With the number of incredible inventors, amazing activists and artists, and unsung heroes that remain to write picture book biographies about, it’s easy to forget that our own lives are rich sources of nonfiction, too. More and more memoiristic picture books are being published these days, such as Drawn Together by Minh Le and Dan Santat, A Different Pond by Bao Phi and Thi Bui, The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang and Khoa Le, and I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith. All these books are written in a memoir-like style and based on the memories of the authors. Instead of “writing what you know,” try writing what you remember.
How do you choose a memory to write about?
Memories can be elusive and temperamental. Some refuse to be found no matter how hard you try to recall them. Others pop unbidden to the surface at the most random of times, only to disappear again for years. And then there are the memories that stick with you, that you can’t seem to keep locked away in your mind’s file drawer, and you don’t know why. It’s this last type that inspired my upcoming memoiristic picture book, Watercress, which is based on my childhood memory of picking wild watercress by the side of the road. I couldn’t fathom why I couldn’t let this event go, why it kept occupying my thoughts. It was just this thing my parents made me do, or so I thought. Your own sticky, significant memory could be the foundation of your next story, too.
do you turn a memory into a memoir?
start with a brief description of what a memoir is – a collection of the
author’s memories that share a theme. The author/narrator reflects on these
selected events of their life and tries to understand the emotional truth
behind them. I love author Nikesh Shukla’s definition: “A memoir is a story we
have to tell that we wrap events from our lives around to illustrate.” And,
like fictional stories, a memoir contains elements such as character, point of
view, setting, plot, and theme. The main character is the author, narrating the
story from a first-person point of view.
In much the same way a picture book biography often features a single event in a subject’s life, a memoiristic picture book usually focuses on one significant memory. The memory you choose then determines the setting and the plot. You are taking a slice of your own life and asking the questions, “Why was this event particularly significant? What did it mean? Why is it important?” These questions will help you find that universal, emotional truth at the heart of your memory, that will, in turn, become the theme and heart of your story. For example, in Drawn Together, it’s the truth that love can transcend words. The Most Beautiful Thing is about finding beauty in unexpected places. Both A Different Pond and Watercress have themes about not fitting in and not being aware of what the main characters’ parents have lived through.
I think it’s important to point out that a memoiristic picture book doesn’t have to be about a painful memory (even if those are the ones that often stick with us the most). They can be about joyful events like celebrations, or small, intimate moments of connection between characters. What matters is that it is a memory that carries emotional heft.
write a memoiristic picture book?
Digging deep into a significant memory and writing a memoiristic picture book can provide us with a new understanding of an event that shaped our lives. And that book can, in turn, inspire readers to be more empathetic, show them how to make sense of their own experiences, or, simply, make them feel less alone.
In a quiet moment, jot down a few of the childhood memories that won’t let you go. Choose one and make note of your feelings about it, both from the perspective of the child you were and the adult that you are now. Ask yourself why this memory is important.
ABOUT THE AUTHORAndrea Wang is the APALA Honor award-winning author of The Nian Monster. Her picture book biography, Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando, is a JLG Selection and received a Freeman Book Award Honor as well as the Sakura Medal. She has two books releasing in 2021: Watercress (JLG Gold Standard Selection, four starred reviews); and The Many Meanings of Meilan, her debut middle grade novel. Her work explores culture, creative thinking, and identity. She is also the author of seven nonfiction titles for the library and school market. Visit www.andreaywang.com for more information.
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Andrea will be giving away an autographed copy of Watercress.