Daphne’s Book: isolation, cars, stories

Daphne’s Book, Mary Downing Hahn. 1983.

It must have been 1988 or ’89 that I got hold of this one. I re-read Daphne’s Book often, but not all the way through, because I only liked being in one particular time of this book.

Daphne’s Book is told in the first person by Jessica, a seventh-grader. Her English teacher designates all of his students into teams of two for an inter-school Write-a-Book competition, in which the winning students will have their picture-book published. Jessica is assigned to work with Daphne, who is weird, arty, and essentially mute. Daphne is the seventh grade’s designated scapegoat, and Jessica is desperate to get out of associating with her, although the clear subtext is that she is beautiful, raven-haired and dresses like Stevie Nicks.

As the pair of them create a children’s story together, Jessica discovers a Terrible Secret, and must decide whether or not to keep it. Of course, a children’s novelist can never let a young person do that for long. What Daphne is hiding is that she and her sister, who are orphaned, live alone with a grandmother who is too demented to take care of herself or anyone else. She is afraid of being thrown into foster care, and her grandmother dying alone. But once Jessica has gotten help, friendly relatives materialize, and Daphne can take her sister with her to a wonderful new home.

I was a fifth-grader when I read this, not a seventh-grader. The carefree teenage life I saw in ads and TV was always just around the corner, and Jessica’s class had it in spades. They walked to school — walked! by themselves! — and to anywhere else they cared to be, especially woods and meadows. The popular girls teased their hair into wings and hung out at the skating rink. Me, I wasn’t allowed to walk any farther than the mailbox on the next block, and the local rink had gotten “too dangerous.” Stuck with car culture, not old enough to drive — those hazy, boring, restless years you spend in flyover country before high school.

Daphne and Jessica lived in Maryland, not that I knew anything about it. It was a place with woods, where the two of them could wander off for hours and make up stories for their book, with Jessica’s toy mice. I had a friend or two, but I did not have anyone who would write stories with me, and certainly no one I dared tell the stories I made up for myself. I still, every so often, played with my Barbies and She-Ra, to help myself tell a story.

I liked Daphne. I liked that she wore strange layers of clothing and didn’t speak when she didn’t want to. She didn’t lose her temper when she was teased, the way I did. The teachers liked her art. They didn’t like mine. I wasn’t chosen to be in the advanced art classes.

I never re-read the part of the book after Daphne was taken away from her grandmother. I could see that everything was as it was supposed to be, and that Daphne and her sister were finally happy and safe, but that wasn’t interesting. What was interesting was the idea that you could have a friend who understood what you did, what you thought.