An impactful memoir has long-lasting effects on its reader. For high school students, a real story about the struggles of humanity and strength of the human spirit helps them connect with history and see the world from a different perspective.
Use these eight memoirs with your secondary students to teach social studies themes through affecting, powerful first-person accounts of experiences in history.
Author: Elie Wiesel
Night is nothing more than a literary masterpiece about one of the most horrific and affecting times in human history: the Holocaust. A deeply poignant, candid record of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps, Wiesel crafts an enduring true story about the importance of a will to survive. He offers much more than accounts of the everyday terrors, continuous cruelty, and inhuman suffering at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. His passionate account of events considers the legacy of the Holocaust and ensures that the world will never forget the horrors that occurred and society’s capacity for brutality.
I Am Malala
Author: Malala Yousafzai
I Am Malala shares the miraculous, unbelievable true story of a family uprooted by global terrorism. Shot point-blank by the Taliban while riding the bus home from school, Yousafzai fought and survived when no one expected her to. Her recovery and extraordinary journey is outlined in her memoir, starting in a remote valley in Pakistan and taking her all the way to the halls of the United Nations. Now an enduring symbol of peaceful protest and a champion of girls’ education worldwide, Malala’s story serves to inspire students globally to fight against injustice and inequality.
When Broken Glass Floats
Author: Chanrithy Him
In a mesmerizing story, Him vividly recounts her childhood living under the Khmer Rouge and her experience through the “killing fields.” Her child’s-eye view of Cambodia under siege, where rudimentary labor camps for both adults and children were normal, is not always pleasant to read but gives insight into the harsh realities of genocide. In When Broken Glass Floats, death and illness are a companion in the camps, but through the terror and heartbreak, the Hims remain loyal to one another and optimistic about their survival. The deeply moving memoir is a testament to the human spirit and enduring effects of hope that is likely to affect your students for a long time.
Author: Frank McCourt
This Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir follows the McCourt family’s move from New York to the slums of Ireland and the endured poverty, starvation, and death of friends and family. Taking place in the early twentieth century, Angela’s Ashes gives insight into the time period, detailing the famine in Ireland and subsequent sufferings of the lower class. Yet McCourt contemplates these haunting, often uncomfortable themes with the overarching viewpoint that our intrinsic human survival instinct and persistence will prevail over dire circumstances. Students will be hard-pressed not to recognize their own privilege and empathize with the suffering that others go through.
The Color of Water
Author: James McBride
McBride writes a moving autobiography and tribute to his mother and the challenges she faced in an interracial marriage. Weaving his own life story with his mother’s, McBride examines the influence his mother’s philosophies on race, religion, work, and education had on his life growing up. Juxtaposing his own past and present with his mother’s, he contemplates his own identity as a black man, growing up witnessing racial prejudice, and compares this to his mother’s journey of being a white woman living in black neighborhoods. The Color of Water is a memoir that pays homage to the past but ultimately gives hope and inspires readers to move on and chart a new, better course forward.
Author: J.D. Vance
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, Hillbilly Elegy is a powerful account of growing up in a poor rust belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Vance tells of his family experiences, migration patterns, cultural touchstones, and poverty-related struggles that parallel the lives of other groups of Americans. His deeply reflective memoir highlights the working-class populations in Appalachian Ohio, which he deems “a culture in crisis,” and shows what can happen with perseverance and self-determination.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun
Author: Peter Godwin
This stirring memoir highlights Godwin’s series of pilgrimages back to Zimbabwe, the land of his birth. Traversing the 1980s, he bore witness to Zimbabwe’s dramatic spiral downward into the jaws of violent chaos, presided over by an increasingly enraged dictator. When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is a stirring tribute to Africa and account of the disintegration of a family set against the collapse of a country. It also paints a vivid portrait of the profound strength of the human spirit and the enduring power of love for one’s heritage and family.
Author: Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis is unique in that it is a graphic memoir, filled with humorous and powerful comics of daily life in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Satrapi tells the story of growing up in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the shah’s regime, the triumph of revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The memoir paints an intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original story of witnessing history, reminding students of the human cost of war and political repression.
Seeking more literacy activities and resources?
Active Classroom has hundreds of lessons to support your secondary classroom
Monet Hendricks is the blog, social media, and meme connoisseur for Social Studies School Service. Passionate about the field of education, she earned her B.A. from the University of Southern California before deciding to go back to get her master’s degree in Educational Psychology. She currently attends the graduate program at Azusa Pacific University pursuing advanced degrees in School Psychology and Applied Behavior Analysis. Her favorite activities include watching documentaries on mental health and cooking adventurous vegetarian recipes.