Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Dead Mothers and Diaries

nightdiaryIt’s almost like we deliberately tried to start our book discussion this year on the darkest notes.  Two novels Steven discussed both feature dead mothers/parents.  The two titles I’m going to present in this post also have dead mothers — not only that, both mothers died giving birth to our protagonists.  Even more, both books are in diary form.  In The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani, 12-year-old Nisha writes to her dead mother in a secret diary, recounting the family’s harrowing experience during India/Pakistan partition in 1947.  In Sunny, by Jason Reynolds (#3 in the Track series,) the almost-13 Sunny pours his heart out to his “Dear Diary.”

The similarities end there. Night Diary and Sunny are set decades apart, half a globe away, against very different backdrops, and the narrative voices of the two first person narrators are diametrically different.

Nisha’s is a thoughtful and gentle tone, describing in evocative details both her domestic life (cooking, playing with her brother, secretly making friends with a neighbor girl) and the harsh journey to pursuit safety during which Nisha witnesses disturbing and violent acts.  What is distinguished about this title is how Hiranandani manages to reveal how individuals’ lives could be turned tragically topsy-turvy due to a single political decision in a way that young readers would be able to understand and empathize.  The uncertain fate of Nisha and her family creates the tension that keeps readers engaged through the chapters.  The delineation of its setting is also outstanding: readers could vividly see, hear, and smell the environment and the foods described by Nisha/Hiranandani.

sunnySunny’s voice, on the other hand, is full of nervous energy and out-of-the-box observations.  His almost obsession to connect life experiences with various sounds adds a unique flavor to the narration — the “tick” the “tick-bada-bada-boom” or the “whirr” and the “brrrggghsssh” are visceral lines that pull readers into Sunny’s worries, joy, struggles, and triumphs.  It is emotionally effective.  The main theme is Sunny’s relationship with his single-parent father: how it evolves from somber, businesslike, and tense into something more tender and mutually understanding.  I appreciate the taut and focused narrative structure.  It does not deal with a large social-political landscape but the interior portraits of both Sunny and his father are rich enough to maintain reader’s interest throughout.

Sunny only received one reader’s suggestion from March to August. The Night Diary had stronger support – 6 reader suggestions!  Does either feel like a serious Newbery contender to you?

P.S. I love both cover designs even if that does not enter the Newbery discussion.


Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at


  1. steven engelfried says:

    One thing I really appreciated about NIGHT DIARY was the way that the story was filled with kind of everyday, typical conflicts and situations: family dynamics, the importance of making a friend, cooking, and yes, wondering about the dead mother. And at the same time, all these life-changing, sometimes horrifying events are going on. Like the time when Amil spills the water: it’s a major setback in their desperate journey, and at the same time it accentuates the tense relationship between Amil and his father. The author does a nice job of making both those types of impact, survival and family, seem important in different, but significant and related ways.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    Gosh, voice is such a funny and subjective thing. I thought the voice of CHECKED was a strength, but had credibility issues with voice in both of these books, mostly because of the diary format. I do remember thinking, stylistically, that SUNNY was Reynolds’ strongest writing yet, but that it felt out-of-place in a supposed diary. The repetitive rhythms of stuff like “milkmilkmilkmilk” (2) or “shum-swip!-shum-swip!-shum-swip!-shum-swip! all the way to the feta-feta-finish line” (8) is dynamite stream-of-consciousness, but was a chore for me to type and so even less believable as something someone would write out longhand. As for THE NIGHT DIARY, I think some pages worked well as diary, but others seemed indistinguishable from middle grade novel. The amount of quoted dialogue seemed incongruous for a diary, I thought, as well as some of the descriptions of character actions. For example page 25, “He sliced a few more chilies, and I twisted and pressed the pestle into my coriander powder even though it was fully crushed. / ‘I needed a cooking job since the restaurant I worked at closed,’ he said, and paused his chopping again, holding the knife still above the sliced chilies.” Maybe Nisha is really just writing a novel rather than a diary, because passages and pages like that really do not feel “diary” to me.

    • Leonard, totally agree with that notion that the diary form could be limiting and some of Nisha’s detailed description stretches the believability. However, I think Sunny is believably writing these words down — hand-written, swishing swishing scribble scribble — not the same thing as typing, especially not the same thing as typing according to printed pages. I can totally see the pages – -with scribbles, doodles, sound effects for himself.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Roxanne, that’s interesting. I hadn’t considered the possibility that SUNNY should be seen as a sort of transcription of something that “in reality” might look like one of the Origami Yoda books. I note that, as early as page 4, there is some poetry-like visual arrangement of words (“boing boing in my brain”) and Reynolds does like his italics. Perhaps having those elements is why I didn’t think there were even more visual elements that might be assumed but not presented to us. I’ll try to re-read adding in those extra effects, and I do think it might make a difference, though I’m not sure having to do that to make the voice work helps SUNNY’s Newbery argument. I still think it would have worked better if we were just told Sunny had a recorder/transcriber like MASON BUTTLE or Haley in HARBOR ME.

      • Leonard, I don’t think the book needs additional graphic designs for the sounds/thoughts elements to come through. And I don’t know that the book demands readers to envision it that way. I did it mostly in response to your query.

  3. I can only comment on THE NIGHT DIARY, a book I was completely and utterly underwhelmed by. On paper, it has everything going for it that I look for in historical fiction: relatively uncharted historical event written by a person from that culture; “journey narrative” (even though this falls into forced migration, there is still an arc that follows an arduous, challenging, and dangerous path), and profound, trustworthy insight into culture. Yet for me it failed on just about every level. One of my principal issues with it is precisely what Leonard brought up: the diary format just doesn’t work. For one thing, Nisha’s voice is drowned in the format – her fears and trepidations feel after-the-fact. Because she is not writing in the moment she experiences events, they feel oddly neutered, like the stakes have been lowered when we know that isn’t the case at all. Furthermore, Nisha constantly reminds us that we’re reading her diary, which only further distances us from the action. She often prefaces passages with qualifiers like “I’ll try to remember all that was said” and then proceeds to remember literally everything that was said. I also found Nisha’s self-imposed quietude a bit forced, a quality that she also draws too much attention to in a diary. Why would she remind herself of her own character traits constantly?

  4. Julie Corsaro says:

    I like that this is a book about contrasts between siblings, religions and countries. I also appreciated the rich imagery in the writing, particularly around food. Finally, I found Nisha’s innocence early on convincing. It was a refreshing break from the snakiness that can be found in a lot of contemporary depictions of 12-year-old girls, and likely truer to the time.

  5. It’s been a little bit since finishing Sunny, but like each title in the Track series, Reynolds just does a magnificent job of giving his characters life. The energy of Reynolds’ prose not only kept the story moving, but helped me feel like I knew Sunny intimately. I could totally picture this kid tapping his foot in class, humming at tune – all his pent up creative energy just looking for release. I agree with Roxanne, that I did not picture a traditional diary for Sunny, but more of a hodgepodge of doodles, phrases, lyrics, etc. – just a place to dump everything in his head. For me, Reynolds always hits the mark when it comes to creating vivid, believable characters with voices that really reflect the kids I see in my library. I definitely think Sunny is worth discussing moving forward.

  6. I liked that Sunny does have such a distinctive voice and I felt like it stayed true to a diary format (or an internal monologue), but too much so. I just found it exhausting after awhile. And there weren’t any real scenes–which is nice on the one hand, because it always feels like cheating when epistolatory novels go into full scenes, but also . . . it’s a novel and I’d like some scenes! Staying completely in his head was just too much for me. And we didn’t get to see the other kids on the team basically at all, which was a bummer. But there is some good emotional payoff at the end. So I’m sort of all over the place about this one. I am tired of the unresolved track meet at the end of each of these books though. I mean, I of course expected it by now, but it seemed particularly out of place this time. Not that he can do that much about that, since he’s made it part of the series, so he can’t really stop doing it now!

Speak Your Mind