Totally Off-Limits

Totally Private & Personal: Journaling Ideas for Girls and Young Women
The Absolutely True, Positively Awesome Book About...ME!


The dead of summer. She is eleven. She's perched on the deck painting her toenails Sludge and contemplating her self-esteem, which wavers these days like the heat off blacktop. You want to arm her with pride, self-love, a healthy body image, the power to say her own yeses and nos. But frankly, she doesn't want to hear from you. You've already slipped and said you think Sludge is ghastly. So who can you trust to prep your daughter for the cruel world of the preteen?

Trust Jessica Wilber. At age seventeen, Wilber has penned two renowned guides to journaling for girls: Totally Private and Personal: Journaling Ideas for Girls and Young Women (Free Spirit Publishing, 1996), and--new this year, for younger girls--The Absolutely True, Positively Awesome Book About...ME! (Free Spirit Publishing, 1999). Both books are sharp, honest, wise beyond the author's years, and cool beyond your best attempts.

Wilber's most recent book talks straight to seven-, eight-, and nine-year-old girls about why journaling is important and how they can create journals that celebrate and express their very own tastes, struggles, and values. Wilber says journals help girls "remember things...understand yourself...handle your feelings...(and) like yourself." Her rules are few: "date every entry...when you want to write, do it...(and) write as much or as little as you want." Beyond that, Wilber's suggestions are just that--starters for girls' unique, private "books about me."

She gives great attention to form, trashing the traditional "one-year diary with a lock and one tiny page for each day. You'll need a lot more space if you really want to be creative." She notes the merits of "book" journals (blank books, three-ring binders, notebooks); computer journals; and journals on audio- or videotape; and she encourages girls to pick a format and make it their own--with glue, glitter, photos, paint, stickers, and markers. "Glitter?" shrieks the most feminist of mommies. Is this postfeminist artsy-craftiness? Self-actualized girliness? Who cares. Our daughters face lifetimes of negotiating aesthetics, and it's good to enable them to link beauty with intellect as early as possible.

Actually, Wilber performs lots of complex feats in The Absolutely True, Positively Awesome Book About...ME!, with clear-headed hipness. She talks about the importance of privacy and suggests up-front ways to keep journals totally off-limits from parents and sibs. Way to cultivate trust. She ties journaling to the seasons with devices that would delight both Martha Stewart and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. For fall, she declares four holidays--Be Late for Something Day, Dictionary Day, Black Poetry Day, and Celebrate Louisa May Alcott Day--and invites girls to invent their own big days with special readings and writings. Wintertime brings how-to's for writing poetry and making colorful holiday paper. Spring takes girls outside for nature journaling, and summer suggestions include collecting memory stones, shells, pinecones, and leaves, to be dated and stored "so you can enjoy your treasures later." With spark and intimacy, Wilber teaches girls that writing transcends sentence structure--it's about discovery, experience, and expression. It's sensual. It's safe. It can lead to great things, self-confidence the greatest among them.

Wilber's earlier book, Totally Private & Personal: Journaling Ideas for Girls and Young Women is similar in format but speaks to older girls. Short chapters are broken up with quotes from celebs like Anne Frank, Simone de Beauvoir, and Christina Rossetti, and boxed "Check It Out" sections list books for further reading, toll-free help lines, and Web sites. Wilber covers sex ("your body should be sacred to you, so treat it with the respect it deserves," followed by top ten worst reasons to have sex); zits ("never squeeze or pick at zits because they will probably flare up even more"); and general advice--"1) love yourself, 2) be yourself, 3) always keep a journal"--all in the context of personal creative writing.

Writing exercises range from entirely nonthreatening to the nonwriter ("create a letter poem, using the letters of the word fall as the starting point of each line") to emotionally demanding and sophisticated ("write about your ideal coming-of-age ceremony; describe how you felt when you got your first period [glad? not so glad?]; make a list of ten things you love about your body").

Make sure you read through both books before you nudge them between your daughter and her toenail polish. In fact, take on a few of the writing exercises yourself. Go ahead--sit down in private and come up with "ten things you love about your body," and you'll probably feel closer to your daughter and the issues on her horizon than you would if you did like Sludge.

The Absolutely True, Positively Awesome Book About...ME! ($9.95), Totally Private & Personal: Journaling Ideas for Girls and Young Women ($8.95), and information on Jessica Wilber are available through Free Spirit Publishing in Minneapolis, (612) 338-2068, (800) 735-7323, [email protected],


Ann Rosenquist Fee regularly reviews books for Minnesota Parent.

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