Not a Nickel to Spare

Do you have any idea how many times I’ve read this book? So many! I don’t even like it all that much, to be honest. I just keep reading it and reading it in an effort to recap it and somehow never get up the energy to do so. I own this book and it’s taken me forever to get around to it, which should tell you just how much I don’t enjoy it.

Not A Nickel to Spare: The Great Depression Diary of Sally Cohen, Toronto, Ontario, 1932, Perry Nodelman, 2007.

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Here’s the thing: this is overall a really well-written book, and Nodelman is a professor of children’s literature and the editor of Canadian Children’s Literature, and has written textbooks on the subject. There are parts of this book that I adore—it’s a terrifically evocative picture of Toronto during a certain place and time. But (and you knew there was a “but” in there because I can’t unequivocally like anything ever)…something about it just does not work for me. Part of it is because so much of the book is focused on Sally’s cousin Benny—overwhelmingly so, to the point where it really seems like he just wanted to write a book about Benny and the Christie Pits riots but got roped into writing this instead. And part of it is because it doesn’t ring true as a realistic depiction of a preteen girl. I don’t think it’s because he’s a man, since I think any good writer is capable of writing a persuasive character regardless of whether they can personally identify with them, but it seems like it’s because he just was more interested in writing about Benny!

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To Stand On My Own

I’ve been skipping out on the Canadian content lately! I must remedy that. I’ve been wanting to do this book for quite awhile because it’s just so interesting and extremely readable, and it’s nearly impossible to find books targeted at kids that deal with epidemics of disease where the focus isn’t the acute fear of the disease, but the aftermath.

To Stand on My Own: The Polio Epidemic Diary of Noreen Robertson, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1937, Barbara Haworth-Attard, 2010.


A couple of things of note about this: I love that it’s set in Saskatoon but the focus isn’t on how terrible life in the prairies is–it just happens to be the setting. This is Haworth-Attard’s second Dear Canada book, and while I hated the first one, I really loved this one. Mostly because I thought her first one, A Trail of Broken Dreams, was unfulfilling and depressing and lacked focus, but also because it was one of those novels where you don’t get a terrible clear picture of the narrator? This one is much more direct. And secondly–it’s set in 1937, but it has a very “modern” feel, which I know is strange for a historical novel, but it’s much more directly relatable than, say, Not A Nickel To Spare, which is set just five years earlier and which I really hated. That one feels ancient–this novel is so much more relatable!

So this diary’s protagonist, Noreen, is twelve years old and lives in Saskatoon with her parents and her two brothers. Her grandfather lives nearby, as does her aunt and uncle and cousin–who are not so badly affected by the Depression, like Noreen’s family has been. They’re limping along OK, not great, but not in the poorhouse either, and it’s summer and very hot and things are kind of dull at home. So Noreen hangs out with her friend Bessie and go goof off around town, or stays home to read and help her mother clean–“Mother is forever complaining about the house being dusty and it is. I know because I’m the one who has to dust it.”

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Survival in the Storm

This is a genuinely Special Case for Dear America, and I won’t critique it any more than is absolutely necessary.

Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Dalhart, Texas, 1935, Katelan Janke, 2002.


So, the author of this book was a 15-year-old girl who won the Dear America writing contest, therefore living out my dream in reality. This is why I won’t really criticize the writing or any of it too much, because: 15, and it’s not necessary to pick too much at the efforts of a (very talented) teenager. Katelan herself grew up in Dalhart, and based it on local stories and local lore, which I have zero problems with and turns out to be a really sweet way to do things.

This is one of the DA books that isn’t surrounding any one specific event, and there’s no overarching plot involved other than the ongoing Depression and Dust Bowl, which is fine. I tend to enjoy these books more than the ones that are detailing some important event anyway. Grace is twelve and lives with her parents and her younger sister on their farm in Dalhart, but things have been particularly difficult for the family ever since the drought began and they’re having a hard time making ends meet. Mostly, Grace bitches about the dust and how it just never stops—I like a lot of the details in here, like how they have to knead bread in a drawer because the dust blowing through the kitchen will get into their bread otherwise. She thinks her sister doesn’t do enough work around the house, and her mother is sort of permanently at the frustrated end of things (obviously), so Grace spends most of her leisure time playing with her best friend Helen.

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Christmas After All

Second and last in the “Christmas Dear America” series, let’s go for a Dear America book that is unlike any other I’ve ever read, and not necessarily in a good way? Is that a good thing? I don’t know, let’s find out.

Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932, Kathryn Lasky, 2001.

minnie swift

(Yes, I know it was reissued with a new cover, but I love this cover and I loathe the new ones, so I’m choosing to ignore it.)

For starters, I don’t want to be too harsh on this book because it’s based on Kathryn Lasky’s real-life family. The characters are named after Lasky’s mother, aunts, and uncle, and the house is their real-life 1930s house. I love, love, love it when authors use their own stories and family history to enrich books, because it’s always so fascinating and cool to see a sort of real personal connection in a way not all books have. And real life is stranger and more wonderful than anything any fiction author could dream up, I believe, anyhow.

Minnie Swift is twelve years old and lives in Indianapolis, and as a native Midwesterner myself, I adore books that are set in the Midwest not for any special reason (i.e., the Midwesternness is not a plot point), but it just is and it’s totally normal and great. She has three older sisters and a younger brother, all with amazing names—Gwendolen (Gwen), Clementine (Clem), Adelaide (Lady), and Oswald (Ozzie). At first, Minnie is complaining that she has to share a room with Lady, because her parents are closing off more rooms to save money on heating in December—because it’s the Depression and, as you may have heard, money is a little bit tight.

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Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan

I keep running into Barry Denenberg books, almost against my will. One of these days this is just going to turn into a Dear America/Canada/Royal Diaries/My Name Is America review blog.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, Perkins School for the Blind, 1932, Barry Denenberg, 2002.


Before we get started, there’s a few things about this book that set it apart. First, it’s told by a set of twins—Bess, the protagonist, and her twin sister Elin. Because Bess is blind, she dictates to Elin, who writes, and there are a number of passages by Elin as well, which lends it a more epistolary feeling than most. And secondly, the protagonist is blind, which could have fairly easily shoehorned this into a “learning about disabilities” book, but it happily escapes that fate. There are appallingly few books focusing on protagonists with disabilities in the kids’ and YA canon, and I’m very pleased to see this addition, but like most of Barry Denenberg’s books, it has its issues.

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