In 1996, A Journey to the New World was published by Scholastic. An English girl traveled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower to “the new world.” Hear my Sorrow, was a Shirtwaist worker in New York City in the year 1909, also published by Scholastic in 2004 and the last of that 36 series called Dear America. The series was published on a wave of Scholastic’s success. Scholastic ended 2005 with a net worth double the amount of the year end in 2003. These dates also landed in conjunction with the Harry Potter books. Young adult fiction was in its golden age, and the Dear America books, while not matching the Harry Potter phenomenon, benefitted from its fame, and ultimately took a place that was missing at the time: chapter books about young girls, for young girls on a series-based platform.
I voraciously read almost that entire series of 36 books about girls’ lives, from the Mayflower arrival to a Sioux girl in a residential school in Pennsylvania.
The books read in real time, as diary entries. The day, the place, and the time written generously at each heading. Each entry leads us through the day-to-day lives of girls who lived during monumental times, in monumental circumstances in US history. Scholastic worked hard to make the books as personal as possible, with realistic illustrations, or old photographs of the girls on the front cover, down to the ragged edges of the pages, as if worn by time. The authors’ names aren’t written on the cover, only the girls’ names, where they lived, and the year. This strategic design were conveniently deceptive. Though I did not warrant them true outright, I happily suspended belief for them.
Not far from that time, I picked up the diaries of Anne Frank. The feeling was different in those words that spoke as if a ghostly. What stuck was that Anne Frank did have a voice. Unlike the narratives in the girls of Dear America whose lives are fictions based on true events, Anne Frank had lived her life and the words were already written. Her untold death echoes like a dark shadow behind the joys written in the diaries. She is real. Her wisdom is beyond the scope of the Dear America books, requiring a deeper sort of attention. But the Dear America girls are dreams into which we can play, in their words remains a continued life, questions still unanswered.
History is made by the storyteller, and while the books pointed to diversity, there was little in terms of non-white storytellers. There were no examples of Asian immigrants, Mexican, or Puerto Rican young women, the absence of whom are sorely invisible in the US narrative.
The books were published about tens years after the American Girl Dolls. Girls who are now 9, 10, and 11 are being introduced to snapchat. In the late nineties and early 2000’s, before we could compare ourselves to the real time stories of others through social media platforms and youtube. We were told real time stories of girls through magazines and Dear America. As a young girl living upstate New York, it worked, and soon I was the one tactlessly writing my daily activities in a journal with passion. I drew from these books as a way to feel a historical importance in my own life. Social media narratives lend to the Dear America zeitgeist, widening the voices and making significant the many voices. Now, unlike, Dear America, the issue is not diversity, but connection.
Dear America were narratives of girls going about their day-to-day while witnessing and undergoing moments that would become “historic.” When we read the journals in the late 90’s and the early 2000’s we were the same age as these girls. Seeds were being set culturally, politically, and technologically, that would shift our lives, and in no way we could have predicted. All that was happening would be ours. We read Dear America books, from the voices of young girls, not aware of any kind of history “making” but using their private voices as the structures for time.
I am certain that the Dear America books inspired many girls to put their pens on paper, to parse out the historic significance running through everyday lives. More than a completed historical document we long for the unfinished narrative, the continued story, so we can run to catch up, grab the hand of another and form bonds through media.