Dear Diary - the new interactive journals

Girls especially gravitate toward diaries, which are helpful in making sense of their world.

What is it about girls and diaries? While some boys may occasionally commit their thoughts to paper, childhood journaling seems to be mostly a female pursuit.

That abiding need to confess, express, dream, record, complain, and wonder within the pages of a book - often kept safely under lock and key - may kick in as soon as a girl is able to hold a pen.

"It seems girls are always trying to fit in and wondering what their place is in the world," says author Linda Krantz. "And when you go back and read what you've written earlier, it shows how far you've come."

Nineteen-year-old Laura Plett has filled 12 journals over the past five years. "I wanted to leave a record of my life and all I've gone through, so I can look back and say, 'Oh yeah, this is what I was doing when I was 16 or 17.' "

Girls are drawn to journal writing for any number of reasons, and the content of these precious tomes varies with each. My daughters, ages 7 and 11, use their journals not only for reporting on things that happen to them, but for drawing, and writing stories, poems, and song lyrics.

In the most profound sense, these journals and diaries become not just chronicles of daily life, but vehicles for exploration, introspection, validation, expression, even communication.

Ms. Kranz, a journal writer since the age of 12, recalls: "A lot of times, instead of trying to find time to talk to my parents about a certain issue, since it seemed they were always busy, I would write down what I was thinking and give it to them in writing.... You're going through so many emotions as a child. Writing in my journal was a stress release."

Experts have found that journal writing as a child often translates into a keen interest in writing as an adult.

Perdita Finn says in her excellent guide, "Teaching Memoir Writing, Grades 4-8": "At its best, writing is an exploration of our own hearts. As we write, we discover what we think, what we know, what we care about, who we are."

Once girls graduate beyond the "Today I did this..." phase of diary reporting, the totally white pages of a diary or a blank journal often can be a little intimidating.

The young writer can often sit for hours grappling with the censor on her shoulder whispering, "No, it's silly to write about that."

Enter the interactive journal, which prompts, provokes, and inspires with quotes, questions, quizzes, pictures, and dozens of formats that help the fledgling writer get started.

Some journals, like the Heart 2 Heart diaries (Fineprint Publishing, $11.95) for younger girls and Zoe Stern's Protect This Girl's Journal (Tricycle Press, $12.95) for preteens, are essentially blank books with inspirational quotes or imaginative drawings to help spark a moment of reflection or free association.

For some girls, that may be enough. For others, written prompts can be helpful in opening the doors of introspection.

However, there's a fine line between books that inspire and provoke and those that ask the reader so many questions it can feel like a homework assignment.

The least effective are the ones that focus on quizzes and lists - "My Favorite TV Shows," "My Favorite Books," etc.

However, some use that kind of format to effectively kick-start the reflective process. My Life According to Me (Klutz, $14.95) is one of the better ones, with lots of room for doodling in addition to filling in information on "My Baby Page," "The If Page," "My Annoying Page," etc.

Judith Harlan's spiral-bound Girl Thoughts (Walker Publishing, $10.95) is similar in style, but goes a step further, with more questions and fill-in-the-blanks. The quirky My Chaotic Life and My Chaotic Life's School Daze (Walter Foster Publishing, $16.95) feature fill-in blanks, but their sassy attitude; mod, colorful graphics; and unusual features (such as the Magic Spinner and peek-a-boo flaps) make them fun, if not particularly deep.

In her two kids' journals, All About Me and More About Me (Rising Moon, $12.95), Linda Kranz calls her written prompts and questions "thought starters." She edges each lined page with questions that encourage both girls and boys to think a little more deeply about their inner lives.

"When you lie in your bed at night, just before you drift off to sleep, what do you think about?" "Is there one little thing you could do that would start you on the road to your dream?"

She explains, "I try to ask questions that encourage elaboration, so writers will think further than they normally would."

Her Through My Eyes (Rising Moon, $12.95) is geared for teens, and she also has developed two similar adult journals well worth checking out.

One of the most inspiring of teen journals is Girls to Women, Women to Girls (Celestial Arts, $14.95), by Bunny McCune and Deb Traunstein. This book has few pages on which to write, yet the remarkable collection of writing by girls as young as 9 and women in their grandmothering years could help open the floodgates to the kinds of thoughts and feelings for which journals provide the ideal outlet.

Motivated by their own experiences as mothers, the authors say, "We wanted our daughters to grow up knowing themselves and appreciating their own gifts as women in the world."

And in the best sense, that's what journaling is all about.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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