One of the most important strategies for a writer is to set the tone for his work as quickly and as accurately as possible. As a screenwriter, I make it a rule to set the tone for my script in the very first scene. When I write a novel or a memoir, I make it happen in the first chapter.
If you want a master class in setting the proper tone for a story, just read the opening chapter of “Bleak House.” Charles Dickens describes London under a thick ooze of fog. The fog is not just physical, but the central metaphor for a broken court system run by heartless, petty bureaucrats.
Ruchama Feuerman, whose last novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, we greatly admired and reviewed here, has published Bina Lobell’s Super Secret Diary, a book for children. And she successfully sets the tone in the first few pages.
Lots of kids complain about going to school, right? Not me. I love my school. It’s called a “homeschool” and it has only five girls. Morah Zeldy is the best teacher, there’s no homework, we do the funnest things, and we’re all friends.
Well … that’s how it used to be.
But what if one girl turns everyone against you?
What if that girl is your closest friend?
And what if the school is in her house?
Bina is a lively and sensitive 4th grader who tries to see the world as place that makes sense, but, as we all know, the world constantly defies rational explanation — especially for children.
Bina’s diary entries are brief, understated, and vivid. Like short scenes in a film, the diary gracefully and gradually builds in power and subtext until the world-view of a nine year-old Orthodox Jewish girl becomes achingly familiar.
I asked Ruchama Feuerman for some background on her latest book.
My own childhood is very present for me. I experienced being bullied a few times, and, something I don’t care to remember, I also played a few pranks that would probably be called bullying today. (Funny how we can all remember the times we got picked on, but our minds go vague when remembering the times we were the actual bullies.) What really gets me going about the topic is the way girls can be so devious and clever about it so that their subtle bullying manages to slip beneath the teacher’s radar. Many of these girl bullies do such a great con job, they’re the teacher’s pet.
The best novels transport us to a world different than our own. But in those differences, in the hands of a skilled writer, we discover experiences and emotions that are excruciatingly familiar. I read Bina Lobell’s Super Secret Diary in one sitting — and in that time my own childhood was regained.
The illustrations by Evgeniy Ognarov are unfussy and charming, a perfect complement to the language and story. The cover is a puffy jacket with a leather clasp that you won’t stop opening and closing.
Highly recommended for ages 8–12. But Seraphic Secret suggests ages 8–120.