What ‘90s gal doesn’t remember the Dear America series? These books were must-haves every time Scholastic Books order forms were passed out, and there were tons of Dear America books we read over and over again as kids. Beyond their hardcovers, crinkly pages, and color-coordinated ribbon bookmarks — all of which I was totally obsessed with, BTW — the Dear America Diaries were just great reads. Not only did they tell the stories of a diverse group of girls who were all sorting through some of the same feelings and experiences, they made history relatable for girls like me, who were growing up 50, 100, or even 200 years later. (When you realize a young girl on the Mayflower had some of the same questions about life and love that you do, it kind of puts things into perspective.)
Now, the ladies of the series seem to have gotten a bit of a makeover recently — those grainy, sepia-tinted portraits on the covers (you know, the ones you totally imagined were the real girls back in 4th grade) have been replaced with some gals who look a little more put together… but on the bright side, at least poor Remember Patience Whipple got to trade in her handkerchief bonnet for some windblown curls instead.
Ready for another book-fueled trip down memory lane? Here are 12 Dear America books we read all the time as kids.
1. Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, R.M.S. Titanic, 1912 by Ellen Emerson White
Thanks to Leo, the Titanic obsession just never quit when I was growing up — and it extended to the Dear America section of my bookshelves, where Margaret Ann Brady featured prominently. As the assistant to a first class passenger, Margaret Ann is a tad out of her element on the Titanic. She ends up having a bit of an on-board romance of her own, PG-style, and then she makes a decision that almost gets her killed. Her diary was one of the more dog-eared of my collection, that’s for sure.
2. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, Mars Bluff, South Carolina, 1865 by Joyce Hansen
A Coretta Scott King Honor book, this Dear America Diary tells the story of Patsy, a recently freed slave living through South Carolina’s Reconstruction Era. At the end of the Civil War, Patsy’s former slave owner doesn’t tell his slaves that they’ve been freed — and without a family of her own, Patsy doesn’t leave as the other freed slaves around her begin to do. Then it’s revealed that Patsy has a secret she’s been hiding from everybody: she can read. We still love the fact that Patsy had everyone fooled.
3. The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West by Kristiana Gregory
This story introduces you to Libby West and her family, who are traveling alongside the railroad track layers of the Union Pacific railroad, as they're challenged to beat the Central Pacific railroad to Promontory Summit, in what is now Utah. And yes, while the history was interesting and informative, it was the romance between Libby and Pete that kept us coming back to this one.
4. Dreams In The Golden Country: the Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, New York City, 1903 by Kathryn Lasky
Zippy Feldman and her family immigrate from Russia to the United States, where Zippy’s father has already begun to build a life for himself. But because Zippy is so behind in school, she is forced to start in the third grade and work her way up. And while Zippy dreams of being an actress, her parents struggle with maintaining their old traditions in a new landscape. We totally felt for Zippy — nobody wants to be forced back into the third grade.
5. A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, Belmont Plantation, Virginia 1859 by Patricia C. McKissack
Clotee is one of the most well-written heroines of the Dear America series, in my opinion, and her story was one of the more heart-pounding. As a slave, one of her tasks is to fan her plantation master’s son while he studies — and this way, she secretly learns to read and write. But while the slaves around her all imagine lives of freedom, Clotee finds that she can’t even picture what that might be like. Our favorite part was when she becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad — just like we knew she could.
6. A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple, Mayflower, 1620 by Kathryn Lasky
Poor Remember Patience Whipple — aka Mem. First of all, having to carry around that name on top of everything else she had going on (seasickness, culture shock, starvation) was more than the average 12-year-old could handle. You can actually feel how cold and hungry everyone is through Mem’s words, and after her best friend is forced to return to England (seriously, back on the boat?) you just feel for the girl.
7. A Time For Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen by Kathryn Lasky
If you’re around my age, Kathleen Bowen’s diary was probably published a few years after you had grown out of the Dear America series (at least, by educational standards) but freshman in high school or not, it’s hard to resist a good suffragette story. Kat’s mother is an organizer for the women’s right to vote, and young Kat is in the totally relatable position of being torn between pride for her mother, fear for her mother’s safety, and jealousy over the fact that her own life doesn’t seem nearly as important as national issues. Kat’s a total badass too though, even if she doesn’t know it right away.
8. My Secret War: The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck, Long Island, New York 1941 by Mary Pope Osborne
Madeline Beck’s story is all about acceptance and inclusivity, and it taught us some really important lessons when we were younger. The world is being torn apart by World War II, and Madeline’s father is away from home fighting as well. But despite the fear and personal sacrifices those left at home were forced to grapple with, Madeline remains strong in the face of it all, supporting her German-Jewish neighbors and speaking out to her classmates against the injustices of the American Japanese internment camps on the other side of the country. Plus, she’s concerned that perusing a relationship with her boyfriend will prevent her from growing as an individual — which is pretty mature for her age.
9. A Coal Miner's Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska, Lattimer, Pennsylvania, 1896 by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
At 13-years-old Anetka Kaminska immigrates from Poland to the United States, and becomes the wife of a coal miner — one who already has children who aren’t that much older than Anetka herself. As she struggles with the reality of living so far away from home, and raising a houseful of children who aren’t her own, she dreams of true love and a life where she isn’t a servant to someone else’s needs. Running parallel to Anetka’s story was that of the coal miners, whose below-ground conditions are even worse than the life Anetka is living above. Things end well for her though, and she finally finds the love she is looking for.
10. West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi by Jim Murphy
Teresa Angelino Viscardi might have been one of the first fictional girls who I desperately wished was my BFF in real life. An Italian American and native New Yorker, she is distraught when her family decides to move to the western frontier (which we can totally relate to) and is then thrust into one Annie-Oakley-type situation after another as the Viscardi family makes their way across the country. From uncomfortable train rides to even more uncomfortable covered wagons to traveling on foot, Teresa has a rough go of it, but she gets through it all in the end.
11. Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catharine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, 1763 by Mary Pope Osborne
Catharine Carey Logan is a Quaker living in Delaware Indian lands, and so far that’s worked out just fine for her and her family. But the violence and tensions between the two cultures are starting to escalate, and as a result Cat and her brother are kidnapped by the Lenape tribe. This Dear America Diary was an interesting one — because while Cat learned some important life lessons about inclusivity, open-mindedness, and the wisdom of other cultures, the girl still gets kidnapped and taken away from her family against her will.
12. Across The Wide And Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary Of Hattie Campbell by Kristiana Gregory
Another Dear America girl who makes her way across the Oregon Trail, Hattie Campbell struggles even more than Teresa Angelino Viscardi does, if you can believe it. This book is so vivid, you can actually feel the sunburn and windburn, the dampness from crossing rivers, and the muscle aches from walking and walking and walking. But like all our favorite Dear America books, no matter what trials and tribulations occur, there’s always room for a little romance.