Ranking All 43 'Dear America' Books
I genuinely don't understand how some of these got published.
Previously on 'I gradually lose my grip on reality binge reading children’s historical fiction', we looked at the Dear Canada series, and I discovered that they're... actually really good! Because of the response to that article, and because I enjoy tormenting myself with questionable diary fiction, I decided to go back down that particular rabbit hole to the weird and wild world of Dear America.
The Yankee counterpart to Dear Canada actually predates the series by five years. It ended in 2004 only to be revived by a truly awful necromancer in 2010. The rebooted series does away with the ribbon bookmarks and nice covers; whoever was in charge at Scholastic decided that new books needed to be filled with Mystery and Intrigue. They’re... mostly not great.
Overall I prefer Dear Canada out of legal obligation, and I found the writing is generally better. However, Dear America (a few cases of grotesque racism aside) has stories with good bones and original ideas, though the execution may be lacking. Full commentary with too much detail available here
43. My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880 by Ann Rinaldi (1999)
If a team of Indigenous people feel the need to write a detailed breakdown on why your book is bad then, uh, I’m not sure what else there is to say. I’d call this garbage, but it would be an insult to garbage.
42. The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl, New Mexico, 1864 by Ann Turner (1999)
Ditto. At least these two weren't selected for the reboot.
41. Down the Rabbit Hole: The Diary of Pringle Rose, Chicago, Illinois, 1871 by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (2003)
This book is an atrocity for many reasons including, but not limited to: cramming too many topics in, the absolutely bonkers timeline, and the fact that the titular fire happens on p. 198 out of 211, the deeply stupid “mystery,” a love interest who, in a tradition of useless men, defies logic with his very existence, and some genuinely damaging views re: class and ability. But, perhaps the biggest sin this book commits is trying to convince me that Pringle is an acceptable nickname for Priscilla. Okay, Potato Chip, tell me more about how rich people are oppressed.
40. The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941 by Kirby Larson (2010)
An imagined conversation between two Dear America higher-upsEXEC 1: do you think maybe we should include some Asian people in our series?EXEC 2: I mean... maybe?EXEC 1: I know that Japanese incarceration during WWII is an important topic that children should learn about. EXEC 2: ok, but we’re not having a Japanese protagonist. The narrator will be a whiny, self-centred white girl who learns a lesson about being nice to other people. EXEC 1: it’ll be like 'Baby’s First Guide to Performative White Allyship.' EXEC 2: brilliant.
39. Cannons at Dawn: The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1779 by Kristiana Gregory (2011)
This is the only sequel in DA canon and for a good reason: it's bad. The epilogue in the first book already tells us what happens to Abby, the timeline is ridiculous, it adds nothing new to the setting, and by the end, it turns into ye olde fifteen and pregnant. No thanks.
38. A City Tossed and Broken: The Diary of Minnie Bonner, San Francisco, California, 1906 by Judy Blundell (2013)
Listen. This is not remotely good. Minnie's mom sells her as a servant to a rich family to pay off their debts like a Wattpad 1D fanfic, and she's in San Francisco for a whopping one whole day before the earthquake. This is a vacuum of emotion. I do have to give it points for Minnie briefly considering stealing her dead employers' daughter's identity, getting rich, and moving to France.
37. When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, Gordonsville, Virginia, 1864 by Barry Denenberg (1996)
Here’s how to make this better: move the story to Atlanta, and make Cousin Rachel the narrator and Emma the sidekick. Start the book with Emma’s mom dying, have all their slaves run away/abandon them, and then have the climax be the Battle of Atlanta. Cousin Rachel goes full gothic heroine screaming about how men are demons, and existence is prison while Emma is trying to keep everything together despite the city being under siege, and also on fire. Full gothic.
36. Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, a French Slave Girl, New York Colony, 1763 by Patricia McKissack (2004)
The best way to sum this one up is that there’s a duel, it is both the most exciting part, and the only plot point I remember, and it lasts for maybe three pages. Patricia McKissack is a good writer, and I really enjoy her books, but they can’t all be masterpieces I guess.
35. Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, Green Marsh, Massachusetts, 1774 by Ann Turner (2003)
We’ve been over this. I’m not in the business of caring about badly-written Tories.
34. So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1847 by Barry Denenberg (1997)
Somehow Barry Denenberg wrote a whole book without taking a second to develop his narrator behind ‘walking tragedy with an Irish accent’. It’s almost incredible. Mary is so inconsequential to her own story that she dies of cholera at seventeen. Yeah. Also, a side character gets SCALPED, because she refuses to tie up her hair (workplace safety, kids!) but mostly because she’s a Vain Mean Girl who must experience consequences, so make of that what you will.
33. Behind the Masks: The Diary of Angeline Reddy, Bodie, California, 1880 by Susan Patron (2012)
Of all the books in all the world, this is the one which managed to make me ambivalent about a ghost subplot. Mostly because Angie is a dud, and it suffers from a case of Asian Sidekick Syndrome (yes I’m aware that the acronym is ASS, I’ve accepted that) Angie’s grumpy friend Ling Loi would have been a far better protagonist. Read 'Under a Painted Sky' by Stacey Lee instead. It's about a Chinese girl who disguises herself as a cowboy after killing her attempted rapist.
32. Land of the Buffalo Bones: The Diary of Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers, an English Girl in Minnesota, New Yeovil, Minnesota, 1873 by Marion Dane Bauer (2002)
There’s a lot of literary merit to be discussed here—the prose is beautiful and the characters are Marion Dane Bauer’s real-life ancestors—but unfortunately, that’s where the praise ends. 'Land of the Buffalo Bones' is absolutely miserable, and is made even more miserable knowing that Dr. Rodgers was a real-life scumbag who lied by omission to convince his family (incl. seven children, mostly six and under) and a group of settlers with no transferable skills to settle a wasteland. No wonder you got run out of town, buddy.
31. When Christmas Comes Again: The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer, New York City to the Western Front, 1917 by Beth Seidel Levine (2002)
I truly despise Christmas media (with the notable exception of 1998 animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie). A lot of it comes from my parents filling up our DVR with made-for-TV Christmas movies every December. And this is a made-for-TV Christmas movie. It’s schlocky as hell, cramming the Christmas miracle angle, AND an overdone whirlwind romance into an otherwise interesting WWI story. The happiest moment of my time reading this book was when I thought the love interest died in the trenches. And then he came back. Bah humbug.
30. All the Stars in the Sky: The Santa Fe Trail Diary of Florrie Mack Ryder, The Santa Fe Trail, 1848 by Megan McDonald (2003)
I believe in media transparency, so I’m going to be completely honest. I spent most of this book completely zoned out. I wish I could say why. While the story doesn’t seem completely necessary, there wasn’t anything egregious about the plot or Florrie herself. Too bad my brain was playing the mii channel theme on loop the entire time.
29. Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, California Territory, 1849 by Kristiana Gregory (2001)
Reading this is like listening to "Nobody" by Mitski, which sounds great, but it’s just the first line of "Nobody" by Mitski on repeat so you’re hearing this poor girl sing ‘my god I’m so lonely’ for hours on end. Somebody please introduce Susanna to people her own age who aren’t her sister or her future husband. At least the 'Dear Canada' girl got to crossdress and befriend all the gold diggers, Susanna has to sit waiting for the men to come home.
28. A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin, Fenwick Island, Delaware, 1861 by Karen Hesse (1999)
I'm personally offended by this book because I dream of being a lonely and repressed old-timey lighthouse keeper who wears a lot of cozy knitwear and has a faithful dog companion, and sometimes stares out at the ocean remembering my wife who was tragically lost at sea. The lighthouse in this is just one big metaphor! It's not even a good metaphor! There isn't even a scene where Amelia has to rescue someone from a shipwreck so it's weak overall.
27. The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, Utah Territory, 1868 by Kristiana Gregory (1999)
I like to give Kristiana Gregory's books awards for grisliest deaths, because her creative horror movie deaths completely eclipse her mediocre romance subplots. This KGAGD goes to the boy who put a penny down on the railway track, and really has it come back to bite him when it's shot out from under the train’s wheels and gets a perfect bullseye on his forehead. Thanks! I’m scared of trains now.
26. Early Sunday Morning: The Pearl Harbour Diary of Amber Billows, Hawaii, 1941 by Barry Denenberg (2001)
This is a heartless story about Pearl Harbour. It covers two months, long enough for Amber’s family to move to Hawaii, experience Pearl Harbour, and decide to move again. There would have been more, or really any, emotional impact had Amber’s friend Kame been the narrator; she’s lived in Hawaii all her life, and has to deal with the resulting restrictions on Japanese Americans. But alas, Asian Sidekick Syndrome strikes again.
25. Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catharine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, 1763 by Mary Pope Osborne (1998)
Captivity narratives, the historical equivalent of cult survivor stories, were hugely popular in the 17th and 18th centuries with some reaching bestseller status. As one might expect, they didn’t have the nicest view of indigenous populations. So, not only is this a cool resurrection of a mostly-dead literary genre, but Mary Pope Osborne is very respectful of Catharine’s Lenape captors (it isn't that hard, Ann Rinaldi). Weird way of handling the passage of time though.
24. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, Perkins School for the Blind, 1932 by Barry Denenberg (2002)
The bad: this is the shortest of the series, the Depression setting is never fully utilized, most of Barry Denenberg's narrators sound the same.The good: having a blind protagonist who dictates her entries is an interesting choice, the kids at Perkins put on a play called 'When Will This Cruel War Be Over?' That’s right! And Bess plays Cousin Rachel. When I first read this I thought it was snobby, but now that I’ve experienced Cousin Rachel in all her goth glory, it's hysterical.
23. West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, New York to Idaho Territory, 1883 by Jim Murphy (1998)
The concept for this book (utopian communities in the midwest!) is so cool, it’s really well-written, and the narration gimmick of switching between Teresa and her kid sister Netta actually works. However, the title lies to you because Teresa's family don’t make it to Idaho! They make it to Minnesota at best! And they don’t even start in New York either! The book begins in Jersey City, though the family is from New York. Who was in charge of marketing this false info, I just want to talk.
22. My Secret War: The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck, Long Island, New York, 1941 by Mary Pope Osborne (2000)
A lot of the flaws come from the fact that Maddie is too realistic a 13-year-old who wants people to like her. It’s far too relatable, and made me cringe so hard I think I glitched into the matrix. And then, towards the end, there are Nazi saboteurs after Maddie because she accidentally uncovers a treason plot. She writes that in case she DIES she loves her family so much, and she’s so sorry for all of this. Talk about tonal whiplash oh my god.
21. My Face to the Wind: The Diary of Sarah Jane Price, a Prairie Teacher, Broken Bow Nebraska, 1881 by Jim Murphy (2001)
I am five minutes away from sending Jim Murphy a strongly worded email asking if he knows how narrative pacing works. The bones of the story are great, but for some reason, Sarah Jane only starts teaching over halfway through the book; this amounts to about two weeks of teaching, and the book ends immediately after the climax. Will someone please introduce this man to Freytag's pyramid.
20. Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: The Diary of Molly MacKenzie Flaherty, Boston, Massachusetts, 1968 by Ellen Emerson White (2002)
The class discussion scene is one of the funniest things I've ever read in my life. Molly asks her teacher what communism is exactly because nobody ever tells her anything, and her teacher is like “communism? What are you? A filthy red?’ and sends her to the office. When she gets to the office all the secretaries are concerned, and she explains herself by saying (verbatim, deadpan) “I just found out I’m a communist.”
19. Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, 1847 by Kristiana Gregory (1996)
Not a single person dies of dysentery so first of all that should be considered a crime if you're writing about the Oregon Trail. There's not really anything wrong with this book (apart from KG's insistence that all her narrators and sidekicks be married by 14-16), but there isn't anything astounding either. I almost got crushed by a table trying to check this out, and it was not worth it. Some of the grisly deaths were fun.
18. Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Dalhart, Texas, 1935 by Katelan Janke (2002)
Katelan Janke truly lived out my past and current dreams when she published this as a teen after winning a contest. The result is a cute story about her hometown! The dust pneumonia isn’t cute, but most of it is a quiet story about people being nice to one another. We should all take a page out of Grace Edwards’ book, and forgive our former enemies when they apologize for their previous behaviour having gone bankrupt, fled town, and had their head shaved after contracting lice.
17. A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, Gonzales, Texas, 1836 by Sherry Garland (1998)
Every single woman in this book is ready to spill blood at a moment’s notice. Lucinda knocks a man out with a skillet, and tells her mom that even if her father and brother are dead, they need to leave Gonzales before they die too. Lucinda’s mom tells two women who beg for death that so many men have already died for Texas that they might as well live for Texas. Lucinda's aunt gives her 14-year-old daughter and niece a butcher knife, and tells them to kill anyone who dares to lay a hand on them. Sherry Garland does absolutely not mess around and I admire that.
16. A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, Belmont Plantation, Virginia, 1859 by Patricia McKissack (1997)
In the epilogue, Clotee becomes a spy for the Union after working as a conductor for the underground railroad, which is just about the coolest way for any book to end. Clotee is a compelling character, and this is a classic for a reason (the reason is that it’s great).
15. Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, R.M.S. Titanic, 1912 by Ellen Emerson White (1998)
Poor Margaret Ann had some pretty stiff competition considering Sarah Ellis' Titanic book came out on top for my Dear Canada ranking. Margaret herself can verge into a stereotypical plucky London orphan, but I will give Ellen Emerson White points for fridging the love interest to further Margaret's emotional development.
14. Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, New York City, 1903 by Kathryn Lasky (1998)
One of the recurring problems I find with some of Kathryn Lasky’s books is that sometimes they end immediately after the emotional climax. Here I can overlook that because Zipporah is so powerful. It only takes a year for her to become nearly fluent in English. She’s known as the First Lady of Yiddish theatre, AND is nominated for an Oscar, AND rescues Jewish children across Europe with her husband during WWII, AND her granddaughter is the original Mary Magdalene in 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' Her power.
13. Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, Portland, Maine, 1918 by Lois Lowry (2011)
I mean, it’s Lois Lowry of 'The Giver' and 'Number the Stars' fame. There were very few ways this could go wrong. Lydia and her brother are sent to live with a Shaker community after their parents die of influenza, and this book is about them learning to adjust to their new lives. It’s an interesting way of looking at the impact of the Spanish Flu without the focusing on the flu itself. The rebooted books aren’t complete drivel after all!
12. A Coal Miner’s Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska, Lattimer, Pennsylvania, 1896 by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (2000)
I can understand why people love this book and enjoyed it for the most part, but also I’m super uncomfortable that Anetka was married, become a stepmom to three young girls, and widowed all before she was 14. Are you kidding me? When I was 13 I was eyeball deep in 'Twilight' lore while Anetka’s out here being a child bride. It doesn’t help that Anetka’s arranged husband is a man-shaped pile of garbage who is only nice to her for about a day before he's killed in a tragic mining accident.
11. A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple, Mayflower, 1620 by Kathryn Lasky (1996)
This book made me aware of my mortality in a way no other 'Dear America' could reach. I would be the worst pilgrim, and would have died of some easily prevented disease before I was 16 with my weak lungs, terrible eyesight, lack of self-preservation instincts, and general bad immune system. My pilgrimsona (named Die-Well) would be one of those poor saps who died of smallpox before the first winter.
10. The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1777 by Kristiana Gregory (1996)
Y’all, I am not immune to propaganda, and read this the day after watching both 'National Treasure' movies, which reminded me of the last time I was truly happy (being 10 and watching Nicolas Cage steal the Declaration of Independence on repeat). But if you’re not me, and don’t have any nostalgia to enhance your reading experience, and also want a revolutionary war book with borderline horror movie gore, this is the book for you.
9. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, Mars Bluff, South Carolina, 1865 by Joyce Hansen (1997)
I have never had any sort of parental instinct in my life, but let me tell you, Patsy is my daughter. She’s so brave and smart, and I would kill for her. Because she has a debilitating stutter and a limp, everyone thinks she’s dumb, and she uses this to her advantage to learn how to read and write with anyone knowing better! She eventually becomes a teacher for other former slaves! Patsy, you're doing amazing, sweetie.
8. I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembley, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1691 by Lisa Rowe Fraustino (2004)
Liv Trembley is a great character because she’s believable as a puritan, while still being relatable to modern readers. The way the witch trials are handled overall is cool, because Liv isn’t an accuser or afflicted, she’s just watching things go down. When her sister gets sick (not Sick but everyone thinks she is) the whole town shows up at their door, and one kid asks when she’s going to start screaming blasphemies. Me too, kiddo. My only complaint is that it could have been spookier.
7. Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932 by Kathryn Lasky (2001)
We know I'm Ebeneezer Scrooge, but I laughed so hard at this book that I'm willing to forgive the Christmas Miracle™ setting. For a story about the Great Depression, it's surprisingly hysterical. There are a lot of period references to help ground it in reality (comics! The Golden Age of Radio! Hoovervilles!) while never going too hard on the suffering. Minnie makes up the Vomitron scale to rank the horrible depression food she has to eat (she gives Rudy Vallee’s schlocky ballads a nine, right behind aspic), what a way to cope.
6. Valley of the Moon: The Diary of Maria Rosalia de Milagros, Sonoma Valley, Alta California, 1846 by Sherry Garland (2001)
On a technical level, this is possibly the best entry in the series. It’s thematically the strongest with Rosalia figuring out the nuances of her identity while California is gaining independence, foreshadowing and subversion are used in a way that never feels sensationalized, and the characters are all shown to be flawed in one way or another. Also, there’s a Spanish glossary at the back, which is the thing I missed most from 'Dear Canada.'
5. Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois, 1919 by Patricia McKissack (2000)
Maybe the most underrated book on this list. 'Color Me Dark' was one of the few books to receive television treatment, but manages to fly under the radar a lot. It’s among the darkest in the series, and definitely the only one where the narrator’s uncle is lynched, and the white townsfolk write it off as an accident. Nellie’s story looks at colorism, the KKK, and race riots without falling to despair, or softening the edges of history.
4. One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping: The Diary of Julie Weiss, Vienna, Austria to New York, 1938 by Barry Denenberg (2000)
Believe me, nobody is more surprised than I am that my nemesis made it this high on the list. but a broken clock is right twice a day. I consider myself the arbiter of taste for WWII fiction about girls, and listen: this is stellar. The stuff in Austria? An appropriate level of scary for kids. The stuff in New York? A surprisingly sensitive look at healing from, and acknowledging trauma, also it somehow reminded me of Eloise.
3. A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, Washington D.C., 1917 by Kathryn Lasky (2002)
- Is obsessed with classics and goes as Juvenal for Halloween.
- Field hockey star!
- Literally kicks her awful cousin’s ass. She waits until he’s got his back to her then gives him a solid kick in the pants.
- Writes a letter to Wilson calling him a coward and a scoundrel for detaining her mom, and hand delivers it to the White House.
- Goes on the King Tut expedition!!
- Gets bitten by a cobra in Egypt (yikes), is nursed back to health by her future husband (love), and, while he tells her it was love at first sight, she reminds him that she was in a coma so it wasn’t love at first sight for her (iconic).
2. With the Might of Angels: The Diary of Dawnie Rae Johnson, Hadley, Virginia, 1954 by Andrea Davis Pinkney (2011)
Like Dawnie, Andrea Davis Pinkney was the first black student at a white school, and it really shows. 'With the Might of Angels' has the perfect mix of anger and hope, while offering up a few gifts to me personally (Dawnie displays legitimate discomfort with femininity, and has a raccoon sidekick!!). The reason why it isn't #1 is that it's the longest book in the series, and I find they work best when there are around 180 pages of story.
1. Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker, New York City, 1909 by Deborah Hopkinson (2004)
You’ve likely heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Did you know that 123 of the 146 victims were Jewish and Italian women between the ages of 14-23? Did you know that they died because all exits were locked to prevent unauthorized breaks (like going to the bathroom)? Did you know that the service elevators broke down, and a third of the victims jumped from windows and fire escapes for a quicker death? Did you know that for years, six of the bodies were unidentified because nobody came forward to claim them? Deborah Hopkinson only wrote one book on this list, but it’s a hell of a book. If you read it, have tissues handy...
Anyway, thanks for sitting through my incoherent ravings. If you liked this, don’t hesitate to tip, and if you want to suggest more children’s historical fiction for me to binge read (The Royal Diaries is tentatively on deck) drop me a line on Twitter. Also, Scholastic, if you’re reading this, please let me write a sequel about goth queen Cousin Rachel, I have many ideas.