The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani 

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In Newbery Honor book The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani (Kokila, 2018), the partition of India has a profound effect on the life of twelve-year-old Nisha, who is half-Muslim and half-Hindu and now must figure out where she is welcome. Along with her twin brother and her widower father, now Nisha finds she must leave their lifelong home to travel to the “new India,” since their current home is in the new country Pakistan, and Hindus are no longer welcome there.

Written as a series of diary entries, The Night Diary seems to me to be a parallel story to Anne Frank’s true diary. In both books, the diary is a birthday gift. In both diaries, the central character, a girl, wants to share her personal thoughts and each loves writing. There aren’t a lot of other similarities, and yet the common feeling of trial transforming a young girl’s innocence into a young woman’s experience, and the theme of changing through survival, resonated with me as a reader. The feeling of connection between the two persisted, even though the subject matter was strikingly different.

In Anne’s diary, she finds herself hiding in an attic for years and must come to terms with what that means even as she becomes a teenager and has teenage difficulties. She writes to the diary as if to a new friend in whom she can confide during her lonely time.

Contrarily, in The Night Diary, Nisha, who is selectively mute and very shy, writes to her deceased mother, who died when she was born. Nisha desperately wants to know more about her, even though it makes her father sad whenever Nisha mentions her. Now Nisha finds that her city has transformed into a racist place where their family is no longer welcome since they are Hindu. Even though Nisha’s father is one of just two doctors in town, the division in the community becomes untenable. Thus begins a life-threatening trek to the new India.

I knew about the Indian partition, but Nisha’s story made it real. First, let me say that the illogic of the whole situation was simply ridiculous. Why did the leaders think this was a good idea, to make Hindus live in India and only Muslims in Pakistan? Regardless, the once peaceful society has been upended. Nisha, her brother, her father, and her grandmother find that they must walk toward the border since trains are overcrowded, violent, and dangerous. Their treacherous journey through the desert reminded me of Javier Zamora’s journey across the U.S. border in the desert (see my review of Solito). Just like Javier, the family nearly dies of starvation and thirst before they can find relief.

Nisha also experienced a personal journey. Before she left she spoke rarely, feeling most comfortable with her Muslim cook, Kazi, a dear man who had been with her family her whole life. He taught her to cook and the sweet aromas of familiar dishes bring Nisha comfort. Now, as she travels, she finds that she must speak up and stand up to survive. She gains confidence as she becomes the cook for the family (when they have food). While at home, she had thought that her Dadi (grandmother) was picky and full of criticism, but now as they travel Nisha finds that she herself can be a comforting influence that Dadi needs.

Nisha finally starts talking when they all arrive at her uncle’s house. Given her uncle’s inability to speak due to a severe cleft palate, Nisha begins to appreciate her own ability to speak. She finds that she and Rashid Uncle can have the same companionable silence while cooking that she had had with Kazi. While there, Nisha starts asking her father questions about her mother. She finds that she is lonely and takes steps toward friendship she never would had taken before their physical trials had begun. Even though she cannot stay at her uncle’s house (it is still in Pakistan), she begins a new life in India with confidence that she can survive whatever will come.

The book addresses many issues: freedom of religion, 1947 history, friendship, parent-child relationships, identity (Hindu or Muslim? Indian or Pakistani?), anxiety. There are so many sweet parts of the story. The characters are very well-developed and lovable. The writing, while not convincing as a 12-year-old’s diary entries, was nevertheless fantastic. I felt like I knew all of these sweet people, and I loved them all. Although the subject matter may be considered dark, the joy and love of family shines through in The Night Diary. (Yes, I cried. Many times. Cue eyeroll from my children.)

This book was awarded a Newbery Honor 2019. I rate it “fantastic” and say “keep it and read it.”

Reviewed on July 9, 2024

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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