Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘author memoirs

Unslut by Emily Linden is part diary and part commentary, both of which I have mixed feelings about. Linden’s memoir is also part of a bigger project, one which includes a documentary and an online forum. The project is intended to provide support to girls who have experienced “slut-shaming” and “sexual bullying”, a goal which I commend.

As a diary, Unslut succeeds on some levels and not on others. Many girls in middle school face almost daily mood swings, run through friends like they do clothes, obsess about their dating life, and feel as if their world as they know it is over. In just one week’s worth of entries, LInden goes from loving her life to hating her life right back to loving her life. And in a month’s worth of entries, she’s lost some old friends while also gaining some new friends. As for her dating life, the diary brought back memories both of my own “love-me” and “love-me-not” odes, as well as that of the teen girls whom I have mentored. The turmoil of an adolescent girl’s life seemingly never ends. On all these accounts, the diary succeeds.

Where the diary fails is its non-stop entries about boys, boys, and boys. Even in middle school, girls do have other worries such as: their looks, their grades, their parents, their teachers, and their future. In her commentary, Linde herself refers to a summer camp where no one knew her as anything but an enthusiastic singer, suggesting that a world did exist for her outside of boys. Yet I don’t get that idea from Unslut, which is supposedly a word-by-word reprint of her diary. Instead Unslut leads me to believe that every emotion, every friendship, and every choice that Linden made arose from status in the dating world. As such, the diary feels counterproductive to the modern empowerment messages for women.

With regards to the commentary, it too succeeds on some levels and not on others. Linden’s explanation of how popularity was evaluated and of what the four sexual bases meant to her generation provides helpful context to her diary. Even informing readers of such trivial matters such as what a certain candy tasted like or what certain singers sang like was interesting in its own way. On the flip side, Linden’s snarky comments and moralizing statements detracted from my ability to enjoy the emotional narrative of an eleven-year-old. Moreover, because they’re incorporated as annotations to her diary entries, the comments felt cumbersome to read.

Finally, I have a caution. A quote on the back cover says that the diary should be required reading for all teens. Unless this happens with parental guidance, I disagree. First, there’s the casual use of the F word. Second, there are explicit sex scenes. Third, Linden claims there’s a double-standard, but then doesn’t consider the pressures that guys themselves might face to know if a double-standard really exists. Fourth, I’m not completely comfortable with Linden’s message. Is she saying that society should be more careful in how it discourages sexual activity or that teens should be encouraged to explore all the bases? There’s an important difference.

Linden’s heart is in the right place with The Unslut project. Her online project has apparently caused many females to share their own stories of being labeled sluts. I hope that her printed memoir will stir an equal amount of discussion, for it is only in talking about why adolescents obsess about the opposite sex, desire to reach third (or fourth) base, and then condemn each other for these choices will we truly grow as a society. I’m just not sure it will.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

James Herriot is a master storyteller. Today I’m reviewing the 20th anniversary edition of his book All Creatures Great and Small, which is subtitled “the warm and joyful memoirs of an animal doctor”. In this first memoir of several, Herriot shares how he became a veterinarian assistant and all the adventures this occupation entails. His stories are funny, gritty, riveting, eye-opening, and a host of other positive adjectives. I’ve enjoyed reading Herriot’s memoir this week, as much I did when I first discovered it as a young person.

When I initially read All Creatures Great and Small, the animal stories are why I liked it. One that appears frequently is that of Tricki, a Pekingese dog, who is owned an elderly widow by the name of Ms. Pumphrey. She dotes on Tricki so much that she overfeeds him. And she doesn’t just overfeed him dog food or even meat scraps. No, this dog also receives cake and other sweets. Because of Herriot’s respectful care of Tricki, he earns the prestigious title of Uncle, with which comes various favors including invitations to parties.

There are numerous other memorable animal stories too. Some our sad, such as that of a widower whose fourteen-year-old dog is his best friend. The dog’s swollen abdomen is due to inoperable cancer. Others are happier, such as that of the young farmer whose livelihood depended on a cow who had developed a bad case of summer mastitis. After a night of having her udder massaged every thirty minutes, along with other care, the cow surprises everyone by returning to normal health. Finally, some stories just show the varied nature of being a vet. For example, there’s the incident where Herriot proclaims a cow to have a broken pelvis and not capable of ever walking again, only to have the cow walking about the next morning in the fields as if nothing had ever been wrong. Or there’s the incident where a farmer tries to get Herriot to sign a statement that said his cow had died from lightning, when clearly she died of heart failure. There are many priceless tales!

Upon my recent rereading of All Creatures Great and Small, I found it to be as rich in stories about people as animals. In 1937, there was usually two or three vacancies with an average of eighty applicants for each one. For that reason, Herriot feels appreciative and excited about the opportunity to interview for an assistant position in the country. He spends the drive to his interview trying to imagine his prospective new boss. Once he arrives, however, he finds that the employee has left to visit his mother. He waits a couple of hours, during which time various clients come by to call on the doctor, before Mr. Farnon actually returns. The whole situation makes Herriot wonder if a joke was being played on him.

There are numerous other memorable characters too. An outstanding one is Mr. Farnon, who hates to admit to mistakes. When Herriot and Farnon receive a call to visit a neighbor, they argue over the correct name. Farnon turns out to be the one in the wrong, but instead he admonishes Herriot to be more careful in the future. Similar situations repeatedly happen. Farnon more than once blames Herriot for an incorrect diagnosis or for a careless use of the practice’s car. Another outstanding example is Tristan, who is Mr. Farnon’s brother. After failing his vet exams, Tristan turns up for a visit and never leaves. He then becomes the subject instead of Farnon’s wrath, except the difference is Tristan often deserves it. For example, when the three take on the simple task of raising hens and then pigs, Tristan cann’t even keep the livestock contained in a pen. Finally, there are the locals, many of whom believe that they knew more than the vets, and always enjoy an opportunity to prove the vets wrong.

When I first sat down to write this review, I struggled with deciding on what highlights to share. There are so many excellent qualities about Herriot’s memoir, including simply how well he writes. His stories foreshadow what lies ahead, hold conflict and no easy solutions, offer food for thought, and finally just simply entertain. I’m eager to have time to reread the rest of Herriot’s memoirs!

An American novelist known for his prolific contributions to modern young adult literature, Richard Peck has written over twenty novels for young people. Besides winning the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award, Peck has also been awarded the Newbery Medal in 2001 for his novel A Year Down Yonder (the sequel to A Long Way From Chicago.) In 1990, for his cumulative contribution to young-adult literature he received the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association.

Below is extensive biographical information about Richard Peck, taken from his memoir Anonymously Yours, which I had the privilege of getting signed by the author this month at the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Later in the week, I’ll also share from Peck’s speeches, as well reviews of two of his books. Save the dates: October 14-16!

ANONYMOUSLY YOURS

If we were content with the life around us and thought we were communicating well with people we already knew, we wouldn’t have to leave town, hole up, and hurl messages at distant strangers.

There are people who go and there are people who stay.

—S.E. Hinton, Anonymously Yours, A Memoir by Richard Peck

In his memoir, Peck follows a somewhat chronological order, detailing moments from childhood through high school as well as college and eventually through his teaching and writing career. At the same time, Peck doesn’t mind interrupting his linear narrative to indicate what moments later inspired various of his novels.

Also, his first chapter serves mostly as a prologue. In it, Peck tells of being born with itchy feet and the knowledge that he would travel in life. Indeed, at age sixteen and during his junior year, Peck took an ocean liner to England. He raised the fare for such an adventure by serving as a dishwasher. Then he spent a year in Devon, where Peck recognizes one particular professor with not only providing him with his first experience at having work professionally edited, but also helped him overcome his fear of speaking in public by assigning Peck the task of speaking on a panel of foreign students about education. While studying in Devon, Peck also learned about the differences of opinions through history courses and spent a lot of time in theater which taught him about using the right voice to tell a story. Peck also credits his time with England as being a reason he likes to incorporate geography into novels.

CHILDHOOD

The sort of people who find corpses in the woods or who can successfully shoot from the center line or see themselves as heroes of their own lives don’t have to write.

In chapter two, Peck notes that he grew up in a neighborhood which featured a double row of bungalows and Dutch colonial houses. The family house stood on the corner of a park that continued to evolve over the years. In the nineteenth century, the park had been a fairgrounds with a racetrack. At one point, a log cabin had been dragged to a knoll within sight of their house. Later in Peck’s life, the park featured a roller coaster that dropped into a pond called “Dreamland Lake”. An exploration of the latter apparently cured Peck of roller coasters, but not of Dreamland Lake which was the setting and title for his second novel.

Peck also introduces readers to his parents. He described his dad as being apt to roar away on a Harley-Davidson or a 1928 hulking Packard coupe retrieved from the dump. Moreover, his dad owned shotguns and legend has it that Peck reached through the bars of his crib one day and lay his hands on one of those guns. As for his mom, she came from a prosperous farm family in Illinois, the middle of seven children, and graduated to become a dietician. She used to read to Peck to make him a successful student. Peck shares that, “I went into first grade all fired up with the idea that at the end of the first day I’d be able to read Grapes of Wrath.” To this day, her habit of reading to him influences him as a writer, in that he first hears his stories in his mother’s voice.

Peck grew up in the 1930s and 1940s. He marched into kindergarten on the day Hitler marched into Poland. War impacted both his school and community life. Students conducted marathon scrap-paper drives, recycled everything possible, never walked if they could march, played Us-Against-Them, and formed air-force squadrons and thundered in formation at recess. War also impacted his family and community life. During wartime shortages, the family fattened calves and hogs on the farms of relatives. His dad also fished and hunted, while his mom tested recipes. Victory in Europe happened while Peck was in fifth grade. From the war, he acquired a vocabulary of death and of long distance. Interestingly, at the time, television and helicopters were promised to every household.

JUNIOR HIGH

Ironically, junior high may have been the only time when I wasn’t dreaming of being a writer. Life as it was seemed hard enough. But my favorite readers were going to be junior-high, and so what I did  I learn then that worked later?

In chapter three, Peck talked about how in junior high, he felt his kick towards college. One day while he walked the hallways at school, a teacher barred his way and asked if signed up for her Latin class. When he said no, she replied that she thought he was planning to go to college. Immediately, Peck signed up for this teacher’s class. He shared anecdotes about other teachers too such as how the industrial arts teacher assigned students to replace all the frayed wiring on their home appliances. Then there was the music teacher, who allocated them instruments for marching band. He assigned Peck the sousaphone, because of Peck’s heftier size.

Despite his claim that junior high might have been the only time he wasn’t dreaming of a being a writer, the bulk of chapter three actually focuses on novel inspirations. Peck noted how there weren’t young adult novels in his day; he didn’t meet Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye until college. “But novels even then would have helped.”

Peck spends much of chapter three talking about an experience that happened in 1977, when in his forties. A magazine editor asked him to write a short story, four pages top, and end it with a bang. She gave him three days to write it. He told her that short stories weren’t his forte. She changed his mind by offering him $300. He used humor to write a story about bullies. The story, Priscilla and the Wimps, changed Peck’s life. He liked the main characters and decided to use them again in a novel. From letters his readers had sent him, he knew that young people hit the mall on a daily basis. He drafted a coming of age novel that later he burned due to it being overly grim, but then rewrote it two years later as Secrets of the Shopping Mall. The book became one of his best-sellers.

HIGH SCHOOL

If the writer in me was beginning to stir, there were impediments….

In talking about his high school days, Peck described the community where he grew up as being one where a kid could see money earned as well as spent. Folks consisted of the privileged and the prominent, as well as the poor, and a splinter group of honest farmers. Television was still only for the rich.

Peck also gave specifics about his own experiences, talking about how students ran laps in the absence of coaches who went out for a smoke but also learned that being able to type was just as important as being able to compose a compound sentence. Peck revealed how geometry gave him grief and so he turned to a friend to tutor him. On Saturdays, he bagged groceries at the A&P for the daily wage of $4.75. Much of his adolescence, he spent at the movies with friends.

“Did movies help me write novels? The pop-art forms of our youth became our lifetime luggage, so they probably did help. On film, characters don’t speak realistically. They speak and act to reveal character and to advance the story, and there’s a lot of editing. And like a novel, however strong the start and finish, the big challenge is to keep the story from sagging in the middle.”

As for impediments to writing, a few factors stood out to Peck. For example, how difficult making a living from writing would be. No one he knew, not even eccentric neighbors, were writers. All of the authors he studied in school were dead.

One day, Peck has the fortune of meeting the sister of a poet who had come from a nearby town. While the poet himself didn’t create any long-lasting impact, the sister apparently did. “Over and over in my novels, very young people encounter very old ones, often wise and eccentric, with wisdom to share that’s taken a lifetime to gather.”

Peck also benefited from a college-prep class. On his first paper, Miss F didn’t award him a grade. Instead she just wrote the comment, “Never express yourself again on my time. Find another topic.” From her, Peck says he learned the danger of inspiration coming ahead of grammar, how ideas are nothing without a framework for sharing them, that writing is communication not self-expression and so you’d better have the reader in mind on every line. Finally, she taught that the only real writing is rewriting, deadlines are to be met not extended, and always document with footnotes. “A novel too had to be documented on every page, not with footnotes, but with the realities of the readers.”

COLLEGE & MILITARY

Calling ourselves ‘short-timers,’ we counted down the days till we could get out of the army and start our lives, and ever after we looked back, remembering the good times.

In chapter five, Peck provides details of his enrollment in the college of his choice, DePauw University. Activities were governed by the campus council. No one could have a car. Phone use wasn’t allowed between dinner and nine o’clock. Drinking more or less led to expulsion. Peck kept routine study hours. His freshman college composition professor graded down his first composition, because there wasn’t enough variation in sentence length; Peck is still careful about this skill. Students gave one another mock tests before the real exams. Finally, every year, a “Geek Week” was held, which always ended with a speaker coming from outside to condemn conformity.

Peck also informs readers that after college, young men either went on to military service or to jobs gotten while waiting for one’s number. A telephone company hired him as an “executive trainee” for the sole purpose of searching-and-destroying all pay phones from illegal businesses. Basic training took place in the winter at Fort Carson in Colorado. Upon being sent to Germany, Peck reported as a clerk. To make sure the young men were battle-ready, they were regularly called to mass formations at midnight and spent the time till breakfast scrubbing down the barracks. During his stint in the military, Peck wrote sermons for soldiers and got hired as a chaplain’s assistant.

TEACHING & WRITING

Teaching to me was the art of the possible.

Becoming a writer, I supposed, was the kind of thing that happened to someone else, and in that I was right. I had to become someone else before I was ready to write: a teacher.

As an adult, Peck took his attention to pursuing a career as a teacher. He completed his master’s degree at Southern Illinois University, taking an assistant position to pay for it that involved teaching two sections of freshman’s English. His degree led to a position as an adult education teacher, where he discovered the teacher’s need to reassure students. After this job, he turned to teaching high school, which he refers to as one of those corners on the way to becoming a writer. While teaching in Chicago, a student made him aware that his excessive use of bulletin boards wasn’t impacting anyone, which made him aware as a writer that audience is important. Eventually, he moved to New York, where he taught gifted students.

In this chapter, Peck also writes extensively about his novels set in the suburbs, and points out that he hoped to reach readers where most of them lived and to take them a step beyond their lives. For example, he refers to Are You in the House Alone?, where the main character is alone in the end. The people around her want to put it all behind them, or blame her, while the rapist is given another chance. And takes it. No happy endings, Peck says, noting that by far it’s one of his most widely read books. He also refers to Remembering the Good Times, his young adult novel that means the most to him. Besides finding its way into classroom discussions, the letters also come. As with Are You in the House Alone?, a lot of the readers tell Peck, ‘I loved the book but hated the ending.” Peck defends his position, saying if Tray hadn’t killed himself, there would have been no book, no need for it. He also notes that he doesn’t know how to answer these letters.

On May 24, 1971, Peck left teaching. “I turned in my tenure, my hospitalization, my pension plan, my attendance book, which was in fact the first work of fiction I had ever wrote. I went home to write or die, sure I wouldn’t teach again, convinced I couldn’t do anything else. In those first quiet months, I learned that the only way you can write is by the light of the bridges burning behind you.”

WRITING LIFE

Teaching is a job you never really quit; you just go and on, trying to turn life into lesson plans. I used that. I began to think of chapters with the same attention span as class periods, to think of novels as lesson plans in the guise of entertainment.

Being a writer was going to fulfill that early dream … I was going to see classrooms and school libraries in places I’d never heard of and find ideas I’d never thought of. It would be teaching without tears. I don’t have to grade anybody.

In chapter seven, Peck talks about his own writing career and that of other authors. Of the many ways his career got started, one happened because he collaborated as a teacher with a colleague on an anthology of nonfiction for Dell. Through this initiative, he met an editor who has since published all his books. Peck also refers to the fact that a new publishing field was being born, that of the young adult novel. After his first novel got published, Peck found himself being asked frequently to speak at library associations and schools.

Otherwise, much of chapter seven contains writing insights. For example, because of failing to capture student attention with Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, he realized that readers want hope. While writing one of his own novels, he found himself searching for who to narrate the story, and discovered it’s not always the most obvious choice. He wrote about a pregnant teenager mom, couldn’t muster up sympathy for her predicament, and instead found the voice of the novel in her sister.

I have selected only the highlights from Peck’s life and writing career. To find out more, I encourage you to search for a copy of his memoir, as well as to check out my blog this week for more content related to Peck. Save the dates: October 14-16!

MusingMondaysWhat are you reading right now?
What do you think of it?
Why did you chose it?

Polio. Writer. Rescue. These three words describe life-changing experiences of children’s author Peg Kehret. While recently reviewing one of her books, I discovered that Kehret had written a series of memoirs and that all of them were available at my local library. Having greatly enjoyed reading her narratives, I now want to introduce them to you.

SmallStepsGrowing up in Minnesota, Kehret had a happy life except for a bout in 1949 at age twelve with polio. She writes about this life-changing experience in Small Steps: The Year I got Polio. Kehret’s ordeal began on a Friday early in September, as she eagerly waited for her school’s Homecoming Parade. She felt her muscles twitch, then her legs buckled, and she fainted. By 4:00, start time of the parade, Kehret had a temperature of 102 and the doctor was being called. What started out as simple muscle spasms soon developed into a full-blown case of polio. Kehret ended up not only being paralyzed from the neck down, but soon found herself in an isolation ward barely able to swallow. To find out how a milkshake put her back on the road to recovery, pick up a copy of Kehret’s first memoir.

PegKehret_HeadshotAuthor of over thirty books for young people, Kehret has received recognition from many reading associations, as well as won numerous awards for her books. She writes about her literary career in Five Pages A Day: A Writer’s Journey. Kehret says that she began her writing life at the age of ten when she wrote and sold a weekly publication that cost five cents a copy and reported on dogs. To produce this newspaper, Kehret interviewed every neighbor who had a dog. When people told her nothing except that their dog eats, sleeps, and barks, Kehret didn’t give up. She wrote instead about her own dog, who had a unique background of being saved during World War II. Naturally, not every edition could feature her dog, and so by the third, she faced a publishing disaster. She believed her writing career was over. To find out how her dream resurfaced in high school, pick up a copy of Kehret’s second memoir.

AnimalsWelcomeA long-time volunteer at The Humane Society, Kehret began to observe and learn about wild animals when she relocated with her husband into a dream cabin on ten wooded acres near adjoining forest land in Washington State. She writes about this adventure in Animals Welcome: A Life of Reading, Writing, and Rescue. Kehret tells of how shortly after the move their oldest granddaughter came to spend the day. Brett was nine at the time. After she left, Kehret found a message scrawled in the dirt under her office window: ANIMALS WELCOME. Kehret jokes that, “Apparently, critters can read, because I’ve had four-legged visitors ever since.” Sadly, not every chapter in a person’s life is a happy one. After forty-years of marriage to Carl, whom Kehret viewed as her closest friend, she lost him due to a faulty heart valve. To find out how animal rescue helped Kehret rebuild her life after this tragedy, pick up a copy of Kehret’s third memoir.

Why did I enjoy Kehret’s memoirs? Foremost, Kehret has lived a full life that should prove of interest to even strangers to her writings. All of memoirs show that she knows how to spin a good story, in that Kehret starts with a suspenseful lead, steps back to fill in necessary background details, and then develops each scene with action and emotion. Kehret never flinches from admitting her mistakes, which shows a vulnerability that I appreciate. At the same time, she also never shows fear of voicing her opinion about the wrong deeds of others, and that takes a courage I appreciate. Finally, for anyone who aspires to write or rescue, Kehret serves as role model.

Before Cece Bell wrote El Deafo, she established herself as an author and illustrator in her own right. Only after doing this did Bell write her memoir, which tells her story of growing up severely to profoundly deaf. Even then, Bell still contemplated how best to tell her unique story. For example, according to Book Page, Bell deliberately picked the medium of a graphic novel because “… graphic novels tell so much of the story using speech balloons. What better way to show what I am hearing—or even better, what I am not hearing—than speech balloons?” El Deafo is a funny and touching story, which should connect with others whose experiences were similar to Bell but also have universal appeal.

One typical way for an author to feature a character with a disability is to have that character be the new kid. This situation naturally leads to peers having questions and inappropriate reactions. Bullies might even surface. While Bell does employ this format, she also goes beyond it. Yes, when Cece enrolls for the first time in public school, there are questions about Cece’s hearing aid along with inappropriate reactions such as talking louder or turning up the volume on the television. There’s also a short-lived example of a bully who breaks her hearing aid. But the majority of Bell’s story centers around friendship. How should she relate to the girl who wants to be friends but only if in charge? Or how should she relate to the girl who wants to be friends but only because Cece is different? And how should she regain friendship with the girl who seems like a kindred spirit but then stops hanging around after an accident? Bell’s story even includes some romance, where Cece experiences typical adolescent reactions of shyness and infatuation. How will she overcome these to develop a meaningful relationship with the boy next door whom she really likes?

A more current trend for showcasing a character with a disability is to bestow that character with super powers. Bell again employs this format, but with her own unique twist. With her Phonic Ear, Cece can hear her teacher not only in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school—in the hallway, in the teacher’s lounge, and even in the bathroom! Cece is on her way to becoming a superhero, to being El Deafo, but sometimes being a superhero is another way of being different … or another way of being lonely. The advertising for El Deafo ramps up this aspect of Bell’s graphic novel, no doubt to cater to audiences who are familiar with Rick Riordian’s Percy Jackson and The Olympian series and other similar superhero books. My main concern about this advertising is that readers might feel disappointed when they realize that the first half of El Deafo has very little to do with Cece’s “powers” and so give up an otherwise highly enjoyable and educational graphic novel.

A third way for an author to include a character with a disability, and in my mind the best way, is to integrate them into a plot which draws upon that character’s unique differences while also telling a universal story. A title which jumps to my mind is The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night by Mark Haddon, which is narrated by a 15-year-old boy who is labeled by the book’s blurb as having Aspergers. The novel succeeds so well I think because it’s not just a book about Aspergers or just a mystery, but instead it’s a well-written blend of the two. Bell in her Author’s Note writes that people can become deaf in many ways and can choose how to handle their deafness in many ways. For example, her having been able to hear before being struck with meningitis meant her parents were able to make decisions to keep her mostly in the hearing world. Obviously then, El Deafo is in no way a factual account of what all deaf people will experience. Yet it is a representation of Bell’s emotions as a kid who grew up hearing impaired. The result is a graphic novel which isn’t just about deafness or isn’t just the account of the confusing world of relationships, but instead a well-written blend of the two.

Bell shared with Washington Post that she has heard from kids like her who use a hearing aid, but also kids with other disabilities, and even those who don’t have special needs. All of them write that her story resonates with them. This doesn’t surprise me. By putting first the goal of writing an entertaining story, but then also drawing on her unique experiences, Bell has written a fascinating story to which all of us will connect on some level.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?


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