We Need True Stories: How Reading Memoirs Will Change You by Jen Kleinknecht
Life is unbearably hard sometimes.
It has always annoyed me when someone tells me to “Buck up” by pointing out people who have it worse than I do. Telling someone to stop being sad, afraid, or angry is futile. It’s insulting, tactless, and a roadblock to understanding another human being. But it’s true. There are people who have carried heavier burdens than I have. I started reading about those people, and I was inspired.
That’s when I became a fan of memoirs and nonfiction stories.
Reading these types of books is different from reading fiction. Don’t get me wrong; I love fiction. I once heard author Christina Baker Kline say something so profound that I never forgot it. I’m paraphrasing, but she said that a story didn’t need to be factual in order to be true. Of course fiction contains truth. The wisdom of the characters is born of the author’s own realizations.
But in fiction, the author manipulates the events of the story. In life, it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes bad things just happen to us and we can’t rewrite the plot twists and erase the villains or the drama from our lives.
We can’t stop life from happening, but we can control how we react to events. Reading true stories can help keep our spirits afloat, even when the weight of our circumstances threatens to drag us down in a sea of despair. A memoir with a happy ending gives us reassurance that things really do work out. Hope is not a foolish notion.
Hope is real.
Are you sidelined by an injury or an illness? Read Believe: The Victorious Story of Eric LeGrand and find the grace to see what’s still good in your life. Eric LeGrand and co-writer Mike Yorkey will convince you that every day is a gift. Afraid your life will change in an instant because of a deadly disease? Read Small Steps:The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret. Yes, it is a story of polio, but it is also a story of friendship, community, and personal triumph. This memoir is great for middle grade readers and it’s a perennial favorite in my library.
Do you feel stuck? Read A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Teen Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss and Survival by Melissa Fleming. However, you must be careful. The journey of Doaa Al Zamel may convince you to upend your life. A refugee of the Syrian Civil War, Doaa overcomes violence, betrayal, the death of loved ones, and almost insurmountable odds to begin a new life in the United States. Readers of I Am Malala will welcome this inspiring tale of a young woman whose determination shields her like an impenetrable armor against misfortune and injustice.
Are you feeling misunderstood? Read The Reason I Jump by Naoiki Higashida. Naoiki is thirteen, creative, sensitive, and autistic. Although he struggles to communicate verbally, through the use of an alphabet grid, he has written a brilliant book that has forever changed the way that I will understand autism. His book reads like a sharing of secrets. He reveals how desperately lonely he feels after his failures to connect with others and how painfully disappointed he gets when he realizes how his struggles are perceived by neurotypical people. Despite all of this, he is resilient, writing, “However hard an autistic life is, however sad it can be, so long as there’s hope, we can stick at it.” Thank you to the parent who recommended The Reason I Jump to me. You reminded me that I don’t just make recommendations. I take recommendations, too.
Does the disease of addiction have a hold on someone you love? Read Hey Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Bonus points: this memoir happens to be an outstanding graphic novel, too. A few years ago I may have been shy about putting this book on shelves. (Self-censorship is the devil on the shoulder of every librarian.) Then I realized that even in the quiet suburban town where I teach, statistically, there must be students whose lives are marked by trauma. They need that book and who am I to keep them from it? Here’s my solemn vow. If a book is highly recommended by a reputable source for the age range I teach, I will put it on the shelves. So when the National Book Award Finalist is about addiction and it is recommended for ages twelve and up, I buy it, read it, love it, and share it. So should you.
Life stinks sometimes. But memoirs and nonfiction stories can make life stink a little less. Buy your students memoirs. Read memoirs.
Tell the truth.
Jen Kleinknecht has spent 20 years as an educator dedicated to inspiring a love of reading. She is currently a school librarian who loves coffee, Netflix, and of course, reading. She writes about life, education, and librarianship in no particular order on her blog, “The Yes Librarian.” You can follow her on Twitter @citecitebaby or on Medium @kleinknechtjen.
I love your philosophy about reading and inspiring readers. Keep on doing what you do!
Thank you so much!
This is a fabulous list. I’m ordering WHY I JUMP right now from my local bookstore – just in time for autism awareness month in April.
I very much enjoyed reading, for example, that we can control how we react to events!! Many thanks:)
Great post! I’ve read a few of these but now I have some new titles to put on my list!
I love reading memoirs! I think I’ll stick to writing fiction, though.
“Self-censorship is the devil on the shoulder of every librarian.” And authors, too. We all need to serve children by knocking that devil off our shoulders. Thanks for this wonderful essay!
Couldn’t agree more. Memoirs act as a great way to delve into the non-fiction genre. My first foray was at the age of 13 with Anne Frank’s Diary and here I am years later, having devoured Michelle Obama’s Becoming.