Family Stories and Memoirs


November is National Family Stories Month – and with the weather getting cold, it’s a perfect time for curling up in front of the woodstove and telling stories. Though, of course, any time of year is good for family stories, and the more the better. See below for some of the many ways in which other people have told theirs.

What about playing family story-telling games, making your own family memory book, creating a family name quilt, or keeping a cartoon diary?


 imgres Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains (Puffin, 1993), a Caldecott Honor Book, is an evocative first-person account of a West Virginia childhood that begins “When I was young in the mountains, Grandfather came home in the evening covered with the black dust of a coal mine.” For ages 5-8.
 imgres-1 Dan Yaccarino’s All the Way to America (Dragonfly, 2014) – subtitled “The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel” – traces his family history from Sorrento, Italy, where his great-grandfather, Michele, was given a little shovel by his father so that he could help tend the family garden plot. When, as a young man, Michele leaves for America, he takes the little shovel with him, along with some family photographs and his mother’s recipe for tomato sauce. Eventually, the little shovel is passed down through generations. (The author picture on the back flap shows Yaccarino holding it.) For ages 5-9.
 imgres-2 Betsy Hearne’s picture book Seven Brave Women (Greenwillow Books, 2006) traces her family history through seven generations, beginning with great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth, who came to America from Switzerland in a wooden boat, and great-great-grandmother Eliza, who traveled west to Ohio in a covered wagon. For ages 5-9.
 imgres-3 James Stevenson’s When I Was Nine (Greenwillow, 1986) is the picture-book story of a childhood summer in the 1930s when Stevenson was nine years old. For ages 5 and up.
 imgres-4 Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006) is a wonderful account of Capote’s (as “Buddy”) childhood in rural Alabama in the 1930s and his friendship with his eccentric Aunt Sook. Aunt Sook is also featured in The Thanksgiving Visitor, in which she invites Buddy’s nemesis, the school bully Odd Henderson, to Thanksgiving dinner. For ages 6 and up.
 imgres-5 The nine-book Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, beginning with Little House in the Big Woods (HarperCollins, 2004), collectively tells the story of the life of Laura and her family as pioneers in the mid-19th century. Filled with details, adventures, and Pa’s fiddle music. For ages 7 and up.
 imgres-6 From the New Yorker, Judith Thurman’s Wilder Women is an interesting account of Laura Ingalls Wilder, her daughter Rose, and their now-classic books.
 imgres-7 Robert Lawson’s They Were Strong and Good (Viking Juvenile Books, 2006) traces his family’s journey through American history, beginning with his grandparents: “My mother’s father was a Scotch sea captain. He sailed the brig Eliza Jane Hopper from New York to the islands of the Caribbean – to Puerto Rico and Cuba and the Isthmus of Panama.” For ages 8-12.
 imgres-8 Jean Craighead George’s The Tarantula in My Purse and 172 Other Wild Pets (HarperCollins, 1997) is the story of George’s family life with orphaned wild animals, among them Yammer, an owl who liked to watch Road Runner cartoons, and Duck and Goose, who were arrested for disturbing the peace. For ages 8-12.
 imgres-9 Farley Mowat’s Owls in the Family (Yearling, 1996) is the story of his childhood on the Canadian prairie, along with his obstreperous and endearing pet owls, Wol and Weeps. For ages 8-12.
 imgres-10 Jean Fritz’s Homesick, My Own Story (Puffin, 1999) is the fascinating story of Fritz’s childhood in China in the 1920s. For ages 8 and up.
 imgres-11 Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey (HarperCollins, 2005) is both a wonderful collection of family stories and a great family read-aloud. Originally published in the 1940s, this is the story of the Gilbreth family as told by two of the kids. The Gilbreth parents were early efficiency experts, who combined research with a boisterous family of twelve redheads. (Learn about Dad’s disastrous birdbath, the perils of automobiles, home-style tonsillectomies, and how to take a bath in under a minute.) For ages 9 and up.
 imgres-12 When I Was Your Age, edited by Amy Ehrlich, (Candlewick Press, 2012) is a collection of childhood reminiscences by ten well-known children’s book authors, among them Mary Pope Osborne, Katherine Paterson, Avi, James Howe, and Susan Cooper. (If you and your kids like that, there’s a sequel: When I Was Your Age, Volume 2.) For ages 9-14.
 imgres-13 Roald Dahl’s Boy (Puffin, 2009), illustrated with photos and drawings by Quentin Blake, is Dahl’s account of his boyhood, including the wicked tale of the Great Mouse Plot of 1924. (It involves a dead mouse and candy.) For ages 9-14.
 imgres-14 Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story (Broadway, 2003) is the hilarious tale of Shepherd’s Indiana boyhood, featuring a secret decoder ring (that proves to advertise Ovaltine), a scandalous leg lamp (wearing a fishnet stocking), the tobacco-chewing Bumpuses next door with their swarm of hideous hounds, and young Ralphie’s hope for a Red Ryder B-B gun for Christmas. For ages 10 and up.
The 1983 film version of A Christmas Story – which is funny and terrific – is rated PG.
 imgres-15 Jerry Spinelli’s Knots in My Yo-Yo String (Ember, 1998) is the story of Spinelli’s youth in Norristown, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s. For ages 10-13.
 imgres-17 Lois Lowry’s Looking Back: A Book of Memories (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2000) is a marvelous collection of autobiographical stories accompanied by black-and-white photos, each showing how Lowry used her personal life experiences in her many novels. (Each chapter opens with a novel excerpt.) For ages 11 and up.
 imgres-18 Art Spiegelman’s powerful graphic novels Maus (Pantheon, 1986) and Maus II tell the story of his parents’ experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland and post-war life in the United States. For ages 13 and up.
 imgres-19 Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (Bantam, 1993) is a world classic. The diary begins when Anne was 13, just before she and her family go into hiding in the “secret annex” in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. For ages 13 and up.
See the Anne Frank website for period photos of Anne’s Amsterdam, a tour of the secret annex, information on the diary, and more.
 imgres-16 Joyce Maynard’s Looking Back (Open Road, 2012), a memoir written when Maynard was 18, is “A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties.” For ages 13 and up.
 imgres-23 Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Ballantine, 2009) is the wonderful, painful, and uplifting story of the poet’s youth, her struggles to overcome bigotry and deal with physical and emotional hardship, and her ultimate discovery of her own strength and her love for the written word. For teenagers and adults.
 imgres-21 Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (Mariner Books, 1972) is a superb collection of autobiographical pieces beginning after the author’s parents died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. For older teenagers and adults.
 imgres-22 Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (Vintage, 1989) is a stunning autobiography, dealing primarily with Nabokov’s life in Russia before coming to the United States. For teenagers and adults.
Not fond of memoirs? See The Problem With Memoirs from the New York Times.


 imgres-24 Jamie Lee Curtis’s When I Was Little (HarperCollins, 1995) is a four-year-old’s picture-book memoir of her youth. (“When I was little, I had two teeth. Now I have lots, and I know how to brush them.”) For ages 3-6.
 imgres-25 In Rose A. Lewis’s Every Year on Your Birthday (Little, Brown, 2007), a mother tells her adopted Chinese daughter the story of her life, year by year, beginning with her birth in China. (“I wasn’t there, but I was thinking about you as I waited at home to be your new mother.”) For ages 3-6.
 imgres-26 Patricia MacLachlan’s beautiful What You Know First (HarperCollins, 1998) is the poetic story of a little girl whose family has sold their farm on the prairie, a place the narrator loves and doesn’t want to leave. As she comes to terms with moving, she collects mementos – a bag of prairie earth, a piece of a cottonwood tree – so that she can tell her new brother or sister where they came from. “What you know first stays with you, my Papa says.” Illustrated with engravings. For ages 4 and up.
 imgres-27 In Patricia Polacco’s The Keeping Quilt (Simon & Schuster, 2001), Anna’s mother makes a quilt to help the family remember their home in Russia. Passed down from mother to daughter through generations, the quilt serves as a wedding canopy, a Sabbath tablecloth, and a blanket for a new baby – but all the while tying the family together. For ages 4-8.
 imgres-28 In Knots on a Counting Rope (Square Fish, 1997) by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault, a Navajo boy listens as his grandfather tells him his life story: about the stormy night when he was born, how he got his name, and how he has bravely learned to live with his blindness. For ages 4-8.
 imgres-29 In Mem Fox’s Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge (Kane Miller, 1969), young Wilfrid lives next door to a retirement home, where his best friend – 96-year-old Miss Nancy – is losing her memory. Wilfrid sets out to help her get it back – but first he has to find out what memories are. Everyone has a different definition. For ages 4-8.
Listen to Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge read aloud here (by Bradley Whitford). Included at the site is a downloadable activity guide.
 imgres-30 In Eve Bunting’s The Memory String (Clarion, 2000), Laura – who is having trouble adjusting to Jane, her new stepmother – comforts herself by telling the stories associated with each of the buttons on her “memory string:” there’s a button from her great-grandmother’s first grown-up dress, one from her mother’s wedding gown, another from her father’s army uniform. When the string breaks, Jane helps Laura put it together again and the two form a bond. For ages 4-8.
 imgres-31 In Phyllis Root’s The Name Quilt (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), Sadie spends summers with her Grandma, who tucks her in every night with the name quilt. The quilt has the names of generations of ancestors embroidered on it, and there’s a story that goes with every one. For ages 4-8.
 imgres-32 Riki Levinson’s Watch the Stars Come Out (Puffin, 1995) is the story of two children’s journey across the ocean to America, their landing at Ellis Island, and their reunion with their parents – all told as a family tale, the story a grandmother tells her little granddaughter about her own mother’s experiences. Illustrated with lovely paintings. For ages 4-8.
 imgres-33 In Sharon Bell Mathis’s The Hundred Penny Box (Puffin, 2006), Michael’s great-great-aunt Dew cherishes a box of pennies, one for each of her one hundred years, each with a story of its own. For ages 6-10.
 imgres-34 Jeff Kinney’s cartoon Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Amulet, 2009) is the hilarious story of middle-school student Greg, forced by his mother to keep a diary. (No, journal.) Many sequels. For ages 8-13.
 imgres-35 In Richard Peck’s A Long Way From Chicago (Puffin, 2004), Joey and his sister Mary Alice have been sent from Chicago to stay with their intimidating Grandma Dowdel, a larger-than-life woman with a heart of pure gold. The episodes in the book begin in 1929, the first year of the Great Depression, and end in 1942, when Joey heads off to war. A wonderful fictional family story. Sequels are A Year Down Yonder, featuring Mary Alice, and A Season of Gifts. For ages 9 and up.


 imgres-36 Donald Davis’s Telling Your Own Stories (August House, 2005) – written by a master storyteller – is a 128-page collection of prompts, tips, and suggestions for storytellers to use either by themselves with a notebook and pencil or in conversational groups. For ages 12 and up.
 imgres-37 Mary Borg’s Writing Your Life (Prufrock Press, 2013) is a guide to writing your autobiography, packed with questions to explore, story starters, and writing tips. For teenagers and adults.
 imgres The nonprofit oral history project StoryCorps, founded in 2003, has collected personal stories from over 90,000 participants. (Their motto: “Every voice matters.”)Visit the site to listen to stories or participate by recording personal stories of your own.
Collecting Family Stories has a long list of suggestions and sample interview questions. Interview your relatives!


 images Dr. Seuss’s My Book About Me (Random House, 1969) is an interactive journal in which kids fill in information “all about me” – weight and height, number of teeth, hair and eye color, favorite foods and clothes, pets and family members, and more. A fun project for ages 4-8.
 imgres-38 From Creativity for Kids, the It’s My Life Scrapbook Kit includes a spiral-bound scrapbook, fancy paper, stickers, picture frames, and tools for story-recording kids ages 7 and up.
 imgres-39 Linda Kranz’s All About Me: A Keepsake Journal for Kids (Rising Moon, 2004) is an illustrated notebook with prompts that encourage kids to write about themselves: “Everybody has a favorite place. What is yours?” “If someone gave you a million dollars, what would you do with it?” For ages 9-12.
 imgres-40 Compiled by a writing teacher, Family Traditions Scrapbook has a list of suggestions and links for making a family history scrapbook.
 images-1 The Treasure Chest: Creating a Family Memory Book has instructions for making a memory book in a decorated three-ring binder. Included is a list of questions aimed at getting the whole family involved.
 imgres-41 From Scholastic, Brown Paper Bag Family Memories is a project for early-elementary-level kids in which they collect objects that represent a family memory in a brown paper lunch bag and write short stories about each.


 imgres-42 LifeStories (Talicor) is a family-friendly personal storytelling game in which participants hop playing pieces around a bright-colored board while answering questions in four categories: Etchings, Memories, Valuables, and Alternatives. Samples include “Tell about an incident that had something to do with water,” “Tell about something that made you feel proud,” “What is one of the most unusual meals you ever ate?,” “How did your parents meet?,” and “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For 2-8 players ages 6 and up.
 imgres-43 In our family, a lot of personal storytelling began with a board game. The game was called Reminiscing (subtitled “The Game for People Over Thirty”) and I’d been given it for a birthday. A good deal of the game involved decade-by-decade trivia questions, which didn’t go down well with our kids, all of whom were well under thirty and couldn’t remember Woodstock, I Love Lucy, or Gilligan’s Island. However, a subset of the game involved a challenge to tell a story from your past having to do with…followed by a long list of memory-triggering suggestions: a pet, a storm, a party, a costume, a camping trip, a dream, a Christmas, a bicycle, a car, a book, a grandparent, a cousin. Finally, we gave up on the board game altogether, wrote the personal story suggestions on index cards, one to a card, and stashed them in a cardboard box known from then on as the Storytelling Box. We took turns picking cards and telling stories. It’s a pastime that never fails, and the stories – try it and you’ll see – are wonderful.
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