If you made a check list of everything I thought made a book worth reading growing up, Cici’s Journal would be the result. You couldn’t design a book that embodies my pre-teen self more if you tried, and that includes Cici’s fondness for fedoras.
The diary format was a huge selling point at that age. Each new book left me more determined to keep a journal of my own and, for a while, I usually did. A pile of started notebooks, with trite “Keep Out” warnings, are all that’s left of those ventures (where I found out I disliked personal writing), but that was the power of these books. They convinced me every time another attempt was worth making.
It wasn’t enough to scribble something down every day, either. Like Marissa Moss’ Amelia’s Notebook, Cici’s Journal sees journals as tricked out scrapbooks, aesthetically pleasing and eclectic. Cici’s story is told as a graphic novel but with breaks for pages of handwritten prose, illustrated newspaper clippings, and photos. When Cici comes up with theories for her secret investigations, artist, Aurélie Neyret, draws them as doodles outside of panels, like drawings you’d jot down in the margins, and when there’s a curl in a speech balloon, you can pick up on the tone of voice that person is using.
Then there’s Cici‘s detective angle. I never read Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy but Cici carries much of the same DNA as the Nickelodeon movie starring Michelle Trachtenberg. Using her journal to keep notes, Cici spies on her neighbors to find out what they’re hiding (including Mr. Mysterious, last seen leaving the woods with paint) for two cases, “The Petrified Zoo” and “Hector’s Book.”
Expecting her friends to fall into line for every stakeout, things go a little too much Cici’s way in “Petrified Zoo,” and while the plot is resolved, it takes “Hector’s Book” for Cici to face consequences for her actions. Originally published in France as two separate chapters, First Second’s decision to publish them together ensures a fuller character arc, where Cici realizes she’s been neglectful of her friends and family. “Hector’s Book” asks Cici to consider other points of view and, accordingly, there are brief scenes where we get to spend time with other characters, outside of Cici’s perspective.
Many writers would’ve gone for the contrived epiphany, which is why it feels uncomfortable for Cici‘s author, Joris Chamberlain, to leave things the way he does at the end of “Petrified Zoo.” Cici’s Journal doesn’t follow fiction’s condensed time line, where a problem is discovered early enough to be fixed. Some mistakes take years to recognize, and recognition isn’t always enough. Cici misses a mystery going on in her own home, and her relationship with her mother isn’t simplified, but highly idiosyncratic.
Providing space and a writing exercise for young readers to try their hand at, there’s no putting into words how influential books like Cici’s Journal can be. To this day I believe purple ink is the pen color of professional writers because of Anne Mazer’s Abby Hayes. A book that knows its audience, adults may not get the same mileage out of Cici’s Journal, but kids will get it completely.
On sale November 7th from First Second