The Essential Questions

Interview Your Family to Uncover Stories and Bridge Generations

#1 in Amazon’s “Movers and Shakers in Books” the day after publication

Just as the oral histories of people around the world are disappearing amid rapid change, there is a risk that your family’s personal stories, too, will be lost forever. In The Essential Questions, anthropologist Elizabeth Keating helps you to uncover the unique memories of your parents and grandparents and to create lasting connection with them in the process.

If like many people today you seek to learn more about your family history, how do you get beyond familiar anecdotes and avoid the frustration of oppositional generational attitudes? By asking questions that make the familiar strange, anthropologists are able to see entirely different perspectives and understand new cultures. Drawing on her lifelong work in this field, Keating has developed a set of questions that treat your parents and grandparents not just as the people who raised you, but as individuals of a certain society and time, and as the children, teenagers, and young adults they once were. The Essential Questions helps you to learn about the history of your elders, to see the world through their eyes, and to honor the language they choose to describe their experiences.

The Essential Questions: Interview Your Family to Uncover Stories and Bridge Generations (Penguin Random House) is a guide for families to learn more about their family history, to make sure they don’t find themselves saying “I wish I’d asked my mother that,” or “I wish I knew more about granddad when he was a boy.” 

Uncover new sides of family members you’ve known your entire life with this indispensable guide that includes space for journaling.

“If you’ve ever thought of asking a parent or elderly relative about their past, read The Essential Questions first. After asking the questions Keating suggests, you’ll better understand not only your relatives and your heritage, but also your world and yourself.” 

—Deborah Tannen, New York Times bestselling author of You Just Don’t Understand

The Essential Questions gave me the practical tools needed to passionately pursue the story of my people. Not just what they’ve done, but also who they are. Elizabeth Keating brings a renewed sense of urgency to the art of family storytelling by making anthropological strategies accessible to anyone, including me, a Black mother with a passionate drive to tether my young children to their roots. I learned that the failure to ask is one of the greatest risks to my genealogy and the stories surrounding it. As I approached the final page, I felt invigorated, hopeful, and more resolute than ever before.”

—Amber O’Neal Johnston, author of A Place to Belong

“If you’ve ever heard anyone say ‘I wish I’d asked my mom about that,’ then this is the book for you. In The Essential Questions, Elizabeth Keating reveals how, with empathy and curiosity you can interview your family members to uncover previously hidden stories about the times and places that made them who they are, and strengthen your bond with them in the process. A gift to families everywhere!”

—Sarah Bird, award winning author of 12 novels

“Some books feel profoundly necessary, though you can’t pinpoint why…this book is one of those. It goes beyond just family trees and scratches that itch of wanting to capture your elders’ experiences before they slip away. As an extra treat, it’s a love letter to anthropology itself, full of details about ways of life in other times and places. Down to earth and easy to use, it’s a wonderful guide for making the ancestors you deserve, whether in your family or your community.”

—Michael Erard, journalist and author of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners

“With an innovative angle and compelling storytelling, THE ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS is an accessible and super-useful guide offering a multi-faceted, poignant inquiry into our life stories, memory, identity, family, and inter-generational connections. It has been a long time since I read a book that felt as urgent, timely, necessary, and utterly relatable throughout. A page-turner!”

—Alexandra Georgakopoulou-Nunes, Professor of Discourse Analysis & Sociolinguistics at Kings College London

“The Essential Questions does an amazing thing. It takes something that most of us may regret some day—not knowing the narratives that shaped our closest relatives—and develops a beautifully written and elegant solution to it. Elizabeth Keating brings an anthropologist’s eye and a humanist’s heart to helping people collect and understand their own family stories. Don’t just read this book; follow its instructions.”

—Art Markman, Psychology professor and author of Smart Thinking and Bring Your Brain to Work