Confessions of a diary writer

31st January 2003 at 00:00
Factual or fictional, keeping a journal can be an excellent activity for literacy lessons, says Helena Pielichaty

On reading Rosanna Arquette's diary in the film Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna's comment is something like "It must be in code - nobody's life is this boring!" Oh, but they are. While researching for this piece, I re-read some of the entries I had made in one of my own diaries - ironically, The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde Diary 1998 - and found them so boring I was mortified. Boring diary accounts are the last thing teachers need in the classroom when covering "recounted texts" in the literacy hour or other lessons. As a children's writer with a definite vested interest in saying so, I believe you can't beat starting off a new literacy topic by using a few well-chosen examples from fiction. The good news is, there are several excellent fictional diaries currently in print to suit the junior classroom.

Pirate Diary: The Journal of Jake Carpenter by Richard Platt, illustrated by Chris Riddell (Walker Books pound;12.99), won last year's Kate Greenaway Award and it is easy to see why. Riddell's fabulous watercolour illustrations are large enough for everyone to see from the back and intriguing enough for everyone to want to borrow the class copy (at pound;12.99 that's all it's likely to be) to have a closer look. Set in 1716, it tells the story of 10-year-old Jake Carpenter and his experience on board the ship, The Greyhound. Be warned: the text spares no details of the hardships of life at sea, such as passing a needle through a dead sailor's nostrils prior to burial to check he really was dead, but I liked the book all the more because of such gory details as, I'm sure, would any self-respecting 10-year-old.

Also with an historical bent are the clever and funny Lost Diaries "found" by Steve Skidmore and Steve Barlow (Collins pound;3.99 each). Any title from the series would be ideal to tie in with a history topic - diaries "found" by Skidmore and Barlow include those of the Viking warrior, Erik Bloodaxe, Queen Victoria's Undermaid and Robin Hood's Money Man. Like the Horrible Histories series, the text is broken up by cartoons and comic illustrations and mixes fact with fiction. I think the notion of "discovering" a lost diary is very appealing and I'm sure the two Steves won't mind you pinching the idea to use in the classroom.

Set firmly in the present is Polly's Running Away Book, written by Frances Thomas and illustrated by Sally Gardner (Bloomsbury pound;4.99). It is a quick, enjoyable and easy read for eight-year-olds and above. I really liked Gardner's brilliant, and again transferable, ideas for illustrations.

She uses simple ideas, such as sticking sweet wrappers in the margins or rubbings of coins to illustrate the text.

The amusing opening pages to The War Diaries of Alistair Fury by Jamie Rix (Corgi Yearling pound;4.99) would be a good example to use when looking at introductions to diary keeping. But, for me, the definitive fictional diary remains Anne Fine's The Diary of a Killer Cat (Puffin pound;3.99). It's short and hilarious, and covers every aspect of diary writing you'll need.

Writing a diary

A diary usually gives the day, date and year of the events taking place but it is still essentially telling a story. Using a diary format can be a good way of getting children to produce excellent creative writing with in-built differentiation to suit all pupils.

lA diary has a definite time-span. It can be limited to a week in the life ofI or be as demanding as a whole month or even a year. A photocopied blank week can predetermine the length of the piece.

lDiaries are usually written in the past tense but can also look to the future ("Can't wait for next week whenI") lStyle: the diarist should vary the length of each entry. Some days will be bursting with news and overlap into the next day's space while others are limited to a few words. This injects pace. Sentences might be abbreviated:

"Scored hat-trick. Pity was for opposite side", or in text messaging style.

lPresentation is all. This can include an investigation of the design of real diaries (huge desk or specialist diaries; old leather-bound volumes) to see what they have in common and how they differ. Fun can be had with making up codes, doodling, and including keepsakes, such as tickets and locks of hair, to go with the text as well as using different pens for different moods. Word processing enables the child to use a variety of fonts, including the impressive dropped capital at the beginning of every account.

lHandwriting: pupils need to choose appropriate materials for the task. If pretending to be a child writing during VictorianEdwardian times, they might need to use ink or a pencil and learn how to write in copperplate.

lSpelling: errors might be legitimately ignored - not all diary writers can spell!

lThe character of the diarist needs to come through. Are they anxious Adrian Moles or precocious Buffy fans?

Finally, to continue the theme of shameless vested interest, might I recommend my own Simone's Diary (OUP pound;3.99). You could use it as an example of a recounted text, but I would save it for that post-SATs period in Year 6 when the class is wondering why they still have to come to school now the tests are over. Simone's Diary is an account of the first year of secondary school and all that that entails, from never getting a flapjack at break to going on brilliant trips. The research is genuine and I don't mind what ideas you take from it. Essential reading, even if I do say so myself.

Helena Pielichaty, a former teacher, also wrote Simone's Website and There's Only One Danny Ogle

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