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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: THE NIGHT DIARY by Veera Hiranandani

nightdiary

Today’s scheduled post was going to be LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME, but we made a last minute switch:  We’ll do LOUISIANA tomorrow (Tuesday), and jump ahead to THE NIGHT DIARY today. Sorry for any disruption this switch causes. Now on to today’s book:

THE NIGHT DIARY is told from the perspective of a 12 year old girl living in India in 1947, when it is about to become independent of British rule. This period in Indian history is filled with violence and bloodshed as Muslim and Hindu leaders decided to split one country into two based on religion. Nisha and her twin have grown up without their Muslim mother who died in childbirth and their father, a Hindu, is a distant figure as he is always at work. The diary spans 4 months during which Nisha’s whole world is thrown upside down as they are living on the wrong side of the religious divide.

 The author’s note gives the reader more perspective into the actual historical events that happened in August 1947 when an estimated 14 million people crossed from one side to another according to their religion. The author notes that this story is loosely based on her father’s journey and says that it “is a combination of known history and imagined scenarios to create one possible story that could have taken place at this time.”

 The language in this book reflects Nisha’s innocence and the maturity that is thrust upon her as her family attempts to make the journey from Pakistan to India. Nisha’s growth as a character is essential to making this story seem plausible and Veera Hiranandani does an exceptional job at showing that growth in tiny steps and then giant leaps as she faces tragedies she would never have been able to survive at the beginning of her story.

The relationship between Nisha and her twin brother Amil may be the most important aspect to understanding their family’s journey to India and to their adulthood. The two were born minutes apart but appear to be polar opposites even as they support each other. It is not until they are faced with true hardship that the full understanding of their love is seen by the reader. On page 144 the reader sees Nisha collect rainwater in a small bowl

It started to fill up. My throat ached. Then it was full enough for a drink. As much as every cell in my body longed for the few sips it contained, I crouched over Amil.

They might not always agree or go about things the same way but their love for each other fills the divide.

Introduction by Jenn

Please share further comments about THE NIGHT DIARY below, starting with the positive. We will open up discussion to include possible concerns or criticisms later in the day.

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. samuel leopold says:

    The Night Diary, in my opinion, is one of the most relevant novels written for young adults this year!
    I am a bit biased in favor of this title. The premise of a young girl writing her story to her deceased mother is one that hits home personally to me. I recently lost my best friend–my mom– and am writing a daily journal to her. This idea is one that several of my students—who have lost loved ones— have begun doing on their own volition. They, as I do, find it therapeutic and a way of helping to numb the hurt long enough each day to “catch a breath.” Therefore, I love the way the author has decided to write this novel. It is a realistic format by which to hook many readers and to help them embrace Nisha as a real, genuine character.
    This is just one way the author creates a depth of character development that is not seen in too many other novels this year. During her family’s walk to the border, stories are told, feelings are shared and the reader begins to KNOW the characters and to empathize with them. Nisha shares insights in her journal that help us peel away the complex layers of herself and her family. On page 210, she says “Something has changed. I’m starting to feel happy here. I’m starting to feel like it’s home……Rashid Uncle told us you loved us.I talked to him. It has made me feel strong, Mama, strong and brave.”
    The author also does an amazing job of taking an event which most are not familiar with and making it something that can be understood and that readers can relate to. This is difficult to do when working within familiar contexts, let alone pulling it off while taking us on a walk through unfamiliar territory.
    The Night Diary is strong in many categories and is , like the picture book Dreamers, one of the most relevant stories this year for readers of ALL ages.

  2. What I appreciated about this book was the characterizations. Even the characters that frustrated or upset Nisha, I still understood at least partly where they were coming from, even if I didn’t agree with their choices. (Though maybe my sympathy for her father stems more from my perspective as a parent, and a child might read it differently.)

    Some of my bookmarks fell out of the book, and now I can’t find the page or the exact quote, but there was a section where Nisha is talking about how Amil is always the first one to be happy and forgiving after they fight, but that she holds on to her anger longer, because sometimes it feels that if she lets her upset go, it will seem as if it weren’t that important in the first place. That made me identify an emotional response I’ve never seen articulated before, yet will be familiar to many. There is a lot of plot here, but I think the focus is less on what is going on, and more on the characters emotional reactions to those events and to one another.

    • Oh yes, 100%. That part really struck me in being so helpful for children learning to identify their own emotions and navigating the world of forgiveness, anger, etc.

    • Found it! Page 104 “Sometimes I like to hold on to my upsets, like if I let them go I’m admitting they weren’t that important.”

      • sarahbtlibrarian says:

        Agreed! That line gutted me as well. This book has many great lines that capture emotion so well.

  3. What I admire most about THE NIGHT DIARY is that it helps to fill an enormous gap in children’s literature. I knew nothing about the forced migration of Pakistani peoples to western India, and I indeed learned a lot about not only the event but the context surrounding it. I am less ignorant because of THE NIGHT DIARY, and am grateful that this void is at least partially filled.

    One of the strengths of the book is the setting. Hiranandani creates a highly evocative setting, one that I’m sure is quite unfamiliar to many western readers. Because of her careful word choice and nearly effortless world-building, she brings to life both Pakistan and India – as well as the treacherous route the characters undergo along the way. I particularly loved the sequences involving food – I could smell it in the air and taste it on the tip of my tongue!

    • Took the words right outta my mouth… I think the setting is the thing that stood out to me about this text. While some of that could be attributed to the fact that I knew next to nothing about the partition of India and Pakistan into separate countries, I still think the author carefully filled the diary entries with enough details for someone like myself to come away feeling like I have a good understanding of this now.

      Whether or not that’s an example of distinguished writing or just reader ignorance, I’m sure will be discussed later, but for now at least, I would say making setting come alive to a reader who knew nothing about it is an example of distinguished writing.

    • I completely agree with both of you. As I was reading it, I was thinking about watching the movie Gandhi in high school and how I did not understand the story of what was happening politically until I read this book. One of the incredible strengths of children’s literature is how it can explain history, often from a child’s point of view, in a way that is accessible to many. This book was an incredible example of that.

  4. Deborah Ford says:

    I’ve read plenty of stories about Gandhi for young readers, but I don’t think it clicked until now.

    ” Everything is different now, even though it’s exactly the same. I can see it all around us, but I don’t know what to call it. It’s like a new sound I can hear in the air.” pg 32

    And like many of you, I see strong comparisons to today’s world. Hindu must live here while Muslim live here. There’s a part where Nisha is talking about one kills one who kills another and the revenge cycle never ends.

    The vehicle of the diary and the mother she can’t talk to creates the setting for a perfect narration. We see her heart and mind as she asks questions she can ask no one else. We see her process her life as she records the events.

    Certainly, characterization is also important. Nisha’s naivete and her inability to speak and ask questions is a catalyst for her actions. When she just wants to make a friend (at Rashid Uncle’s) is completely believable after perilous travel and no communication. She has no idea that she could be the cause of her family having to move.

    Her father’s reaction to reaching out to the girl next door is not unexpected. We have seen him blow up at Amil, but never at Nisha. Through Nisha’s words, we have seen how afraid her father is. His unthinking words force her silence. “Maybe it would be better if I didn’t speak at all.” It is only when her family is reunited that she can speak. And then on Pg 250 “As I went to sleep that night, I felt peaceful in a way I never had been. We were put back together. To Nehru, Jinnah, India and Pakistna, to men who fight and kill–you can’t split us. You can’t split love.” Even if the whole country is divided, their family–Hindu and Muslim–are family.

    I think we also have to talk about food with this book. I was starving the whole time. You can smell the spices being ground and browned. You can taste the sweet mango when there is nothing left to eat. “When Gandhi spins, maybe he finds peace like I do when I cook.” pg 244 Hiranandani uses food to indicate mood and express Nisha’s feelings.

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      Yes about the food. Those descriptions, from the ingredients, to how they were stored, how they were prepared, the smells and tastes and hungers! Not only were these different dishes and cooking methods well described for unfamiliar readers, they came to life.

  5. samuel leopold says:

    Felt the same way, Deborah, about the food references. The wonderful imagery used by the author creates this feeling.

    • Yes to the importance of the food. For Nisha cooking is communication. She communicates with Kazi through preparing meals together and cooking enables her to make friends with her Rashid Uncle. Creating nourishment for loved ones is such a strong theme though the book.
      When Nisha collects water in the mortar, tinged with the spices Kazi has lovingly ground for the family– to offer water to the near death Amil– Goosebumps! . This story exudes love throughout.– such a strong counterpoint to the violence and suffering. Beautifully and subtly shown.

  6. As others have said, I was also educated on a topic I knew almost nothing about. Beautifully written and, as Deborah mentioned, the food descriptions were just extraordinary. Strong imagery and a truly magnificent story.

  7. Courtney Hague says:

    I think everyone before me has really hit on the things I appreciated about this novel. Nisha’s characterization, the descriptions of the food, and the setting were all really amazing. I also didn’t know much about the partition of India into India and Pakistan. I knew that it had happened and that people were forced to move I guess I just didn’t know about the reality of that. This book is a great addition to the historical fiction genre.

  8. I loved Sam’s personal connection to the idea of writing in the letter/diary format – thank you for sharing that! I thought that in this book the diary format took away some of the urgency of the story. It was hard to believe Nisha was detailing things like her hunger and her experiences in the diary/letters to that extent in her journal, and I thought it might have worked better if reflective diary entries had been interspersed with the events as they were happening.

    • Kari, I agree that it sometimes took a little suspension of disbelief that Nisha was writing (sometimes in the dark) in the moments of such distress. But at the same time this is sort of inherent in the sub-genre of diary novels. I’ve kept a variety of diaries over the years, and not one of them has ever read the way a diary novel does. I just accept that it is a convention.

      • Absolutely true – that is a very tricky problem with books written as diaries or letters. I think when we’d be pages into her recounting a longer event it did pull me out of the story, though.

      • DaNae Leu says:

        I’m going to side with those who had a problem with the diary format. It was a hard ask to buy. A sweet idea, but lessened the immediacy, particularly while they were mostly dead on the side of the trail. The one title this year that I feel really felt most like a legit diary was SUNNY.

    • sarahbtlibrarian says:

      While I liked the diary format, I did find it to be jarring sometimes. I’d be reading something and it was so descriptive, and then suddenly there would be “Love, Nisha” and there were times it threw me out of the reading. As Kari said, when there were longer passages it seemed to suddenly pull me out after such a long passage.

      I also thought she was so detailed but at the end lost some momentum at the climax when she was writing all the time then couldn’t share what happened. That was another moment that took me out of the book.

  9. There were a couple of editing issues (tenses not matching, that sort of thing) but minor things. There was one that was glaring, however, and not just a nitpick. On page 24 Nisha is talking to Kazi about her mother’s paintings, and then in her thoughts says “I knew Papa kept HER paintings…” She’s supposed to be writing to her mother, so it should be “your paintings”. I know it seems like a teeny tiny mistake, only a single word, but when the entire conceit of the book is that she’s writing to her mother, it stood out.

  10. This didn’t work for me at all. It did help me understand Partition more, but that’s about it. I think the main problem was the diary format—it’s inherently distancing and you really needed the immediacy to fully feel everything happening on the journey. Because it’s a dramatic story, but it didn’t connect for me.

    Diary stories can go bad two ways and I feel like we got both. On the one hand, you have the problem that no one actually tells stories like that in their diaries, which normally doesn’t bother me that much, but felt particularly awkward when she’s writing about her brother almost dying, etc. (Although good effort on explaining why she’s writing at those points.) On the other hand, a lot of it feels like an actual diary. This is good because it feels like an actual kid is writing it (although it sounds like a much younger kid), but bad because there is so much filler. There’s too much just talking with no point. And it gives the author an excuse for lots of exposition (although it doesn’t actually make sense that you would explain the basics of your life if you think your mom has been watching all along). So for a long time, not much is happening; it’s just backstory and description about their life. Other parts don’t sound authentic to her voice at all. The food descriptions were well done, but there were way too many of them for me, and I don’t believe she would write them that way. No matter how into food she is, a 12 year old girl in the 50s shouldn’t sound like a contemporary travel writer.

    I also thought there wasn’t enough of a story. Things happen, but there’s not much of a character arc for her. I think it’s supposed to be about her finding her voice, but really she loses her voice more because of the events in the story. And then when she finally talks again, it’s just tacked on at the end and not related to the main events. So it works as a symptom of trauma, but not as a character arc.

    • I completely agree with this, Katrina. The diary format was very distancing to me and I think stifled Nisha’s voice. With a first person narrative, even a diary format, I think for it to be successful it needs to nail voice. And this was just too much exposition (without much of a “story,” like you said.) Might have been more effective in third person…

      I think SUNNY is another example of this for for a different reason. Too much voice! There’s a sweet spot when structuring the story in a diary and neither of these two did it for me this year.

      • That’s a good comparison with Sunny–I agree!

      • Okay, I didn’t see the SUNNY comparison before I made my own. But I wanted to comment on Katrina’s issue with Nisha’s selective mutism. It just didn’t work as an element. Having the whole story told to us in Nisha’s voice obliterated any sense of it. It was never shown, as it would have been in a third person, or even first person, real-time perspective.

      • That’s a good point, DaNae. Hard to get a good sense of her not talking when she’s constantly talking to us!

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      I agree. I couldn’t get the age of Nisha pictured right in my mind, because sometimes she seemed too young and sometimes too old. Also, I struggled with how she didn’t understand any of what was happening until the end. How did she not know it was a goodbye party? How does her brother understand the politics and she has no idea anything is wrong? It felt like a way for the author to explain things slowly to the reader, but I don’t think it worked.

      • I agree, Mary. If she was actually as young as she sometimes sounded, it could have make sense that she didn’t know what was going on. And then she could have been an unreliable child narrator where we understood the implication of things she didn’t.

  11. What resonated most for me with this book, if I set the diary element aside, was the bleakness of their journey. it was truly harrowing, and made me ache for refugees currently experiencing similar conditions and terror. A book I’m so happy to have for my students.

  12. I appreciated being educated on a topic I previously knew little about. However, I had a hard time remembering anything about the plot or characters before picking it back up for this project. It didn’t stick with me at all, though I did enjoy it when I originally read it. The diary format is tired and therefore, not memorable for me.

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