It was the covers that drew me in first.
An oval painting of a young girl in a white bonnet, staring pensively down at the bottom-right corner of the book, lays over an image of a boat leaning precariously toward the surface of the water. A forest green ribbon peeks out from where it is tucked into the pages’ deckled edges. The text on the hardcover advertises that this book, A Journey to the New World, is the diary of Remember Patience Whipple, who wrote in on the Mayflower in the year 1620. She is the only author listed on the cover.
The book was beautiful. It felt special, intimate; when I picked it up, I really felt like I was diving into a girl’s true account of sailing the open seas, making that treacherous trek from England to what she considered “the New World” (though it was hardly new to the millions of people who lived there already).
From there, I — and by all accounts, millions of other young readers — devoured the 35 books that followed in the initial 1996 release of the Dear America series. Dear America was composed of fictional diaries from young girls throughout American history; its companion series, The Royal Diaries, featured the daily musings of young royals, such as Queen Elizabeth I of England, the medieval Eleanor of Aquitane, and Nzingha Mbande, queen of the 16th-century Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba in present day Angola. These books spawned a new generation of young history fanatics and child readers of historical fiction. I talked to 17 now-adults who, as children, were devoted readers of the Dear America and Royal Diaries series, many of whom so cherished these books that they went on to pursue careers in history or writing.
Though once immensely popular, these now mostly discontinued novels were a cultural touchstone of the early aughts because of how they made history engaging and personal in a way that traditional history classes and texts — which favor the actions of white men, wars, and large, abstract-seeming events — don’t.
Most importantly, they showed young readers — primarily girls — that they contributed to the tides of history, and that their stories mattered.
“I loved that they told stories I'd never heard of or only heard about through one sentence in a textbook at school,” says Meg Conley, 36, a writer based in Denver, Colorado. Conley says she felt “completely disconnected” from her elementary school’s history education, which was frustrating, because she has always loved the subject. The Dear America novels, however, taught her about the critical histories of girlhood — and oppression — that were left out of class.
“It was implied, I guess, that children existed in history. But no one appeared to reach historical significance until adulthood. And even then, it was mostly old men,” she says. “And so it all felt very distant and untouchable.”
Relatable context and emotional resonance are crucial to a child’s understanding of history. In the United States, however, history education has become increasingly low priority, particularly since 2002 with the passing of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act. According to the American Historical Association, a 2002 survey reported that 88 percent of elementary school teachers considered history “low priority.” This has continued to get worse, with the AHA writing that “additional survey work and research studies revealed this same pattern: the systematic teaching of history had all but ended in elementary schools across the country.”
Any teaching of history, therefore, would be necessarily truncated; personal stories of a young girl’s experience living through the Revolutionary War or a child laborer’s experience working in 19th-century textile mills rarely make the cut. Children like myself, eager to understand how kids experienced life in other situations than my own, have to seek out more information by ourselves.
“My school district only ever taught U.S. history, which was super-frustrating. We learned World War II, like, four times but anything farther afield I had to learn myself,” says Allison Epstein, 29, a historical fiction novelist based in Chicago. “I think they were revamping the history curriculum as I went through school, too, because somehow we… skipped the Civil War? There is a big awkward hole in my knowledge between the war of 1812 and Teddy Roosevelt.” Epstein says she became “obsessed” with Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, a diary from a 13-year-old English orphan who is hired by a wealthy woman as a companion on the Titanic’s inaugural (and, obviously, final) trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Epstein says she’s so indebted to the book that two years ago, she emailed the author, Ellen Emerson White, about how much it meant to her.
The Dear America books often featured immigrant characters as they journeyed to and settled in their new American homes, a topic that many other books for children didn’t delve into in the early-aughts. For readers who were themselves immigrants or whose parents or grandparents immigrated, the books provided a much-needed outlet through which they could find stories resembling their own.
“A big part of it for me was wanting to know more about America and American history because my parents are immigrants, so I didn't have stories about my ancestors that matched what I was learning in school,” says Joya Ahmad, 28, a medical student in New York. Ahmad went on to read the entire Dear America and Royal Diaries series as a child, and as an adult tracked down as many of the books as she could. “The full collection in my apartment takes up way too much space and is my pride and joy.”
Mariya Karimjee, 32, a writer who grew up in Texas and is now based in Pakistan, says the books helped her build a framework for telling her own story. “When I read these books, they almost gave me a way to write it down for myself, relying on history and character details,” she says. They inspired her to write a fictional diary about Mahatma Gandhi from the perspective of a young Dalit girl, which she submitted to her 8th grade History Fair. The judges, expecting a nonfiction paper grounded by a thesis, were “appalled.” “Texas suburbs in 2001 — not necessarily into creative takes on history,” she says.
For Karimjee and many others, a love of Dear America and The Royal Diaries translated into a career. Caelyn Cobb, 33, a New York-based editor at a university press who acquires books about global history, says she is well aware of how Dear America and similar series like American Girl inspired her appreciation for history. “Seeing and showcasing women’s stories, and stories of marginalized groups, is a big part of the work I do and I can trace a passion for it all the way back to these books and others like it,” she says.
As inspiring as the books were, they weren’t perfect. Of the 36 original titles in the Dear America series, 29 were about white girls. Only four featured Black protagonists, one had a Latina protagonist, and two were about young Native American girls, the first of which was heavily criticized for damaging inaccuracies and misrepresentation of what life was like for Indigenous children at government-run boarding schools. The series’ first book that prominently featured Indigenous characters, Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catharine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, 1763 by Mary Pope Osborne, was actually about a white girl who is captured by the Lenape tribe. The series relaunched in 2010, but this latter incarnation wasn’t much better. Of the 19 relaunched titles, 16 were about white girls. Distressingly, The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941 by Kirby Larson, is about Japanese internment — from the perspective of a white girl whose father is a minister at the camp.
“Scholars have criticized the series for its individualistic focus and the lack of representations of some of the harsher realities of the time periods on which it focuses, for example slavery and settler colonialism,” says Kali Furman, an editor of an academic journal who wrote her master’s thesis about how gender and race are depicted in several Dear America books. “Many (though not all) of the books in the series might fall into a broader pattern of a whitewashed version of history, or what Ronald Takaki calls the ‘master narrative’ of U.S. history.”
Epstein, the historical fiction author, also remembers most of the books featuring traditional male/female romances. “I remember being annoyed that this was always part of being a girl at any time in history, which in hindsight makes it surprising that I didn't start questioning my own sexuality until my 20s,” she says, noting that that she suspects she loved the Titanic diary, in part, because the love interest “went and died before he could properly get out of the friend zone, and I didn't have to put up with any actual relationship business.”
The Royal Diaries, which featured more characters of color, had other problems, according to Julia E., 28, and Felicia E., 33, two sisters who host a podcast about the series (they ask that their last name be withheld because it’s uncommon). The books lacked class analysis or recognition of privilege, they say, though they note that they’ve only worked through about half the books on the podcast so far. “We're not saying that we want some ahistorical girl boss, but it does say something that there is no even subtle unpacking of power and privilege in these books.”
I recently re-read the Royal Diary about Marie Antoinette and talked about it on the YA/children’s literature podcast SSR. Though I think it mostly holds up — it’s charming, beautifully written, and historically accurate — the class issues were glaring, and the book featured fatphobia and ugly-shaming throughout.
“I think it would be good if [Scholastic] did more — not written by me,” says Ellen Emerson White, a historical novelist who wrote Voyage on the Great Titanic and a Royal Diaries about Kaʻiulani, the last heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. The original Dear America series, in particular, featured a lot of books about “little white girls” by white authors, she says. “Do more with the BIPOC community.”
Despite their flaws, the Dear America and Royal Diaries series were, for many millennial readers, life-changing reads — similar to the way Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were for generations past, only these series offered far more perspectives than just that of one person. I count the two book series as integral to my love of history, my enthusiasm for first-person narration, and my near-obsession with Marie Antoinette, all of which continue to this day. Mandi Harris, a children’s librarian in Idaho, says the books are a bit less popular now than they were several years ago; I Survived, a series of action-heavy children’s books about kids surviving historical disasters, have replaced them in popularity, she says. Still, the books remain favorites, and Harris recommends the Royal Diaries, in particular, to reluctant readers whose love for princesses has the chance to turn them into devoted historical fiction fans.
History classes teach kids that their personal “history and story generally are not in rooms that become landmarks,” says Conley. The Dear America and Royal Diaries books taught her that, in fact, they were.