When I was about ten, I spent a full year checking out, then renewing, my favorite book from the library. Finally for my birthday my mom and dad gave me a gift certificate to my favorite bookstore, The Red Balloon, who special ordered the book for me. What was the name of the book? My Prairie Year, based on the diary of Elenore Plaisted.
The book was put together by Elenore’s granddaughter. I made my mom read the book to me over and over again. I loved hearing about the different tasks involved in living out in the prairie. I imagined running through the sheets drying on the clothes line. I was thankful I didn’t have to warm the irons up on the stove before pressing my clothes. I loved reading about how Father tied a string from the barn to the house so that he wouldn’t get lost when he went to the barn to milk the cows during the winter blizzard. (I thought about tying a string from my house to my garage several times this winter, just in case.)
The book made homesteading in the Dakotas in the late 1800s come alive for me. And the pencil drawn illustrations are beautiful.
When I started teaching, I came across another book that I loved almost as much. It has become a “sacred text” in my classroom, which means that we read it again and again. This book, also a memoir, is called When I Was Young In The Mountains by Cynthia Rylant.
Though the setting is in the mountains of Appalachia, there are many obvious comparisons. Rylant uses incredible imagery as she tells of visiting her grandparents home in the mountains. In prose so lyrical it almost reads as poetry, she illuminates everyday events, such as eating so much okra that she makes herself sick, warming up water for the evening bath in the old wood stove, being baptized in the local pond, and killing a snake as long as a room.
My love of memoir has grown with me as I have gotten older. The stories we tell of our lives are some of the most precious gifts we can give. Both these women have given incredible gifts of time, place, and adventure. In continuing the Women’s History Month theme, I wanted to highlight their voices and their stories.
In my own classroom, I use these books as “mentor texts” to highlight personal narratives in writing. In my home, I can’t wait to read stories to my little boy that tell of women like these two, strong and courageous. (Because it’s important to grow strong daughters, but it’s just as important to grow sons who respect strong daughters.)
My hope is that they will be well loved books in many others’ libraries.
Intended Audience: All ages