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Big Books Intro

The Little Girls Understand . . .

Posted 9/26/2001

Perhaps little girls are behind the popularity of memoirs. Long before the American Girls books, before the Babysitters Club series, before the crossover success of the Harry Potter books, little girls read about Laura Ingalls Wilder and wished they could grow up on the frontier. They bugged their moms for calico dresses and believed that, if called upon, they could walk to school through several miles of snow.

Then those same little girls became adolescents and wept as they turned the pages of The Diary of Anne Frank. They struggled to grasp the horror of the Holocaust and hoped to find in themselves the courage and insight that made young Anne a heroine for all ages.

Those little girls were onto something, apparently. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne Frank weren't heads of state or war heroes. They were young women who showed an affinity for communicating their inner lives and daily experiences to others. As a result, their memoirs have maintained their relevance while the published recollections of much more powerful and colorful figures have fallen out of print. Now we're at least as likely to read a personal account of an average person's life as we are to make it through the all-important memoir of a history-defining leader. Maybe more likely.

So, for this year's literary issue, we turned our attention to the genre of personal memoir and sought to understand why so many of us want to read about others' lives. We spoke to a master of the form to see why he works with memoir. We turned to experts to understand the changing nature and role of the memoir in our culture. We interviewed the people who influence the literary market to learn how the memoirs that end up on the bookstore shelves come to be. We even compiled a highly arbitrary list of 10 favorites and came up with a justification for each book's spot on the inventory.

Years from now we'll look back on this Big Books Issue and laugh, maybe even commit to paper the experience of putting it together. For now we'll settle for thanking the people who made this issue possible. Besides the contributors credited within, Eileen Murphy edited the articles, Anna Ditkoff handled fact-checking, and Lee Gardner, Loren Glass, and Nicholas Latimer provided invaluable contacts and support.

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