We recently reviewed I Am Malala, the young-readers’ edition of education activist Malala Yousafzai’s memoir, co-written by Patricia McCormick. Our reviewer tussled with the implications of criticizing the account of a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who was shot and severely injured for speaking up for the rights of girls to go to school. Talk about Worthy and Important. The trouble was that Yousafzai is so earnest and so dedicated to her cause that at times she comes across as sounding like, well, a goody-two-shoes. How do you say that? Obviously, you don’t, but just because Yousafzai is legitimately heroic doesn’t mean that she won’t strike young American readers as preachy.
This comes up a fair amount in child and teen memoirs—the story may be Important, but the artfulness of its delivery may not be commensurate with its weight. Figuring out how to balance a strictly literary critique against somebody’s lived experience can be tough. An amazing story may not make for an amazing read, and it’s the reviewer’s responsibility to point that out to potential readers.
On a more cosmic level, I wonder about child memoirs as art. A good memoir is life made art, filtered through the writer’s experience and craft. Even though many teens have lived astonishing stories, most don’t have the expertise to do much more than relate them chronologically and with greater or lesser effectiveness of voice. Obviously, the assistance of a seasoned writer like McCormick can help, but it would be inappropriate for McCormick (or anyone else) to wade in and make somebody else’s life into art.
We also recently reviewed On Two Feet and Wings, by Abbas Kazerooni, which relates his experiences “a long time ago when I was a child,” alone in Turkey after fleeing Iran. Like Yousafzai’s, his account is straightforward and experiential, but Kazerooni wrote it as an adult, creating a tale that’s riveting as well as informative and enlightening. “Readers are often promised an unforgettable protagonist,” our review concludes; “this memoir delivers one.”
I hope that decades from now, Yousafzai will have lived a long and happy life and will have an opportunity to revisit her youth—to turn her astonishing story into art. —V.S.Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.