Birthdays can be pretty stressful ordeals. Since they only come around once a year, there's a lot of pressure to make them the best day ever, so if anything goes awry or if things don't live up to our expectations, it's easy to feel really disappointed because, well, it's our birthday for crying out loud.
In Sandra Cisneros' short story, 'Eleven,' we get a front row seat to this kind of disappointment as a young girl named Rachel's eleventh birthday goes from bad to worse during a day at school. All she has to do is make it through the day so she can go home for an evening of cake, presents, and birthday fun. Of course, if you've ever waited an entire day for cake, you know this won't be easy. And it doesn't get any easier for poor Rachel as her teacher, Mrs. Price, forces her into a humiliating social predicament by making her wear an ugly red sweater that isn't hers.
That's it. That's the plot. It's not much because this short story is only four pages (twenty-two paragraphs) long. In fact, it might be more accurate to consider this a vignette or work of flash fiction. But amazing stories often come with small word counts (we're looking your way, Chekhov), and Cisneros' tale is no exception. Even though it's short, sweet, and to the point, young Rachel's social struggle has left long-lasting impressions on many a reader.
Sandra Cisneros is known as a pivotal writer in the Chicana literature movement, but what lead this progressive and experimental author to write what is essentially a children's story? Simple: A publisher in Boston asked her to write one. As Cisneros tells the story:
I sat down to write a story for children. […]. I sent it off, and I immediately received a reply that rejected the story, saying it was not for children. As it turns out, it is the story that people request the most and the one that children understand the most (source).
That story, "Eleven," would eventually find a permanent home in Cisneros' 1991 collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories and is the tale we're here to analyze in all our Shmoopy glory.
Thanks to "Eleven" and its companion stories in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Cisneros was awarded the PEN Center West Award for Best Fiction in 1991 as well as the Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and the Lannan Foundation Literary Award. The collection was also listed as a noteworthy book that year in The New York Times and The American Library Journal.
From rejection to wide critical acclaim, the history of "Eleven" is as much a tale about change as the story itself. Take that, haters.
One of the best things about reading is that moment when you read a passage, set down the book, and think, "That's true. That's utterly, entirely, completely true; I just never put that thought into words before." There are a lot of moments like that to be found in "Eleven," which is part of why we love the story so much.
Take a look at this passage right at the start of the story when our narrator, eleven-year-old Rachel, tells us:
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. (1)
It's a wonderful way to think about growing up. Some days you may feel extra childish—as Rachel explains, that's the ten-year-old part of you. You don't stop being ten when you turn eleven. Instead, you incorporate ten-year-old you into who you are and who you will become. Some days you may feel like crying for no reason at all, just because. That's the three-year-old part of you. And some days you may feel like being older will solve all your problems, and that's the part of you that never goes away.
Since growing up is something we all must do—no exceptions, no exclusions, no refunds—this story can speak to all of us, whether we're eleven-year-old girls or not. Sure, we might not know the embarrassment of having a teacher force us to wear an ugly, old sweater that smells of cottage cheese, but chances are we have all suffered similar embarrassments. Don't even get us started on those stupid monkey bars. Or middle school P.E. Or that one time at band camp.
"Eleven" isn't trying to create a philosophy, comment on a current event, or deconstruct a cultural bias (with that said, other stories in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories may fall into these categories). Instead, it's trying to describe an emotional experience, one shared by all of us forced to take part in that grand experiment called growing up—which is something we can all relate to.
Home Sweet Digital Home
The digital home of Sandra Cisneros. You can learn about the author, her works, and even read her archive of letters, if that's your thing.
A Story of Her Own
This short biography of Cisneros has all the makings of her unique stories.
A Day at the Library with Sandra Cisneros
Cisneros spends the day with children at the Brooklyn Public Library. One of the many surprising facts you'll learn is that this famous author was a C and D student in grade school. Why? Read on to find out.
Chit the Chat
Robert Birnbaum sits down to talk with Cisneros about her then upcoming book, Caramelo. The conversation turns to topics such as Latino identity and the blending of fact and fiction, which may just relate to some other works by the author.
More than Words on a Page
Cisneros talks about the craft of writing and what it means for a work to be a story. The answers are anything but textbook, and that's why we love her.
Two Thumbs Up
Publisher weekly reviews and gives Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories its stamp of approval.
Bad, Book, Bad!
Tuscon school administrators banned several books, telling teachers to stay away from works in which "'race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes.'" Care to guess whose stories made the list?
Reading + History = Awesome
Cisneros provides a public reading of her short story "Eleven" and gives some behind-the-scenes history of this wee-short story.
We're Not Going to Take It!
After the Tuscon schools banned Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, virtual reading took place in protest. Here is one such example.
A retelling of "Eleven" using pictures and a soundtrack featuring Pirates of the Caribbean and Aerosmith. No words; we have no words.
Cisneros discusses her writing and how she got started in her story-telling ways. Four minutes of your time will net you a fascinating take on the craft.
Not just "Eleven" but the entirety of Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories has gotten the audiobook treatment for your listening pleasure.
Cisneros shares the songs that get her moving and a grooving.
30 Seconds to Point
Can Literature Book Reviews provide an entire review in thirty measly seconds? Find out!
Putting a Face to the Name
This authorial photograph of one Sandra Cisneros is far more colorful than your typical author fare.
This first-edition cover art features art work that is as simple, engaging, and interesting as the stories within it.
The current cover features a river against a dark background that just feels… ominous for some reason.
A ghastly take on the La Llorona ghost.