Evelyn B. Freeman


Dr. Evelyn B. Freeman
The Ohio State University-Mansfield

“When I was six years old, the civil rights movement came knocking at the door.  It was 1960, and history pushed in and swept me up in a whirlwind.  At the time, I knew little about the racial fears and hatred in Louisiana, where I was growing up. Young children never know about racism at the start.  It’s we adults who teach it.”

So begins the powerful memoir, Through My Eyes, by Ruby Bridges, who integrated the New Orleans public schools in 1960 when she was six. 

In the book’s introduction, singer/humanitarian Harry Belafonte writes: “Nothing can be more moving than watching a small black child climbing the steps to her elementary school that historically and legally did not welcome her presence.  Ruby Bridges had been called upon to perform an act of profound bravery---to become the black child in an all –white school.”

This memoir, illustrated with archival photographs of the time period, is an award-winning example of memoirs written for children that reflect an individual’s personal history within the context of cultural heritage. Memoir, as a distinct genre in children’s literature, has  increased in popularity over the past two decades.  What are the characteristics that distinguish this genre?   Memoirs are considered a subcategory of autobiography, a nonfiction genre.  An autobiography generally presents a linear, chronological discussion of an individual’s life, whereas a memoir usually focuses on one particular event or time period in the person’s life.  It is based more on personal recollection than on a set of facts.  Both autobiography and memoir are written in the first person. Memoirs generally feature narrative structures, emotions that the author experienced, and personal reflections on the meaning and significance of various events and relationships. 

William Zinsser (1987) describes the difference between autobiography and memoir as: “The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that was unusually vivid or intense—childhood, for instance---or that was framed by unique events. By narrowing the lens, the writer  achieves a focus that isn’t possible in autobiography; a memoir is a window into a life” (p.21).

Hancock (2000) notes  this about memoirs: “In children’s books, this is often a retrospective account that focuses on a memorable or tragic event in the author’s life…the memoir is characterized by the strong, emotional first-person voice of one who relives the memory through writing” (pp.148-149).  In memoirs written for children, the author usually writes about his/her life as a child and embraces a child-focused perspective.   These memoirs have been written in many formats including picture books and diaries.  The memoirs listed on the bibliography are limited to those appropriate for students through middle school (age 14).

Memoir and Culture

Many memoirs not only describe an individual’s life,  but also provide insight into a historical time period or specific culture.  The most famous memoir for children written in a historical or cultural context is of course The Diary of Anne Frank, published after Anne’s death at   and after World War II.  What has made Anne’s diary a classic in today’s literature for children?  Anne shares her honest thoughts and feelings; not all of them positive.  She is a real girl who conveys thoughts and feelings that span place and time and that her peers can universally identify with. In addition, her diary was written in a specific historic time and shares insights into this time period from a young person’s perspective. As many of you know, her hiding place is now a museum in Amsterdam and countless books about and interpretations of the diary continue to be written. To illustrate how memoirs can both inform  young readers about a person’s life and also provide insights into a historical time or a specific culture, I would like to highlight a few books on the list that can grouped together around a common theme.  

Holocaust Memoirs

Holocaust memoirs continue to be written and present varied perspectives on this world changing event.  For instance in Kindertransport, Olga Levy Drucker was sent to England from Germany in 1939 when she was 11.  As part of the Kindertransport, she lived in England throughout the war and describes her life there.   Following the war, she was reunited with her parents  in the United States.  This memoir comes full circle with an author’s afterward reflecting on the 50th reunion of Kindertransport children in London in 1989.

Children’s book illustrator Anital Lobel had a very different childhood experience during World War II which she documents in her award-winning memoir, No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War.  Anita, a Polish Jew, survived the war by hiding with her Catholic nanny and then in a convent before being taken to various concentration camps.  She has indicated that “I wrote the book in my young voice.  Not to manufacture a “young” book, but rather to make live on the page the frightening and confusing faraway events which happened to the little girl I was, long before I become aware of larger implications of world history.”

China’s Cultural Revolution

More recently several memoirs have been written by adults who were children during China’s cultural revolution, the decade (1966-1976) in the People’s Republic of China, during which violence and anarchy reigned in this country. At this time, the four olds—old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits —needed to be eliminated. A male and female perspective on this historical time period are provided in China’s Son: Growing Up in the Cultural Revolution  by Da Chen and  Red Scarf Girl:  A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang.

Ji-li was a happy 12- year- old  girl who  proudly wore her red scarf, emblem of the Young Pioneers, when the cultural revolution began.  She and her family soon faced hardships and persecutions. Ji-Li was confronted with difficult decisions as the tension increased between her loyalty to her family and to the Communist party. The memoir describes Ji-li’s life from when she was twelve until she was fourteen.

Da Chen was only four when the Cultural Revolution began; his memoir for young readers, adapted from his adult memoir Colors of the Mountain,  describes his childhood during this turbulent time.  Because his family was descended from landlords, Da is tormented by his peers.  His beautiful writing is punctuated with humor and hope.

Contemporary Childhoods in a Cultural Context


Memoirs have also shared contemporary childhoods whose lives have been shaped by specific historical or cultural events.  Three books set in different parts of the world and written in very different formats represent this category:  Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in   Sarajevo by Zlata  Filipovic´; Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood  by Ibitsam Barakat;  and The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís.

Zlata was a happy thirteen-year-old when war came to her beloved city of Sarajevo.  In a diary format,  Zlata shares her feelings and observations as they are occurring.  This memoir was not written by an adult reminiscing about his/her childhood but rather by a young person who is experiencing and feeling what she is writing at that moment. 

Peter Sís, a MacArthur Fellow, shares his experiences growing up in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule in an amazing oversized book that was named a Caldecott Honor Book.  The book is a picture book, graphic novel, memoir, history, and social commentary all in one.   Words and illustration provide readers a glimpse of Peter’s life behind the wall.

In Ibitsam Barakat’s memoir Tasting the Sky, she describes her childhood in the occupied West Bank following the 1967 Six-Day War. I have had the privilege of discussing Ibitsam’s book with her.  Her commitment to peace in the Middle East and to promoting understanding among the peoples of the world are indeed an inspiration.

United States Settings

A final category of memoirs for children includes those set in the United States that represent a racial or ethnic minority.  In Leon’s Story,  Leon Tillage shares his memories growing up as son of a sharecropper in the 1930s and 40s in North Carolina.  Young readers get a personal glimpse of life for African Americans in the segregated south.  For instance, Leon writes this about school: “I started school when I was six.  You got to school when you could because you had things to do around the house before you left in the morning.  In the springtime you didn’t go as often because you had to take care of the crops.”

Another chapter in U. S. history punctuated by discrimination was the internment of the Japanese during World  War II. In 1942  when Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston was seven, her family was forced to leave their home and relocate to the Manzanar Internment Camp in California. Jeane describes her experiences there in Farewell to Manzanar.

Award winning children and young adult author Walter Dean Myers transports his readers to Harlem, New York in the  1940s in Bad Boy: A Memoir.  Readers will learn that this very popular author experienced my disappointments and hard times.  Walter  concludes his memoir: “Writing has let me into a world in which I am respected, where the skills I have are respected for themselves. I am in a world of book lovers and people eager to rise to the music of language and ideas. All in all it has been a great journey and not at all shabby for a bad boy.”


By reading memoirs with cultural connections and historical contexts, young readers meet children with whom they can identify.  These children, through their personal histories,  encourage the development of empathy and understanding.  In addition, they enable readers to learn about a period in history, a culture unlike their own, or a significant world event.   They also promote a recognition of the universal thoughts, challenges, and feelings among children around the globe.


Hancock, M. R. (2000).  A celebration of literature and response.  Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Zinsser, W. (1987).  Inventing the truth:  The art and craft of memoir.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.