As Sarah and I made our summer plans for the Slatebreakers blog, we decided to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday with a whole week of posts dedicated to the most patriotic Slatebreaking series we could think of: the Dear America diaries. As children of the 90s, we both grew up reading book after book from this series. We weren’t the only ones, either. The Dear America books were in heavy rotation from the public library and were also a popular choice from the Scholastic book order. There are spinoff series, like the My America series aimed at boy readers, the Royal Diaries, and even series about the history of other nations, including Dear Canada. A few of the books were even made into videos! We tried valiantly to get a copy of one of the filmed stories for review this week, but they’re not easy to find. Also, no one we know has a VHS player. (If you have seen these videos, please comment! We’re dying to know: Are they good?)
As we reminisced, we identified some of the factors that made these books so endearing:
The design of the book. Every Dear America book comes in hardcover. There is something very special about a hardcover book. Because I have always been on a paperback budget, it feels exciting to hold a hardcover book in my hands – especially one with sweet library binding like the Dear America series has. The books also feature those pages that look like they are hand-cut, which makes the reader feel as of she is handling something very formal or very old. And then there are those awesome ribbon bookmarks. You’ve got to love a book with a built-in bookmark. These books were carefully designed to appeal to young girls. They look and feel like actual diaries, which makes the reading experience more immersive. Even when the series was revamped in the 2000s, Scholastic maintained these elements that make the books look and feel unique.
Awesome authors. Seriously, Scholastic is not messing around when they hire authors to write the Dear America books. The series includes novels by such historical fiction heavy-hitters as Patricia McKissack, Kathryn Lasky, Karen Hesse, Lois Lowry, and Kirby Larson. Yes, this is a series that offers a great quantity of reading material, but the quality of that reading material is exceptional and consistent.
The illusion of reality. The girls in the Dear America series are written with such vibrant and believable voices that it is sometimes difficult for me to accept that they are fictional characters. Real girls inspired many of the characters, but the storylines and details are fictional. The realism of the books is extended by the epilogues that are often included, telling you what happened to the girl as she grew older. I remember feeling furiously disappointed after reading the epilogue and then continuing on to the appendix of historical documents, where I learned that the protagonist was not a real girl, after all. I so desperately wanted her to be real. Although this was tough for me to figure out as a young reader, I still wanted to keep reading the Dear America books because I was deeply invested in each girl’s story, and there were often parallels to my own life experience.
The Dear America series is not immune to criticism. Teachers, scholars, and librarians have questioned the accuracy of the historical fiction and the illusion of reality created by the epilogues. A group of scholars analyzing the misrepresentation of the American Indian experience in My Heart is On the Ground wrote:
Discussions with child readers, teachers, and librarians reveal initial confusion about the fictive nature of this series. The epilogue, especially, continues to confound both professionals and young readers. Are these real diaries? Are these fictional diaries of real people? Are the epilogues, at least, real? Given the format of this series, it’s hard to tell, unless one is an expert, a detective, or just naturally suspicious. (Source: Oyate – My Heart is On the Ground.)
This critique of the Dear America series can likely be extended to other books in the series, as authors write about historical moments beyond their own experience and shape historical evidence into compelling fiction. Throughout our theme week, we welcome you to comment with your own thoughts about cultural appropriation, authenticity, and stereotyping in the Dear America series.
We are revisiting our childhood love for Dear America this week by each re-reading one book from the series that we enjoyed as young readers and then reading one of the new titles from the relaunch of the series. Stay tuned this week for the answers to our burning questions: Do our childhood favorites stand the test of time? Are the new books in the series as good as the original titles? Are they truly as Slatebreaking as we remember them to be? What will a critical analysis of historical representation in these books uncover? We will report back so that you can reminisce along with us, or perhaps discover the series for the first time.