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Memoirs Proved Me Wrong
The right books taught me to love reading—and accept my past
Florence Ametam
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“Hi, my favorite niece, guess what I got for you?” said Aunt Sophia.

She came to visit us almost every weekend and she always brought presents for everyone in my family.

“Umm, candy?” I was about 6 years old and that’s what I was hoping for.

“No, silly. I got you a book and you’re gonna love it,” she said. She handed me The Three Little Pigs.

“Thanks, Aunt.” My face lit up like this was the best present ever. It’s pretty rude to not accept a present in my family, whether you like it or not. But you know what I did next? I went to my room and threw the book under my bed.

Boring and Pointless

When I was younger I never read books, no matter what kind they were. What I hated most were the books teachers assigned. They seemed so boring and pointless to me. My excuse for not reading was that it made my eyes hurt and made me sleepy. I used to do all my homework except for English, because we had to do a reflection on the books we read and I didn’t read at all.

One day during my sophomore year in high school, I noticed my best friend Monique was reading a book. I was talking about how much my boyfriend was getting on my last nerve and she was ignoring me.

"Are you even listening to me?” I asked her. “What did I just say?”

"Something about he’s getting on your nerves, right?"

"What’s that stupid book about anyway?”

“It’s mad good, you should read it. I’m on the last page, so here, imma give it to you in a minute and read another one.” She gave me the book, called I Shoulda Seen It Comin’. It was an urban fiction book (a genre that features inner-city characters and their lives—sometimes called “gangsta lit” or “street lit”).

I knew my cousin had about 20 urban fiction books and she refused to let me read them. I’m the type of person who isn’t interested in something until someone tells me not to do it—then I want to do it and see why I was told not to. So I decided to read Monique’s book. It didn’t have a lot of sex in it, but to my surprise, it wasn’t boring. The characters were going through difficult times. I got so interested in their problems that I didn’t want to stop reading.

For two weeks I didn’t eat at lunch because the books were so interesting that I forgot all about food; instead I would just go to the library and read. I read on the bus and train, and even in class.

My English teacher, Mr. Perillat, saw how interested I was in reading and gave me a memoir called Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. My teachers were always trying to get me to read by giving me boring books that I didn’t like. I thought Angela’s Ashes was going to be boring too, so I just threw it in my bookbag and kept reading my urban fiction books. But soon I had finished all the books my friend had. I was thinking about buying one myself, but decided I had better things to do with my money.

Right There With Him

image by Ogen Dolma

The next day on the train, I didn’t have anything to read or even anything to daydream about and I was stuck riding for 40 minutes. I was afraid I’d bore myself to death and I started to regret not buying that book. I read all the little advertisements on the train about two times, and that’s when I remembered the book my teacher had given me. I took it out of my bookbag and started reading it.

The book was a true story about Frank McCourt growing up in a poor family in Ireland with a father who spent all his money on alcohol, leaving his kids to starve. It seemed like I was right there growing up with him. I really loved that the book was sad but also funny. It seemed like he captured what real life is like.

In some ways, Angela’s Ashes was really different from the urban fiction I’d been reading. It was set in Ireland in the 1930s and ’40s and all the characters were white. But I could relate to the book in so many different ways. For one thing, I also grew up poor. But I wasn’t as poor as the McCourts, and I never knew that there were people out there who had a rougher childhood than mine. At least my father wasn’t an alcoholic and I didn’t have to chase him down so he wouldn’t spend his paycheck on drinks. None of my siblings passed away, either (Frank lost three siblings as a kid). In other words, reading that book made me feel way better about my childhood.

Excited to Read

I finished reading Angela’s Ashes in three days. My teacher told me that there was a second part to Angela’s Ashes, called ’Tis, and he happened to have a copy of it, too. I had never been excited over a book a teacher gave me in my life, but I was excited to read this. ’Tis was about Frank McCourt moving as a young man from Ireland to America for a better life, but he still had difficult experiences. He met a priest on the train and they shared the same hotel room, where the priest had the nerve to try to molest Frank and blame it on his drink.

I could relate to this, too, because I have met some hypocritical religious leaders who stand in front of the church and preach about things a “true Christian” isn’t supposed to do, then do those same things behind closed doors. I get really mad at people who claim to be something they aren’t. Reading ’Tis made me realize I wasn’t the only one who thought some religious leaders are hypocrites.

I loved ’Tis just as much as Angela’s Ashes, because it shows the strength you can gain from going through such things. I feel like everyone has to go through something to learn and become a better person, and what Frank McCourt went through gave him the strength to be what he is today.

I Have a Choice

After his books, I read many other memoirs (books where the author writes about his or her own experiences). I read Lucky and The Glass Castle as well as Frank McCourt’s third memoir, Teacher Man. I like true stories that describe difficult experiences, because every difficult experience is different, yet we can all relate to sorrow and suffering.

Reading these memoirs has also led me to read novels in Mr. Perillat’s collection, like Jane Eyre, The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and Born Blue. What I love about these novels is that they are all sad, too. Some have a good beginning and a sad ending, others have a sad beginning and good ending. But this reflects an important reality of life as I see it: not everybody is going to have a good beginning, but we have some choice about whether we have a good or bad ending.

Most people think that they have to be miserable their whole lives just because they went through a tough time, and I used to believe that, too. I always thought I wasn’t going to make it in life; I thought that no matter how hard I tried I would end up a failure, and I looked down on myself.

But memoirs proved me wrong. Frank McCourt came from a poor home and lost some of his siblings to poverty, but he didn’t let that break him. He became a teacher and a famous author, and that inspires me to want to make something better for myself, too. I also learned that someone who thinks they hate reading maybe just isn’t reading the right books.

Opening Up

I’m grateful to Mr. Perillat for helping me discover the right books for me. These books have taught me that I’m not alone by making me feel so close to Frank McCourt, other writers and even some fictional characters. I feel like the authors of these books are my friends, people I can relate to and who understand me.

Reading memoirs even gave me the courage to write about my own childhood. I was afraid to do that before, because I didn’t want to go back in time and relive everything all over again. I admired Frank McCourt for being able to do it, so I started writing about my own life. I found that letting it out on paper helps you feel so much better and relieved.

I love writing about myself now, and one of my dreams in the future is to write a memoir, because I feel like I’ve been through some things that I need to share with the world. I never trusted people and never told anyone anything about myself, but discovering memoirs helped me become more open, at least in writing. I trust some people now and actually want to help people who, like me, have had trouble trusting anyone. Maybe I’ll write a memoir one day and my story will make a big change in someone’s life, just like Angela’s Ashes did in mine.

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