Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son. 2015. Written and illustrated by Sneed B. Collard III. Design by Kathleen Herlihy-Paoli. With animal artwork by Tessa K. Collard. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing. 174 pages including Epilogue and Author’s Note.
Ages: Upper elementary and middle school
Author and biologist Sneed Collard is known primarily for children’s nonfiction books that resound with voice and feed our imaginations with curious, often startling details about the world’s quirkiest inhabitants. Sea Snakes, Creepy Creatures, Alien Invaders, Animal Dads, A Whale Biologist at Work, The Deep Sea Floor, Pocket Babies, Reign of the Sea Dragons, and Fire Birds are just a handful of the dozens of titles familiar to his fans. More recently, Sneed has ventured into fiction as well, with books like Dog Sense, Double Eagle, and Hangman’s Gold.
Just weeks ago, Collard released his memoir, an account of his adventures growing up as the son of a biologist. In this newest book, he shows how his experiences—from joyful to dark—influenced his desire to become a scientist himself and a writer as well. It’s a lively, often humorous account that tracks Sneed’s life from preschool days as a young snake and turtle collector through that last fateful summer before high school—which turned out to be a time of life changing decisions.
In The Art of Memoir, author Mary Karr reminds us that memoir is a demanding genre because in writing about your own life, “you’re making an experience for a reader.” She adds, “You owe a long journey, and most of all, you owe all the truth you can wheedle out of yourself” (Preface, xviii). Calling up early memories can be challenging, even painful. The things readers want to hear about are often the very moments writers most want to bury. Sneed Collard’s memoir offers up a rich collection of memories, some hilarious, and some touching or troubling. Through tales of friendship, divorce, alcoholism, love, loss, and a passionate curiosity for nature and all life, he does indeed, in the words of Mary Karr, create an experience for us. For Collard’s many fans, this long-awaited book will be like having a good conversation with an old friend.
In the Classroom
- Reading. The book comprises 31 short chapters and an epilogue, making it ideal for sharing aloud in short increments. Or, especially if you have students who are familiar with and fans of Sneed Collard’s numerous other books (Note the book list in the very front of the memoir), Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts makes an ideal subject for review and discussion in a small book group.
- Memoir—a special genre. What do your students know about the genre called memoir? You might open your discussion of Sneed’s book by asking how they define memoir (they might even write a short definition and you can read these aloud later). Synonyms include record, journal, dossier, log, history, and biography. The dictionary defines memoir as a personal account of historical events—or events in which one took part. According to writers like Mary Karr (The Art of Memoir, 2015), however, this definition doesn’t go nearly far enough. As Karr has told us, a good memoir creates an experience for the reader—and it does so through the author’s careful selection of events he or she is willing to share. Given this expanded definition, what challenges might a memoir writer face?
- Personal Connection. What other memoirs have your students read? Make a list. You may wish to read others in conjunction with Sneed Collard’s book—or afterward, as an extension of your study of memoir. Possibilities include the following (Add to this list to give your students a valuable resource):
- The Secret Lives of Us Kids: A Childhood Memoir 1941-1945 by Bonnie Buckley Maldonado (2014)
- I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous and Obscure (2009)
- Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle with Clare B. Dunkle (2015)
- My Thirteenth Winter: A Memoir by Samantha Abeel (2006
- Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka (2008)
- Guys Write for Guys Read: Boys’ Favorite Authors Write About Being Boys, ed. Jon Scieszka (2008)
- Knots in My Yo-yo String: The Autobiography by Jerry Spinelli (1998)
- Looking Back: A Book of Memories by Lois Lowry (2000)
- When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up (by renowned authors), ed. Louise Ehrlich (2012)
- It’s all about choices. “That night I tossed and turned in my bed, alternately steeling myself for the challenge ahead and trying to think of legitimate reasons for backing out.” This line comes from page 94 of Chapter 18: The Tower. Sneed is about ten years old, in Wakulla Springs, Florida—and trying to psych himself up for a jump off “the tower,” a legendary diving structure with platforms twelve, twenty, and a “soul-shaking” thirty-three feet above the water. If he goes off the top platform, he will avoid humiliation—but at what cost? Talk about the tower first. What does it symbolize for the young people of Wakulla? Then ask your students whether they have ever made a decision to do something that was “soul-shaking” scary. Most people face such a decision, sometimes many times, within their lives. Ask those who are willing to share some of these experiences, and join them by sharing one or two of your own. Tip: Decisions don’t need to involve life or death to be scary. For some students, a decision to speak up in class can be terrifying. Not all vivid memories are scary ones, either. They can also be wildly hilarious, stunningly surprising—or wondrously joyful. They can even be moments that seem insignificant in every way except the way they stick in your brain for months or years: like the first taste of a favorite food. Talk about what makes a moment memorable and about how writers choose which moments to include in creating the experience of memoir. In addition to the leap off the Wakulla Springs tower, what other particularly significant moments does Sneed Collard include in his memoir? Make a class list. (Note: If students have difficulty recalling, a review of the Table of Contents can be helpful.)
- Scope. It might seem logical that a memoir would run from the author’s birth to the “present”—whenever that may be. In fact, though, authors can define the span of time they wish to cover. Most do not begin with birth. Why would that be? Ask your students to recall their very earliest memories. How old were they at the time of those recollections? Sneed claims to recall events from as early as the age of two (see page 18). That’s very young indeed! Can any of your students go back that far? Can you? Notice also that this memoir ends during the final summer before Collard enters high school. He might have chosen to continue right up to 2016 and include his years of work as a researcher and writer. Why do your students think he chose instead to end the book when he did? Might this be a wise choice from a writer’s point of view? Could a writer decide to cover an even shorter span of time—say five years, or even less? What’s the shortest span of time a good memoir could cover? An hour? A day? A month? A year? Or would it need to be longer?
- Building a life map. Have your students ever created a life map? This activity is a highly useful precursor to writing a personal memoir. A life map is a sketched trail or pathway with milestones to mark important events or memories in a person’s life. The map can take the form of a simple geometric shape such as a circle or triangle, or it may wander randomly or in a serpentine fashion, or spiral out from a starting point. The number of milestones is determined by how many events the author wants to share. Those events might include things like making or losing a friend, graduating from a class or school, entering a competition, getting a pet, moving, leaving home—or any of a thousand other things. Anything the author deems significant can make the cut. The photo seen here shows a life map my friend Sally sketched some years ago. She chose to begin with her marriage, and included the birth of her son, a move to a new home, her divorce, various travels, her return to teaching, and her son Eric’s graduations (yes, two of them). She concluded with her decision to work with me training teachers—lucky break for me! Ask your students to sketch life maps of their own, including whatever events they like. If you decide to use these as a precursor to writing memoirs, give students a chance to meet in small groups to discuss their life maps and raise questions. This discussion helps writers recall details they may have left out.
- Leads. Ask your students if they can think of a clichéd (trite, that is) way to begin a biography or memoir. Too often, writers (including some students!) open any biographical piece (including a memoir) with the standard beginning: I (or name the subject) was born in (name the year) in (name the town). Why does this overused beginning put us to sleep almost instantly? Notice that author Sneed Collard found a completely different way to begin. Re-read the lead from Chapter 1. How would you describe it? What strategies does this author use to get us involved in his story? How long does it take him to tell us when he was born? (Hint: Chapter 2, page 17.) For all of Chapter 1, we are guessing at Sneed’s age during the whale episode. But—there could be some hints to help us. What are they? Why might a writer want to keep readers guessing about something for just a bit before sharing factual information?
- And more leads . . . Read a few more leads from various chapters in Sneed’s memoir. What do they have in common? How do they create interest or keep readers moving through the text?
- What about endings? Leads pull us into the writing, but endings can be just as important—sometimes even more so. Read some of the conclusions to chapters in Collard’s memoir. You’ll see that while they all have the sound and feel of an ending, they do not all serve the same function. What are some of the roles that endings play in this book? (Hint: Endings like the one to Chapter 12, page 60, seem to point ahead to new beginnings. The ending to Chapter 21, page 112, wraps up the event we’ve just been reading about—the jump off the dreaded tower.) We often think of transitions as single words or phrases: after a while, next, on the other hand, nevertheless, in addition, and so on. Do leads and conclusions also serve as transitions? Why is this so important in a longer piece?
- The beauty of the chapter. What is the longest piece your students—or you—have ever written? What are some of the structural devices writers use to break up a particularly long piece of text? (Hint: Your students might mention, for example, paragraphs, subheads, white space, illustrations—and of course, chapters.) What design and structural elements does author Sneed Collard use to divide his memoir into sections? Ask your students to imagine the same book without any paragraphs or chapters with titles. How inviting would such a book be? Would we read it? Then ask this question: How long should a book be before the writer decides to break it into chapters? If your students are writing pieces of, say, five pages or more, ask them to try dividing their writing into chapters (even if they only wind up with two or three). Discuss how they decide how many chapters to include and where the breaks should be. Does formatting by chapters make organization easier for the writer as well as the reader? How so?
- Chapter titles. Often authors simply identify chapters by number: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and so on. Sneed Collard obviously gave a great deal of thought to his chapter titles for this book. What does an author add by titling chapters? Which titles from Collard’s book are particularly appealing to your students as readers (Read the list aloud and ask for votes)? What makes some particularly inviting?
- Graphics. Most of this book is illustrated with photographs. Is this particularly appropriate for a memoir? Why? Notice that Sneed Collard has also chosen to add a few sketches of alligators and snakes drawn by his daughter Tessa. What do these drawings add to the flavor of the book?
- Voice. At one point, the author writes about his prowess in math (Chapter 16, page 80). He also adds, “I was no slouch in other subjects, either, though I scrawled the ugliest handwriting since Neanderthals had penned pictographs on cave walls thirty thousand years before.” What sort of voice is that? List some words to describe it. Then talk about the overall tone of the book. Is it warm, academic, formal, aloof, chatty, conversational, haughty, modest, or–? In describing it, ask students to identify specific passages that seem to characterize the voice or tone. What features contribute to that voice? Is it the author’s choice of words, use of dialogue, the subject matter—or something else? How important is voice in memoir? Is it the voice that keeps us reading?
- Is it the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? As noted earlier, author Mary Karr cautions us that as a writer of memoir, “you owe all the truth you can wheedle out of yourself” (Preface, xviii). But—is it possible for a writer recalling life events to ever tell the whole truth and nothing but? Before answering, read Sneed Collard’s “Author’s Note” on page 171. He says, among other things, that “No one can tell his or her own story with complete objectivity. In telling our stories, we layer in our distorted memories, false perceptions, and viewpoints and prejudices.” How do we reconcile this personal perspective with Mary Karr’s demand for honesty? Have students discuss and/or write about this.
- Honesty. Unquestionably, honesty is one of the hallmarks of good memoir. Yet it’s difficult, even painful, to be honest about experiences that hurt us or revealed what we perceive as our weaknesses. In Chapter 22 (page 116), Collard writes about the humiliation of Junior High (Middle School) PE, in which students were ranked by proficiency in a very obvious way—through the color of their gym shorts. The least accomplished athletes donned the dreaded dark blue—and hated every wretched blue thread. As their skills grew, they could move up to red, green, silver, gold, and at the very pinnacle, the envied blue silk “that incited an almost godlike worship among all others.” Collard confesses, “Guess which color I wore? Stinking, humiliating blue.” Why is it we appreciate a writer’s honesty so much at moments like this? We laugh, yes, but what else do we feel? Ask your students to identify other moments from this memoir require true writing courage. Modeling opportunity: If you’re brave enough, you might write about an embarrassing or difficult moment of your own as a way of modeling this kind of honesty. Remind students that while honesty can be difficult, it adds immeasurably to the appeal of any good memoir. Does it influence voice as well? How? (Note: It is important for students to understand that no matter how much we value honesty in writers, they have the right to privacy. No author should be asked or expected to write about events or circumstances that are simply too uncomfortable to recall or relate. You can use your modeling opportunity to clarify this by talking about how you chose what to write about—and what to keep personal.)
- Epilogue. Read the author’s epilogue (page 167) aloud. What is the meaning of the word epilogue? What does an epilogue add that a final chapter from a book cannot? Your students may never have written an epilogue. It takes perspective, for one thing—and that can be difficult for a very young person to achieve readily. But you might try this: Ask students who write memoirs to set them aside for a period of time, even until towards the end of the school year. Then ask them to add an epilogue to the memoir they wrote weeks or months before. Talk about what new perspective can add to a piece of writing.
- Research. Wait a minute. Research for a memoir? Doesn’t it all just flow out of your head? Before answering that question, take time to read the author’s note of “Thanks” on pages 173-174. What do Sneed’s final remarks reveal about his own personal research for the book? What do they tell us about the nature of research itself? It’s not all about visiting the library! Note: If your students are writing their own memoirs, you might suggest that they investigate any family photo collections that might be available—and consider interviewing some of the people (parents, grandparents, other relatives, friends, neighbors) who have been part of their lives. They may also wish to consider incorporating photos into the final drafts of their memoirs.
- The Journey. Note the full title once again: Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son. In what sense is a memoir a journey? Think back to your definitions of memoir (point 2), what your students decided about the scope of a good memoir (point 5), and your life maps, if you made them (point 6). Then think about the concept of journey. What do we mean by this word? What happens to a person on a journey? Ask your students to identify passages that help define who Sneed Collard is at the beginning of his memoir—and who he becomes by the end. What forces shape this transition? Where did his journeys take him?
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Coming up next, Vicki shares some thoughts on the use of rubrics—or writing guides, as we prefer to call them.
Then we’re tossing the ball into Jeff’s court for comments on some good books and writing ideas you will want in your life.
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