The term historical fiction may sound like an oxymoron. We believe history to be true and fiction to be a concept or idea invented by the imagination. The word history is complex in nature, his-story (insert eye roll and a deep sigh here), which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines first as:
1: tale, story
and follows with:
2: a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes
Our brains like to categorize…good and bad, young and old, fact and fiction, etc, hence the concept of historical fiction is difficult to grasp for many young readers. However the content of historical fiction is often easier to contemplate and relate to than non-fiction. Historical fiction gifts us the opportunity to meet and connect with characters from all over the world during a specific moment in history, learn about their lives (joys and struggles) and experience that very sweet spot in literature where fact and fiction mingle.
I have traveled to India consecutively over the past three years and I have learned a great deal about Indian culture and history from texts, conversation and films. However, the history of India’s independence from Britain in 1947 and the complications that resulted in the division/creation of two countries (Pakistan and India) has remained a murky mess in my understanding of India’s past.
I recently read The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani and not only fell in love with the voice of 12 year old Nisha who narrates the story but also with Hiranandani’s talented writing skills. She cleverly weaves fact and fiction together as she shares the complexity of Pakistan’s partition after India is newly freed from Britain.
Title: The Night Diary
Regional/Cultural focus: India and Pakistan (1947)
Author: Veera Hiranandani
Genre: juvenile historical fiction
Themes: family, belonging, identity, social justice
Nisha receives a diary on her 12th birthday, a safe space for her to record her thoughts and feelings. Nisha is shy and struggles to talk with others, hence she finds solace in “sharing” her words in her diary. The year is 1947 and Nisha discovers that while some people are celebrating India’s independence from Britain, her family has little to rejoice in. Nisha’s mother (who has passed away) was Muslim and her father is Hindu. When the area of India that Nisha lives in becomes Pakistan, she and her family must flee. Nisha and her family become refugees and embark on a dangerous journey to reach their new home on the other side of the border.
Told through a series of letters that Nisha writes to her mother in her diary, we learn of Nisha’s story and in turn, a dramatic moment in history.
What I love:
- A diary! Reading words in a diary format feels intimate and personal.
- Nisha has a twin brother, Amil. While siblings, they have different strengths and weaknesses and provide the reader with varied points of view throughout the book.
- Hiranandani’s words are heart-breaking and tragic at times. She shares experiences that are alarming and real and yet, Nisha’s story is also one of hope, love and integrity.
- The Night Diary is a refugee story. What are some of the current refugee plights in the world today?
- We see Nisha’s image of herself change throughout the book. Often she doesn’t identify herself as being brave. Do you think Nisha is brave? Why or why not?
- Hiranandani frequently writes about food and meals in The Night Diary. Why do you think she has chosen to do this? What is the importance of food and meals in your family?
- The Night Diary is a story of identity. Make a list of words that you would use to describe your own identity. Take your writing a step further and create a zine about your identity.
- Hiranandani uses abundant figurative language (similes and metaphors) in her book. Some examples include: “I needed all the feelings to stop boiling like a pot of dal and be cool enough for me to taste them” (p.36) and “She was like an old, soft blanket that I barely even noticed was there” (p. 141). What are a few of your favorite similes and metaphors from the story?
- Nisha occasionally alludes to Gandhi. Investigate, who was Gandhi? What did he believe in?
- Learn about the religions in the story including Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.
If you love juvenile historical fiction as much as I do, you might also enjoy the following titles:
If you’d like to explore refugee stories, consider: