Review: Phoebe's Diary

Phoebe's Diary

by Phoebe Wahl

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2023

Category: Young Adult
Reviewer: Sylvie Shaffer

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Drawn (literally, on many pages) from her actual teen diaries, Phoebe’s Diary depicts in illustrated journal-entries — equal parts cottagecore-cozy and cringe-inducingly honest — a year or so in the life of white, Jewish, teenage Phoebe in 2006 Bellingham, Washington.

Phoebe navigates school (she’s mostly homeschooled and only takes electives at the local high school), crushes, and friendships with her tight-knit crew of drama-kid friends, and falls into horny, teenage love. Eventually, after some character-establishing family vacationing and unrequited crushes, much of the book is devoted to documenting her first relationship with fellow drama-kid (and fellow Jew!), hunky Sam Goldman. In addition to exploring her budding sexuality and her identity as both an artist and a patron of the arts, the journal chronicles teen Phoebe’s vulnerable and joyful rants and questionings about vintage fashion, indie music, friendship and family drama. Along the way, Phoebe attends Shabbat dinners and synagogue services with Sam’s family, lights Chanukah candles with her family (who also celebrate Christmas a few pages later) and sings at two Passover Seders, cohosting one.

Wahl’s renderings in both text and illustration of Jewish identity are noteworthy in that while there’s SO MUCH angst in these pages, even in moments where she acknowledges insecurities around her Jewish identity, such as when attending synagogue services with Sam’s family, “which was cool but also made me feel silly and not like a real Jew because I didn’t know all the prayers...” (p.286) these feelings are portrayed with the same emotional weight as her longing for skinny jeans that fit her fat body. Neither Wahl’s Jewish practice nor her body shape are presented as problematic or things she wishes to change, simply parts of who she is and how she moves through the world. Her body isn’t the problem; rather, the fashion industry is. Her self-reflection about not knowing the prayers isn’t a call to change that about herself; it’s just observation without judgment. Besides, it pales next to her gaffe of snacking on communion wafers when she accompanies a Catholic pal to church on the next page. Ooops.

So is the book a contender for the Sydney Taylor Book Award? I’m not sure, given the proportionally small amount of Jewish content, especially in a year with so many terrific competing titles in the YA space. While ultimately it’ll be up to the Real Committee to determine, my feeling is that the thrust of the plot (although to be clear, there’s not so much *plot* here as there are *vibes*) centers Phoebe's identity formation around her romantic and sexual awakening, as well as her self-actualization as an artist. While the author’s/character’s Judaism is a throughline of the book in that there’s space allotted to it — especially in the artwork!— those moments simply highlight one facet of her identity, much like her love for indie rock and vintage clothing, which also allocated significant space.

While it remains to be seen whether Phoebe's Diary will garner a Sydney Taylor Book Award medal, I do sincerely believe it should earn a Notable citation. It IS undeniably notable that Phoebe’s Diary, unlike many (most?) of the Jewish historical fiction YA books published:
  • Is set in the 21st century in the American Pacific Northwest (rather than the 19th or 20th century in Europe or the Lower East Side)
  • Contains zero references to the Shoah or pogroms
  • Presents Jewish life and experiences not under threat of antisemitism
  • Centers a romance between two Jewish teens while highlighting the diversity and range of Jewish religious practices even within a small community
  • Is illustrated gorgeously in a way that enriches the story, characters, setting, and tone of the novel, despite not being a graphic novel
  • Affirms Jewish experience and identity for Jewish readers and also effectively normalizes Jewish life for non-Jewish readers.
Phoebe, if you’re reading this, PLEASE publish more Jewish content! 
Select illustrations from Phoebe's Diary

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Reviewer Sylvie Shaffer is the preK-8 librarian at the Capitol Hill Day School in Washington, DC and holds dual masters degrees in Library Science and Children's Literature from Simmons University. Sylvie served on AJL's 2019 and 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Awards also on ALSC's 2018 Geisel Committee. You can find her online at