Fictional journals bring the past alive
Recording their lives with mere pen and paper may seem hopelessly old-fashioned, or at least counterintuitive, to today's tech-savvy kids. As these two books show, however, there's something to be said for a visual and written history that will never be rendered obsolete by evolving technologies. While the books represent young girls in completely different situations and times—one is a wartime diary and scrapbook, the other a lark-filled trip journal—they showcase spirited entries, art-filled pages and insight into bygone eras.
Flossie Albright is nine years old at the start of My Secret War Diary: My History of the Second World War, 1939-1945, written and illustrated by Marcia Williams, and she's as spunky as a red-haired, freckled heroine should be. As war with Germany looms, Flossie's beloved father, Archie, joins the army, leaving her to look after her great-uncle Colin and her little brother in their cottage on an estate in Dorchester, England.
This is a book to be read slowly, rationed out over a number of days, as one is drawn into a story populated with friends and an extended family of women and children evacuated from London, "Land Army" girls come to replace male farmhands, and even a Jewish "Kindertransport" from Berlin. The pages of the journal (a posh gift from the estate owner's daughter to help Flossie cope with her father's absence and her mother's death) are filled with drawings, snatches of Prime Minister Churchill's speeches, bulletins from radio and newspapers, and mementos from author Williams' own family, including photographs, war medals and other memorabilia. There are also messages in code and dire warnings to those who read the most secret of secret passages.
The resulting chronicle is an exceptionally well-done book that is not only a great story, but also an entertaining history of wartime England in the vein of Carrie's War or Good Night, Mr. Tom. Williams addresses a wide array of issues: missing or killed relatives; atrocities and bombings; blackouts and shortages; Yanks bearing chocolate and stockings; increased opportunities for women; the seemingly never-ending war. On particularly bad days, Flossie remembers her mother's advice to "Draw a line under it and start again." (There are a number of touching references to Flossie's mother: "I MISS HER MORE THAN THE HIGHEST SEARCHLIGHT IN WEYMOUTH! Sometimes I imagine one of them searchlights lighting up heaven and there's Mum looking down at me and smiling one of her special smiles.") Through it all, Flossie is a dutiful daughter, who does her bit for the war effort and matures into a bright 15-year-old by book's end.
Meanwhile, kids who want more of Flossie's family, or young boys who may prefer a male perspective on history, should look into Williams' previous book, Archie's War, which presents World War I as seen by a youngster named Archie Albright—Flossie's father.
Charlotte in London, by Joan MacPhail Knight, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, is the fourth in a series of books that record the adventures of a little American girl living in France while her father studies the "en plein air" technique used by Claude Monet and other Impressionist painters. After escapades in Giverny, Paris and New York, Charlotte looks forward to seeing London's sights with her best friend, while her mother is determined to sit for the leading society portraitist, John Singer Sargent.
Compared to Flossie's, Charlotte's life is a piece of cake. It's 1895 and she wanders through city and countryside, rides in a hot air balloon, dines with the cream of London society and even spends an afternoon amazed by the lifelike wax figures in Madame Tussaud's. Watercolor illustrations accompany her journal entries and vintage postcards and photographs (of Buckingham Palace, a village cottage, Sargent painting in a field), drawn mostly from the author's private collection, help young readers imagine the Victorian era.
Like its predecessors, Charlotte in London is also packed with information about the artists and their works—both in the narrative and in an artist index—and includes reproductions of such ground-breaking paintings as Whistler's "Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket," Monet's "The Thames at Charing Cross" and Turner's "Rain, Steam, and Speed, The Great Western Railway." This makes a fine introduction to the world of art and, for those just discovering it, the Charlotte series.