ABC-CLIO logo School Library Connection

Memoirs Start Now
Editor's Note

We're living through some unusual experiences right now, aren't we? And how will we remember this time once it's all behind us? We'll have posts and tweets and video clips, of course. But there's nothing quite like capturing this moment for yourself. You can write about it, draw about it, video log, or maybe even create poetry. I'm finding that the brevity of poetry is really helpful just now since I often feel distracted or anxious and my attention span is limited. Plus, it can be overwhelming to think about writing at length. So, jotting notes, key words, brief feelings, and caption-like descriptions can help capture the experiences of these trying times—all of which can become the raw material for creating meaningful poems. In her article for School Library Journal, Joyce Sidman observed, "Poetry can capture a moment—its sights, sounds, smells, feelings—so vividly, it's like you're back inside it. 'Think you'll always remember what it's like to be 10 years old?' I ask students in schools I visit. 'You won't. Write a poem about your life right now, and you will have it forever.'"

You might be surprised to know that many writers over the years have captured their memories through poetry. The very word "memoir" comes from Middle French, "memoire," which means memory. Jacqueline Woodson called her award-winning book Brown Girl Dreaming a "memoir in poems." She noted, "This is how memory comes to me -- In small moments with all of this white space around them. I didn't think this memoir could be told any other way. It felt like it would be untrue to the story to try to write a straight narrative out of lyrical memory." Let's look at some interesting and varied examples of how authors have explored memories through poetry. (Those with * are also available as audiobooks)

*Anderson, Laurie Halse. Shout. Viking, 2019.
This free verse memoir offers a deeply personal look at her young life, her troubled family, and her own experiences with sexual assault echoed in her best-selling novel, Speak.

Appelt, Kathi. My Father's Summers: A Daughter's Memoirs. Henry Holt, 2004.
Sensitive prose poems depict a young girl's experience in a divided family through a scrapbook of photos and poetic vignettes.

Argueta, Jorge. A Movie in My Pillow/Una película en mi almohada. Children's Book Press, 2001.
Young Argueta vividly remembers his childhood in rural El Salvador in these poems about family, leaving home, and their joyful reunion and discovery in San Francisco.

Begay, Shonto. Navajo: Visions and Voices Across the Mesa. Scholastic, 1995.
A blending of paintings and poetry that explore the landscape of the southwest and the ways of the Navajo people from creation stories to childhood memories to tribal rituals.

Corrigan, Eireann. You Remind Me of You: A Poetry Memoir. Push/Scholastic, 2002.
Corrigan's honest account her struggle with eating disorders, her boyfriend's suicide, and her journey toward healing and recovery.

Engle, Margarita. Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir. Atheneum, 2015.
Engle writes about growing up as a child during the Cold War with a mother from Cuba and a father from Los Angeles, contrasting the two cultures in all their diversity all during a time of political upheaval.

Engle, Margarita. Soaring Earth: A Companion Memoir to Enchanted Air. Atheneum, 2019.
In this companion memoir, Engle explores her young adulthood during the turbulent 1960s grappling with new challenges in her relationships with men, facing racism and sexism, and in pursuit of her own education.

*Grimes, Nikki. Ordinary Hazards. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press, 2019.
At age 6, author and poet Nikki Grimes discovered the power of pouring her pain into her writing during a childhood of terrible fear, loneliness and neglect. In this honest and compelling memoir, she relates her growing up experiences and her journey as a writer.

Harrison, David L. Connecting Dots: Poems of My Journey. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press, 2004.
Harrison "connects the dots" to share vignettes of his childhood, teen years, and adulthood in poem upon poem along with sketches and photos.

Herrera, Juan Felipe. Calling The Doves/El Canto De Las Palomas. Children's Book Press, 2001.
Herrera provides this bilingual self-portrait in Spanish and English celebrating joyful moments of a childhood growing up in a loving migrant farming family.

Hopkins, Lee Bennett. Been to Yesterdays: Poems of a Life. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press, 1995.
Hopkins reflects on growing up in the 1950s dealing with an unstable family life, bolstered by memories of a supportive grandmother, and hanging on to his hopes for a career as a writer.

*Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out and Back Again. HarperCollins, 2011.
This loosely autobiographical work channels some of Lai's own experiences as a refugee from Vietnam and as a new immigrant to the U.S. in the 1970s.

Lyon, George Ella. Where I'm From, Where Poems Come From. Absey & Co., 1999.
Readers and aspiring writers will enjoy this combination of memoir and writing manual in Lyon's journey through her recollections of growing up in Appalachia as well as her exploration of her own creative process.

Levy, Debbie. The Year of Goodbyes; A True Story of Friendship, Family and Farewells. Little, Brown, 2010.
Based on the actual album kept by the author's mother, these poems capture remembrances of growing up Jewish in Germany during World War II.

Mak, Kam. My Chinatown: One Year in Poems. HarperCollins, 2001.
Through beautiful paintings and free verse poems, Mak describes the experiences of a young Chinese boy's first year in the U.S., growing from displacement to adjustment.

McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. Under the Mesquite. Lee & Low, 2011.
McCall's debut novel in verse based on her own life features a young Latina girl with artistic aspirations in a close-knit family coping with the mother's struggle with cancer.

Mora, Pat. House of Houses (Camino del Sol). Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.
Mora presents a unique family memoir through the voices of her ancestors both dead and alive across a year of magical moments, songs, recipes, and messages.

Nelson, Marilyn. How I Discovered Poetry. Ill. by Hadley Hooper. Dial, 2014.
Looking back over her childhood growing up in the 1950s, Marilyn Nelson tells the story of her development as an artist in fifty poems.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. Honeybee. Greenwillow, 2008.
Naomi Shihab Nye weaves together autobiographical poems and passages alongside science-themed entries about bees in this evocative blending of science, politics, and memoir.

Thoms, Annie. Ed. With Their Eyes: September 11th: The View from a High School at Ground Zero. HarperTempest, 2002.
An English teacher working with high school students created this moving collection of "poem-monologues" based on dramatic transcriptions all centered around the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Turner, Ann. Learning to Swim; A Memoir. Scholastic, 2000.
Turner's powerful true memoir describes one pivotal summer and how a young girl copes with a horrible sexual attack and finds the strength to tell her story and begin to heal.

*Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. Penguin, 2014.
Woodson's poetic memoir reflects her dual upbringing in her extended family in South Carolina and in New York City, growing up African American in the 1960's and 1970's, experiencing difficulty with reading, but a passion for words, stories, and writing.

Yeung, Russell Ching. Tofu Quilt. Lee & Low, 2009.
This girl wants to be a writer, but growing up in Hong Kong in the 1960s, that goal seems very distant. Free verse poems in a believable young voice communicate the dreams and the details that make this story in poems engaging and universal.

Yolen, Jane. Ekaterinoslav: One Family's Passage to America, a Memoir in Verse. HolyCow! Press, 2012.
Part memoir, part family story, part immigrant fable, Yolen weaves together historical facts and family truths as she chronicles her family's immigration from the Ukraine through Ellis Island to Connecticut.

Yu, Chun. Little Green: Growing Up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Simon & Schuster, 2005.
This first-person account of the Chinese Cultural Revolution from a child's point of view is powerful and poignant full of turmoil, a divided family, and an indomitable young spirit.


It's been said that WE are the primary sources for this pandemic time. What we are experiencing every day may seem mundane and boring, but how we remember it will be based on what we write now. We can challenge students to capture these moments in their young lives, document their experiences in notes and images, and share what they are feeling through poetry. This blend of introspection and poetic expression is a perfect intersection of content and form and may be the ideal short form for young people to share their memories of this time.

Works Cited

Sidman, Joyce. "Why I Write Poetry: A Really Good Poem Can Reach Kids in Wondrous and Unexpected Ways." School Library Journal (April 1, 2012).

Woodson, Jacqueline. "Poet to Poet: Carole Boston Weatherford and Jacqueline Woodson." Poetry for Children blog (september 2014).


Audiobook Benefits

Audiobooks can help bridge the gap. They can:

  1. Foster an appreciation for literary language and expand vocabulary

  2. Provide an example of fluent (even professional) models of oral reading

  3. Model correct pronunciation of English, of various dialects,and of non-English words

  4. Offer exposure to a variety of genres (including "harder" classics)

  5. Help expand attention spans

  6. Create a level playing field for a wide range of learners and abilities, including the need for material in multiple sensory

  7. modalities and for children with visual impairments

  8. Inject a human factor, a personal connection, a sense of intimacy, a voice

  9. Provide variety and a fun technological alternative

For additional recommendations of outstanding audiobooks on an ongoing basis, check out these recommended lists:

Grammy Awards for Spoken Word —

Audio Publishers Association's Audie Awards —

ALSC Notable Children's Recordings —

YALSA Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults —

From Sylvia Vardell's Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide, third edition. For more information visit Libraries Unlimited. You can also find professional learning activities, handouts, and related Web resources on the book's companion website at

About the Author

Sylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University and teaches courses in literature for children and young adults. She has authored or co-authored more than 100 published articles, more than 25 book chapters and given more than 150 presentations at national and international conferences. She is the author of Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide, Poetry Aloud Here!, The Poetry Teacher's Book of Lists, Poetry People, co-edits The Poetry Friday Anthology series (with Janet Wong) and maintains the PoetryForChildren blog and poetry column for ALA's Book Links magazine.

MLA Citation

Vardell, Sylvia. "Memoirs Start Now." School Library Connection, May 2020,

View all citation styles

Entry ID: 2247157