Phoebe’s Diary by Phoebe Wahl
Welcome to Bellingham. The year is 2006. Teenagers smoke weed, play pool at Kendrick’s and rent movies from Trek Video. Flirting happens via flip phone and Myspace. Irony and ballet flats are in.
Phoebe is a sophomore who wears DIY skinny jeans, listens to the best indie bands and attends play rehearsals with her drama club friends. In the sanctuary of her room, she draws and writes about the complex social dynamics she encounters in high school. When we first peek inside her diary, we discover that 15-year-old Phoebe is full of desires — some material, like an iPod that won’t randomly skip around, and some intangible. She wants a BOYFRIEND, to be a Real Artist and to not feel so alone.
Spoiler: She becomes a Real Artist.
“Phoebe’s Diary” is the fictionalized and illustrated version of Phoebe Wahl’s own teenage journals. This is Wahl’s fifth book and her young adult (YA) debut. Her previous books, including “Little Witch Hazel” and the Ezra Jack Keats Award-winning “Sonya’s Chickens,” are picture books illustrated in Wahl’s lush, distinctive style of collage, colored pencil and bright watercolors.
Most pages of “Phoebe’s Diary” are illustrated with inky watercolor scenes from Phoebe’s life. In intricate, full-page illustrations, Phoebe and her friends traipse through Bellingham’s wooded trails, crowd together to watch “Rocky Horror” at a Halloween party and celebrate Passover (with real wine!) at a raucous seder. Drawings of Bellingham scenery add texture and context to Phoebe’s diary entries. Miniature still lifes and expressive portraits with speech bubbles illuminate moments that are too big to be expressed with words alone.
The illustrations in “Phoebe’s Diary” are a tribute to young people’s superpower: self-expression through style. Whenever Phoebe writes about a new character, she introduces them with a drawing that highlights their unique sartorial choices. Annie: “Definitely not on the skinny jeans train.” Nora: “Long, glorious hair like Eowyn from ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but red.”
Wahl honors the seriousness of special occasions and the clothes that accompany them with full-body illustrations of the outfits Phoebe wears to Bumbershoot, prom and her 16th birthday party.
When Phoebe starts keeping this journal in the weeks before her sophomore year, she is crushing on three different boys in her theater club. Her yearning for romantic love is a regular topic of diary entries — a chance encounter is enough to fuel days of daydreaming. By October, she has winnowed her crushes down to two, and by November, she is holding hands with someone who takes her by surprise.
As her first real relationship blossoms, Phoebe brushes up against new tensions. How can she follow her heart without leaving her best friend behind? Can she convince her big sister that she is mature enough to have sex — or at least will be by next summer?
In between significant, sometimes sporadic life updates, Phoebe confesses her obsessions, fears and insecurities. The life she leads in her head is passionate and exciting, and the real world often feels bland by comparison. Halfway through the school year, Phoebe is faced with a tough decision: Will she focus on her paintings for the Community Arts Showcase, or keep performing with her theater friends?
Speaking personally, reading “Phoebe’s Diary” as an adult was a nostalgic, bittersweet experience. I attended high school during the same years as Wahl, and this book brought me back to a simpler, less frightening time — or at least that’s how it exists in my memory. The YA readers who make up this book’s target demographic aren’t old enough to remember mix CDs, but teen angst is relatable no matter what decade you grow up in.
Phoebe’s earnestness made my heart ache for teenagers everywhere who are struggling to become their true selves. I wish I could gift this book to a younger, less secure version of myself and say, “See, it’s not just you. You’re not alone.” Wahl and her fictional counterpart give voice to the universal truths we hold inside ourselves: the desire to be loved and the vulnerability of loving others.
Reviewed by Emma Radosevich, collection development librarian, Whatcom County Library System
Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sept. 2, 2023