Over the past year, I have read more young adult memoirs than in previous years. Part of the reason is that I was preparing for and am teaching a course on informational books. Now I’m wondering if more and more memoirs are being published… or is it simply that my awareness of this genre has grown? The collage shows some of the memoirs I have read in the last year.
Last month, I posted “2020 Sibert Awards and the Edwards Award.” As I noted among the 2020 Sibert award and honor winners, there were two memoirs—one in verse, one a poetry collection. Since that posting, I have had several conversations and many thoughts about memoir as a genre within nonfiction and “informational” books. This post summarizes my thinking.
And I welcome your perspectives related to memoir, especially about including it as a genre within informational books.
Nonfiction: A Definition
This is the definition of nonfiction we are using in IS445: Information Books and Resources for Youth, the course I’m facilitating this semester for graduate students in the iSchool at the University of Illinois: “Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief” (Beers and Probst 2016, 21). I have bolded the word “purports” to remind us that librarians must apply critical evaluation criteria when reviewing, selecting, and using all types of books and resources, including nonfiction and informational texts.
One could ask if nonfiction and “informational” books and resources are one and the same… The Sibert Awards are for informational books. This is the definition Sibert Committee members are using: “Informational books are defined as those written and illustrated to present, organize, and interpret documentable, factual material.” As evidenced by the 2020 (and prior years’) awards, the Sibert committees consider memoirs “informational.”
Is the information contained in memoirs documentable, factual material? Is the keyword in the Siebert Award definition “interpret”?
Memoir and Autobiography
In our course, informational books and resources include expository texts, narrative nonfiction, biography, autobiography, and… memoir. The question about whether or not memoir is nonfiction has caused me to wonder about autobiography. While memoirs present a snapshot of the author’s life, true autobiographies provide a (more) complete picture of the author’s life. Both are written in the first person; both genres purport to tell “the truth.”
That said, one can imagine that an individual’s “truth” may be more or less “documentable.” Dates, places, and events for today’s memoir and autobiography authors are easy to access and verify. What is likely not easy to document are the accompanying emotions that the authors of these texts felt during their life experiences. I suspect that in the cases of both memoir and autobiography, the “facts” that live in the authors’ memories are shaped by feelings as well as “objective” truths. Does that fact qualify as “interpretation”?
Evaluating Memoir and Autobiography
When we evaluate memoir and autobiography, we necessarily rely on the voice of the author to ascertain authenticity and accuracy. Last week, our class conducted a real-time Twitter chat regarding selection, censorship, and evaluation. This is one of my tweets from that discussion related to how I evaluated Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Shout: The True Story of a Survivor Who Refused to be Silenced. The tweet includes a link to an interview with the author.
Young adult literature advocate, former high school librarian, and book talker Naomi Bates (@yabooksandmore) recently published her review of Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir by Robin Ha. While listening to Naomi’s book talk, I was moved by the authenticity and accuracy Naomi experienced while reading Ha’s book. Naomi made personal cultural connections to Ha’s experiences. This review increased my assessment that Almost American Girl is culturally authentic and accurate and well worth our consideration for inclusion in our libraries. I have requested it from my public library and will read it hearing both Ha’s and Bates’s voices as I do.
Memoir and autobiography are special cases in terms of documentable facts… and yet, from my way of thinking, they are informational books. I wholeheartedly agree with Kylene Beers and Robert Probst: “Nonfiction should not suggest nonfeeling. Nonfiction offers us the chance to learn not only about the world and the people in it, but about ourselves” (2017, 49). And to my way of thinking, memoir may provide one of the most compelling genres for building empathy and inspiring readers to take action to cocreate a more just, compassionate world.
What do you think?
Beers, Kylene, and Robert E. Probst. 2016. Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Beers, Kylene, and Robert E. Probst. 2017. Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. New York: Scholastic.