When English teachers choose a mentor author and a text for writing lessons they do not have to look further than Sandra Cisneros and her short story collection The House on Mango Street. Cisneros’s collection, first published in 1984, has become a favorite in classrooms across the U.S. and around the world—it has sold six million copies and been published in twenty languages. There is no better author to teach writers how to mine the stories we all have inside us, and how to use poetic and descriptive language to get those stories across. In fact, I want to write like Sandra Cisneros.
I want to write something like, “She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow” (“My Name”). Wow! I want to write something this vivid and profound. Can you imagine this woman? Is her story familiar? Cisneros is writing about her grandmother, but this is my mother, my grandmother, and my aunts, too. I want to tell their stories and my story along the way. I’m working on it.
Cisneros’s is a brilliant book to use as a mentor text in writing and reading workshops. I have used “My Name” to launch a personal essay assignment on names—how we got them, their significance, and the stories behind them. Another story, “Those Who Don’t,” can be used to initiate a conversation about racism and how people view communities of color. Yet another, “Hairs,” describes varied hair types within a family, celebrating with lyrical language the differences among the family members. It is a story that can be used to show how descriptive language can make something as common and simple as hair seem magical, and allows readers to visualize and use their five senses. The House on Mango Street is also a favorite among students, especially girls. It is a gem; a must in every English classroom.
“Eleven” from the collection Woman Hollering Creek is another favorite of mine. Each time I read it to my students I marvel at its artistry and craft. Here’s the opening sentence:
What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.
It is a challenge to read this sentence aloud, but I relish doing it every time. The story is beautiful and heartbreaking as is “Salvador Late or Early” from the same collection. Salvador, who helps his mama with his “string of younger brothers,” whose throat must “clear itself and apologize each time it speaks,” and who inhabits “that forty-pound body of boy with its geography of scars, its history of hurt,” will haunt you long after you have finished the story. If you have never read Sandra Cisneros, don’t wait any longer. You can learn more about this author by listening to a recent WNYC interview with Leonard Lopate.
As for me, I continue in my quest to write something as precise as “Salvador with eyes the color of caterpillar, Salvador of the crooked hair and the crooked teeth, Salvador whose name the teacher cannot remember. . . .”