Nikki Gamble does the New Year choosing.
One of the things I enjoy about the New Year is the ritual of choosing a new diary. Not an appointments diary for which online scheduling works perfectly. No, I’m talking about that precious object, the personal diary for recording secret thoughts, recollections, bright… and sometimes not so bright, ideas. For this purpose, a physical journal, which ages over time, has always felt most apposite. Children and teenagers, who might be considering keeping a diary for the first time, can find inspiration in the many fictionalised diaries that have been published. This top ten selection exemplifies the variety in the genre; there’s almost certainly one to match the preferences of every reader.
Rebecca Westcott, Puffin, 978-0141348995, £6.99
Reading someone else’s diary is probably one of the most intimate ways to come to know that person. It’s one of the reasons that anyone who has read Anne Frank’s diary feels her tangible presence. In Dandelion Clocks, Olivia’s less than perfect life is thrown into turmoil when her mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. After her death, she bequeaths Liv her childhood diaries. Initially, Liv dismisses them angrily, ‘She shouldn’t have left me alone with a box of old, rubbish diaries that are of no use to me at all.’ But gradually, realisation dawns, that the diaries are the best way for her to come to know and understand her mum. They support her grieving process and awaken a passion for a life well lived. She writes, ‘Everything she has written in here is funny and honest and embarrassing and real – they are Mum.’
Sita Brahmachari, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-0330517911, £6.99
The plot of Artichoke Hearts deals with similar circumstances to Dandelion Clocks. Eleven year old Mira is coming to terms with the imminent loss of her grandmother. Encouraged to keep a journal by a visiting author, Miss Print, Moira’s journal is a month long outpouring of emotion. Mira helps her eccentric, vibrant grandmother as she prepares for her own funeral, while at the same time experiencing the awakening of romantic love. Mira recognises that the diary is a way of carrying on an internal conversation, which helps her make sense of life and death: ‘It’s a weird thing, a diary, isn’t it? I mean who do you talk to? Yourself? I suppose… but that doesn’t feel right. The only way I can think of to do this diary thing is to imagine I’m talking to someone else.’ Beautifully written, emotionally authentic, there is nothing maudlin or gloomy about this life affirming novel.
Love that dog
Sharon Creech, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 978-0747557494, £5.99
This short novel is a tiny masterpiece, a journal written in verse which celebrates the cathartic power of poetry and writing. In free verse, Jack chronicles his feelings about all sorts of things. We learn about his relationship with Miss Stretchberry, the inspirational teacher who encourages his writing. We learn about his initial resentment to the task; at the start Jack’s poems are brief and clipped. But gradually, they become longer, more sophisticated and less guarded. As his writing develops we learn about the tragedy of the lost dog and Jack’s pent up emotion, which is ultimately poured out on the page, and allows the healing process to begin.
Timmy Failure Mistakes were Made
Stephan Pastis, Walker Books, 978-1406347876, £6.99
Ever since Sue Townsend wrote The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, there has been a strong tradition of funny diaries that turn the mundane into a source for laughter. Fans of funny, confessional diaries might be encouraged to try Stephan Pastis’ bitter sweet Timmy Failure series about self-deluding private investigator, Timmy, his sidekick polar bear companion, Total, and arch nemesis, Corina Corina. There’s a subtlety in the writing of Pastis’ books. An experienced reader quickly realises that Timmy is the unreliable narrator of his own story. And there are hints at back stories, which partially explain Timmy’s unusual behaviour. What is evident is Pastis’ fondness for the odd little character, who after every mishap picks himself up, dusts himself down and looks cheerily towards his next assignment.
Polly Price’s Totally Secret Diary
Dee Shulman, Red Fox, 978-1862304239, £7.99
The Polly Price diaries are a dream for hooking reluctant girl readers. They are cool, sparkly, and heavily illustrated in full colour. But to describe them as pink magnets would be a disservice to these witty, nuanced stories in which Polly has to deal with her very loud, embarrassing, and (to Polly) uncool actress mother. The illustrations, which include Polly’s drawings, photographs and images of things she has collected (luggage labels, wrappers, receipts etc.), are fully integrated with labels, captions and text, for which Dee has designed a special ‘handwriting’ font for added authenticity. Polly’s diary is intended to be a private space: ‘Belonging entirely to me’ SO PLEASE KEEP OUT! it proclaims on the cover. Who could resist taking a peak
The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of a Pig
Emer Stamp, Scholastic, 978-1407139197, £5.99
Yes, animals can keep diaries too. Remember Anne Fine’s Diary of a Killer Cat? But how does a writer get inside a pig’s mind? Emer Stamp achieves it by inventing a unique voice for her Pig, ‘Me I is Pig. I is 465 sunsets old, but every day I gets older, so this fact is only correct right now, on the day I is writing’, he announces. If that makes your toes curl, think of it as a great opportunity to initiate a conversation about diversity in language. Pig is best friends with duck… and definitely not friends with the Evil Chickens (they are evil after all). Pig is being fattened for the pot but there’s a chance he may escape this dreadful fate, if he flies the Evil Chickens’ space rocket to Pluto. Hilarious, exuberant and very, very silly.
My Secret War Diary
Marcia Williams, Walker Books, 978-1406331998, £9.99
Following the success of Archie’s War, a child’s scrapbook of the First World War, Marcia Williams has created a diary written from the point of view of Flossie Albright aged 9 – 15. This is a brilliant evocation of Home Front Britain during the Second World War. Through the letters that Flossie receives from her father, we also learn about the impact of the war on those directly involved. Beautifully produced with artefacts and pop-ups, this is a book to treasure.
Line of Fire
Barroux, trans Sarah Ardizzone, Phoenix Yard Books, 978-1907912399, £10.99
Unlike the other books in this list, Line of Fire is not a fictionalised diary but the graphic representation of a 100 year old diary, found by the artist, Barroux, discarded in a skip along with a medal and the lyrics of a song. The diary bore no name, and so it represents the story of symbolic, unknown soldier. Line of Fire charts the progress on the Western Front until 1917, when the entries suddenly stop. Barroux’ striking monochrome illustrations add to the power and poignancy of this incredible diary. Superbly translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone.
Celia Rees, Bloomsbury, 978-1408800263, £6.99
Witch Child is a special book that leaves an indelible impression on the reader. Set in the seventeenth century, it is written from the point of view of fourteen year old Mary Newbery, who witnesses her grandmother’s hanging for witchcraft. Escaping from England, Mary makes the voyage to America, where she establishes a new home in Massachusetts, within a Puritan community. Living dangerously on the fringes of society, Mary embraces the gifts she has inherited from her grandmother in the full knowledge that this puts her in jeopardy. Rees avoids the pitfall of attempting to imitate an archaic voice, rendering the story in a direct and objective style, which adds to the narrator’ appeal. Taut, suspenseful and compelling, from the first page to the last.
I Capture the Castle
Dodie Smith, Vintage, 978-0099460879, £7.99
And the final choice is an established classic. First published in 1948, I Capture the Castle is a bildungsroman and romantic saga, documenting the life of a Bohemian family living in a crumbling castle. The mood is nostalgic, perhaps because Smith was living in exile in California with her conscientious objector husband at the time of writing. The enduring quality, which prevents this from simply being a period piece, is 17 year old Cassandra’s entertaining narrative voice, which simultaneously conveys innocence and perception.
Nikki Gamble is Director of Just Imagine Story Centre and Associate Consultant at the University of London, Institute of Education.