Meg Cabot is an excellent example of the wisdom of hanging on to childhood diaries. Sure, they're embarrassing, but if Cabot's track record is any indication, they might also be fiction-fodder gold. The prolific Cabot is perhaps best known for her Princess Diaries series (the ninth book was published in January) and the two Disney movies based on the books. She has also written several other series for young readers, including the Mediator and 1-800-Where-Are-You books, as well as chick-lit titles for adults.
Speaking from her home in Key West, Cabot says she decided to write her new series for middle-grade readers, Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls, because she had a treasure trove of her own journals just waiting to be plumbed—and she was meeting so many little girls who loved the Princess Diaries movies (rated G) but weren't allowed to read the (decidedly non-G-rated) books. "It seems like the little sisters of Princess Diaries readers were waiting around. That age group needs a girl they can relate to," she says. "That's why [my editor] and I were like, we have to address this market."
Enter Allie Finkle, a sweet, smart fourth-grader who shares her rules for living in funny diary entries that chronicle what it's like to be a kid with a manipulative best friend (Mary Kay, who knows how to use tears to her advantage), a fondness for geodes and parents who insist on moving out of a perfectly nice house into a possibly haunted one. In book one of the series, Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls:Moving Day,Allie records the rules as she learns them; they range from icky, such as "Don't Get a Pet That Poops in Your Hand," to poignant: "When You Finally Figure Out What the Right Thing to Do Is, You Have to Do It, Even If You Don't Want To." It's hard to argue with either of those, or the rest of Allie's rules, all of which offer wisdom and a touch of hilarity.
Cabot says Allie's experiences are drawn from her own diaries. "I actually did move in the middle of the school year in fourth grade—it was very traumatic. In the next book, Allie faces a bully, a girl who stalks her at school and threatens to beat her up, and Allie has to live with the fearful anticipation. That happened to me, too." The college town Cabot grew up in, Bloomington, Indiana, informed the Allie Finkle books' backdrop, though the author says she chose not to name a town in the series. "I really wanted kids to be able to think it's their town," she says, "though I now realize that by mentioning geodes, I've narrowed it down to a few states. It turns out they're not everywhere!"
In addition to a healthy geode collection, Allie has a voice that is genuine and convincing—the way she thinks and reacts to things will feel familiar to readers who are around her age or remember being so (the book also might be helpful to parents who are mystified by their children's behavior). "Fourth grade is ingrained in my memory in a really unhealthy way," Cabot says, explaining how she managed to channel nine-year-old Allie so well. A few girls Cabot knows provided inspiration, too. A group of nine-year-old girls lives down the street; they've become friends since Cabot and her husband moved to Key West from Manhattan in 2005. "I've been observing them and their drama. It ends in tears so much of the time," she says. There is creativity and unwitting humor, too: "They just had a fashion show for me that was totally hilarious. They wore pirate boots from Halloween, tutus, Christmas elf earrings, purses, fingerless gloves. They were totally serious about it, and I just loved it." Cabot worries, though, that if Allie seems too familiar to her neighborhood pals, she'll lose her backstage access to the girls' adventures. "I'm really hoping they don't get BookPage!" she frets. Perhaps the girls will be too busy reading the Allie series to notice this interview.
The second book in the series is due out in October, and Cabot just turned in the manuscript for book three. "I want girls to get to know Allie," she says, noting that the series will publish in March and October this year, with a year break, followed by two more books in 2010. The author is also busy with book tours, writing her blog at MegCabot.com and visiting schools. "I love doing that. Kids are so funny, and they always want to talk about how they can get published. They all want to be writers," she says. A word to the wise: Hang on to those diaries, kids!
Linda M. Castellitto still has all of her diaries. She often thinks about using them for inspiration, but can't bring herself to reread them just yet.