MG at Heart Book Club Book Review: THE NIGHT DIARY by Veera Hiranandani

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Our February book club pick was Veera Hiranandani’s Newbery Honor Book, THE NIGHT DIARY. This heartbreaking historical middle grade tells the story of a family forced to relocate under dangerous conditions during Partition in the 1940s in India and what is now Pakistan. When India secured its independence from Britain, it came with the caveat that all Muslims would move to newly formed Pakistan, while all non-Muslims could live in India.

This puts young Nisha and her family in a difficult position. Her father is Hindu, but her mother, who passed away just after Nisha and her twin brother Amil were born, was Muslim, which leaves Nisha with many thoughtful questions about why they must choose sides in the conflict. Their beloved cook, Kazi, who steps in as a beloved parental figure with the children while their father spends long hours at the hospital where he works, is also Muslim and must stay behind while Nisha and the rest of her family prepare to leave the only home she’s ever known for India.

The novel is made up of a series of journal entries from young Nisha to her mother. The epistolary style really lends itself to listening to the story via audiobook if you’re able! These journal entries describe all the things Nisha loves about her home even as she prepares to leave it. And then it chronicles the conflict that is stirred up between Muslims and Hindus as they prepare to leave. Even as the family faces life and death stakes on their journey to India, they face personal stakes as both Amil and Nisha force their father to face the grief he’s shoved aside since their mother’s death.

A story of love, loss, and redemption in the face of political upheaval and violence, THE NIGHT DIARY is a must-read that deserves every bit of the praise and accolades it’s garnered since its release.

Readers of all ages will learn something from Nisha’s heartwarming journal entries.  To learn more about the author, or for printable drawing pages, activities, recipes, and discussion questions, check out our Middle Grade at Heart newsletter devoted to THE NIGHT DIARY.

The Middle Grade @ Heart book club pick for March is DO DONE by Paula Chase! Stay tuned for more posts about this awesome book and don’t forget to join us for our Twitter chat on THE NIGHT DIARY on March 5!

MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: How Addressing a Specific Audience Can Enhance a Story

One of the trickiest challenges writers face when beginning a new project is figuring out the main character’s voice. Will the narrative be told in first person or third? Past or present? How will the narrative sound? What will the tone be?

One technique writers can use is giving their narrator an audience: thinking through who their narrator is “talking to” and how that audience can shape the narrative in interesting ways. Veera Hiranandani uses this technique beautifully in her Newbery Honor winning novel The Night Diary, our February Middle Grade at Heart pick.

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In The Night Diary, which is set in 1947, twelve-year-old Nisha, who is half-Hindu and half-Muslim, tells the story of what happens to her and her family after India splits in two, so that  Hindus have to live in India and Muslims have to live in what has become Pakistan. Each night, Nisha writes in her diary, addressing each entry to her mother, who died giving birth to her and her twin brother. The choice to frame Nisha’s story as nightly diary-letters to her mother is effective for many reasons, and we’ll look at a few of those reasons here.

1.) The narrative structure leads to a very intimate tone that draws readers right in. Take a look at this passage in which Nisha directly addresses her mother:

But here is the question that is most on my mind. I’m afraid to say it, even afraid to write it down. I don’t want to think about the answer, but my pencil needs to write it anyway: If you were alive, would we have to leave you because you are Muslim? Would they have drawn a line right through us, Mama? I don’t care what the answer is. We came from your body. We will always be a part of you, and this will always be my home even if it’s called something else.

Consider the vulnerability and urgency in this passage. It’s impossible not to love and understand Nisha because we get invited so deeply into her heart and mind. This intimate tone would be very difficult to achieve if Nisha’s mother were not her imagined audience. All of Nisha’s complicated, tender feelings toward her mother imbue the storytelling with such beautiful emotion.

2.) The narrative structure fits Nisha’s character and the novel’s themes. Nisha has a very hard time talking to most people. Her struggles with speaking up are an important element of her story. That means that the narrative structure doesn’t feel at all like a gimmick; it enhances the story’s plot and emotional arc, and it feels right. The fact that Nisha can be so articulate in her diary-letters makes it all the more devastating when she is unable to form the sentences she wants to say in the scenes she describes. We learn a lot about Nisha and what she needs when we see how relieved she is when she is able to write about her often traumatic experiences every night; we see how desperately she needs a certain type of connection and we long for her to get it.

3.) The diary format highlights the timeline of the book. Because Nisha is writing in dated entries, we see just how quickly huge changes are happening. Veera Hiranandani is also able to emphasize how traumatized Nisha is (but in a gentle way that is very appropriate for middle-grade readers) by showing that sometimes days pass and Nisha is unable to write because she needs time to begin to recover from horrific events.

We’d love to know what else you notice about the impact of this narrative structure as you read The Night Diary, and we’d love to know about any other books you love that use a diary or letter format effectively! Our newsletter about The Night Diary will go out on February 25th, so be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already, and our Twitter chat about the book will be on Tuesday, March 5th at 8pm EST. We hope you can join us.

The Power of Slow

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Sometimes people ask me how I stay focused on my writing and keep going.  I often answer, as many writers do, that it takes discipline and a good helping of inner motivation to be with a manuscript over a long period of time. It also takes a lot of patience. Ultimately, patience may be the most important thing. I find as technology accelerates the world, speed is often valued over quality. I can write fast if I need to, but I’ve discovered that I’m better when I’m slow. That’s where patience comes in.

A while ago, I saw one of my favorite writers, Jhumpa Lahiri, give a live interview in New York. In the past few years, she’s decided to reinvent herself and master the Italian language. Now she only reads and writes in her newly adopted language. This process has taken her many, many years. She spoke of her own slowness and how this choice has forced her to move even more slowly. Her decision is unusual, but I also see it as an extension of a practice I’ve always found in her work. She doesn’t rush her stories. She doesn’t rush her characters. She writes to work something out and it takes as long as it takes. I find an enormous patience in her work.

After I saw her speak, I took note of how I was always rushing myself, always trying to figure out ways to write faster, to read faster, to get where I wanted to go—faster! Though I tend to give off a calm energy with other people, I can be a very impatient person with myself. I was working on my middle-grade novel, The Night Diary, when I saw Lahiri speak, and the book was moving slowly. I was feeling quite impatient with it.

This wasn’t an easy book to write. Before I wrote the book, I did a lot of research. I thought and talked about it often. Even when I started writing, I didn’t begin in a rush of inspiration, which can be the case for me. Instead, I treaded cautiously and found road blocks everywhere I turned. I wanted to be responsible and careful with the material. I was writing a story about the partition of India in 1947, based on some of the things my father and his family went through. I had never written a historical novel before, and certainly not one I was so connected to. So I would write a little and then find the need to research more. I repeated that cycle many times. Over about three years and many false starts, I had a first draft. I wrote slowly, carefully, and I believe (I hope) my writing was better for it.

Slowness goes hand and hand with mindfulness. I’d rather wait for one perfect pear to ripen and eat it slowly, than gobble down three hard, tasteless ones. In the same vein, one thoughtfully written page is usually better than five hurried pages. It doesn’t mean I won’t hit my deadlines, it just means I need to practice more frequently and clear the space for doing so.

Here’s the catch — it also means letting go of things I think might be important, or at least letting go of having to get everything done in a short amount of time. We’re always making choices with our time and choosing one thing over another.  I’m still a work in progress, but when I do summon up more patience, and allow myself a slower pace, I’m not just a better writer, I’m a better person.

But perhaps this essay is just a warning to my family that I won’t be doing as many household chores in the future – and making more space for this slow and steady practice we call writing.

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 8.31.20 AM.pngVeera Hiranandani is the author of The Night Diary (Dial), which was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and is a New York Times Editor’s Choice Pick, The Whole Story of Half a Girl (Yearling), which was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asian Book Award Finalist, and the chapter book series, Phoebe G. Green (Grosset & Dunlap). She earned her MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. A former editor at Simon & Schuster, she now teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute and is working on her next novel.