.

I did a little search online, and here is a website that has another list of books–some are the same that I have on my list, and some are different. She shares some good info, too.

And here is another great list of books about the Holocaust for kids!

I Never Saw Another Butterfly

I Never Saw Another Butterfly

After posting on Monday and “chatting” with readers, I started thinking more about the subject.

What is the difference between a book about the Holocaust for children or teens and one for adults? Is it the reading level? Is it the maturity level regarding violence, sex, and even despair?

How can the Holocaust, by its very nature an obscenity and atrocity, be written for kids?

How is this weighty subject handled in these books?

I’ve noticed that stories of the death and concentration camps written for adult readers focus on feelings of intense guilt on the part of the survivors. The mere act of eating means that each bite taken is one bite less for someone else.

In books for children the horrors are less chilling, the guilt tangible, but less complex.  In Clara’s Story, Clara worries, “I felt guilty about the plans our family was making, wishing that, somehow, we could take everyone with us who wanted to come.”

What seems to be most important in Holocaust books written for children is that family members are often kept together. Family life, of some sort, usually continues throughout the course of each story.  For instance, in The Upstairs Room, Annie and Sini stay together and Johann functions as a father figure to the girls.

In Holocaust stories written for adults, the singular aloneness that occurs at the camps is palpable. Family ties equate to responsibility for adults, a very heavy burden in the camps, whereas for children, family ties are a comfort.

Another difference is that adult books often delve into the protagonists’ religion or spirituality, while the children’s memoirs do not.  I suspect that this is because it’s less likely that the books will be read in public schools if they mention much about religion. Maybe writers are self-censoring. Maybe publishers are censoring.

Have you noticed any other differences between a story about the Holocaust for children and one for adults?

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Teaching the Holocaust to Children and Teens

One section of my memoir bookshelf is devoted to books by Holocaust survivors. I read these books years ago, long before I started to think about memoir as a genre.

I’ve read Holocaust memoirs written for children and ones written for adults. Most of these memoir writers survived the war by hiding with non-Jews. My favorite children’s Holocaust memoir is Johanna Reiss’s The Upstairs Room (1972).

I used to teach The Upstairs Room, a 1973 Newbery Honor Book, in some of my children’s literature classes. One of my students was so taken with the history of the story that he constructed a timeline, juxtaposing historical dates with personal events from the story. What he discovered was that the historical dates were depicted accurately by Reiss in all cases except that the first bombing raid by Americans on Germany at Wilhelmshaven occurred on January 27, 1943; Reiss’ book tells of hearing planes flying overhead to bomb Germany for the first time sometime after February 2. The discrepancy is not what is amazing; as the student pointed out in class, that Reiss would remember these dates thirty years later seems impossible. What seems likely is that she took trouble with her research to augment her memory.

This book teaches me that memory is the most important part of history, but that it needs to be supported with historical research to assure accuracy in a memoir–particularly, when a memoir has as much at stake in historical terms as a Holocaust story.

From the first time I read the book (and I’ve read it many times), I bonded closely with Annie, the first person narrator. The story begins in 1938 when the protagonist Annie de Leeuw (Johanna’s name as a child) is six years old and just beginning to hear about the problems that Hitler is bringing to her world.

Four years later, in late summer 1942, Annie and her older sister Sini go into hiding with a non-Jewish Dutch family, the Oostervelds. Annie and Sini are cared for by Dientje, Opoe, and particularly by Johan Oosterveld, who is a loving man of strong character. Their father and oldest sister Rachel hide elsewhere during the war. Their mother died in the hospital of kidney disease just after they went into hiding.

The girls live in an upstairs room (hence, the title), but they have to crawl into the back of a closet when anyone else comes near the house. Imagine what happens when the Nazis decide to make the house their headquarters . . . .

This book is for 5th to 8th graders, but a good reader that is mature could read it when a little younger. And you can’t be too old for this book.

When you read a memoir do you expect that the memories that correspond with historical events have been corroborated by research? Or do you expect a memoir to tell the story only as the writer remembers it?

Here is a belated addition to this post: Ian at the blog ReSearching MySelf is writing a series about this very subject, based on his knowledge and research of his mother’s life in the Netherlands during the war. Find his most recent post here.



Clara’s War by Clara Kramer

Upon the Head of a Goat by Aranka Siegel

Night by Elie Wiesel


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Does a Memoir Need to Tell a Wild Story?

After hearing about it (too much), I decided I’d read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I usually avoid books and movies that have too much hype because I don’t always like what “everybody” likes. So I assume I won’t like said book or film and try to ignore. Sometimes I’m wrong about the work. Sometimes I’m not.

In the case of Strayed’s memoir, I thought its popularity meant that the book would be insipid. Judgmental on my part, yes. I also assumed it would be too “outdoorsy” for my taste.

What I found was a well-written story which held my interest throughout. Strayed’s protagonist is a grief-stricken addict who decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. Once I started the book I didn’t want to stop. Perhaps more than any other memoir, I was entertained by the cinematic story.

Although the book seems to be very carefully crafted, the premise itself is rather wild. An out-of-control young addict embarks on a dangerous journey by herself, rather than a trip to rehab. The implausibility of this path to recovery is echoed by the central tangible symbol of boots which do not fit the hiker. They do damage to her feet and create multi-level meaning, but leave this reader thinking, there is no way she could survive on that trail without broken-in boots that fit well.

What I learned from this book is that I can exaggerate elements of my life to create a best-seller. I can make my story more wild. But I am unwilling to do so.

Have you read Wild? Did the unlikely elements of the plot bother you or did you suspend your disbelief as you read? Or maybe you have a completely different viewpoint of this memoir?

Would you be willing to make your story wilder?

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The Sign of a Good Story (Hint: The Genre)

This memoir wasn’t even on my memoir bookshelf. I read it before I started thinking memoir.

My daughter was in high school, and she was taking ASL classes to satisfy her foreign language requirement. She had already had years of French in elementary and middle school, but wanted ASL for high school.

She read A Loss for Words by Lou Ann Walker for a book report for class. I thought I would read it as well. I’m one of those moms who gets interested in their kids’ activities. She was a dancer, so I loved dance. She was in musical theatre, so I loved musical theatre. Well, those were easy as I’d always loved those subjects.

But my son was in roller hockey, so I loved roller hockey. He was a Police Explorer, so I loved his polo shirt with POLICE EXPLORER printed on the back and the expensive billy club-like flashlight. Those were new things for me.

So was ASL and the deaf community. But when my daughter took those classes, we went to deaf theatre, we went to Caroline, or Change (not deaf theatre) to watch the sign interpreters. And I read her assigned books.

So I wasn’t thinking memoir when I read this book. I was thinking, “Wow, now I know what it is like to grow up as the hearing child of deaf parents.”

That’s the beauty of memoir. To actually immerse oneself in the life of another person. That person can be similar to the reader or very different. It really doesn’t matter because it is still someone else’s life.

I learned about the family members and, through them, had a look at various aspects of living deaf in this country over a period spanning many decades of the 20th century. And I was moved by the protagonist, her situation, and by the character of her parents.

When I look back at this book and all the other memoirs I’ve read, I do think that they satisfy my desire to live my own life and yet to be a fly on the wall in the lives of others.

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Not a Model Memoir, But a Darn Good Read

I can’t remember the first thought that led to me deciding to write a memoir, but I remember the first memoir I sought out to read as a model.

I’d been hearing for a long time about Frank McCourt‘s Angela’s Ashes, which was published in 1996. I can’t count how many reviews I’d read, skimmed, or bypassed about the book. The reviews had piqued my curiosity, but I long-delayed reading the book because I was teaching English and all my reading was focused on have-to-read books.

Book reading for pleasure didn’t exist for me any longer. Besides, McCourt’s book sounded so bleak that I didn’t see the point in subjecting myself to a tragedy that had happened decades before.

In 2005, when I retired from teaching and went through a medical ordeal, I began reading again. I read in all different genres, but I particularly caught up on my beloved mystery novels.

Four years later, I took an online memoir writing course because I thought it sounded interesting. I ordered McCourt’s memoir and a memoir written by my first memoir writing instructor, but I read Angela’s Ashes first.

Like a lot of readers, I got caught up in the rhythm of the story, with its repetitive and tragic events. McCourt’s father was a terrible alcoholic, and he put his family through severe neglect and abuse.

Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer. It certainly deserved to win major awards; it’s hard to get the story out from under your skin once you let it in. But it was not the right memoir to read when I was trying to learn how memoir works.

My instructor was trying (but I was a slow learner) to teach me the notion of the double eye in memoir–the perspective of the narrator when the events took place, layered over with the reflective eye of the writer who has learned from her experiences.

McCourt doesn’t use the reflective eye much at all. Most of the story is told as a novel is–as if it is happening at the moment. It thrusts the reader right into a momentum that it’s hard to get away from, and one way he does that is by doing away with quotation marks for dialogue.

I learned the hard way that McCourt’s book is not a good model for memoir. Because he omitted reflection throughout most of the book, a lot of burden was placed on the beginning and ending to provide background information.

The writing style wouldn’t work for my memoir, that’s for sure. But it works well for Angela’s Ashes, which puts great emphasis on Irish culture. The style is reminiscent of that of James Joyce, albeit much less difficult.

The best part of this memoir is how it immerses the reader in the life of the little boy Frank. All these years later, I feel as if I lived in Ireland with his tragic family.  I can smell and hear the place still.

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The 2nd Line of the Book: “[Mom and Dad] sleep with loaded guns beside them”

Do you want to read a gorgeous memoir that:

  1. makes me jealous?
  2. is one of my favorites?
  3. starts out with a scene on the toilet?

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, is an account of her life as a colonial child growing up in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Malawi, and Zambia.

This book depicts an environment that threatened Alexandra and her family with danger from every possible source: war, humans, animals, illness, starvation, weather, parental neglect. Her upbringing couldn’t be farther from my own suburban Michigan 1960s upbringing.

But, here it is. Good grief, I love this book. Alexandra’s voice sounds eerily familiar to me. I think it’s that voice in my head . . . .

I learned from this memoir that I have a lot in common with people who have very little in common with me!


In January I posted “one thing I learned from this memoir” on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but for February I plan to switch to Mondays and Thursdays. I have a lot of personal and business affairs to take care of, but I want to continue this series into February because I still have a lot more memoir books on my bookshelf!


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