This is an important book for children – as well as a great story. Bina’s Lobell’s Super-Secret Diary, a chapter-book by author Ruchama Feuerman, addresses an issue crossing all lines of secular schools and Jewish religious schools: bullying.
Nine-year-old Bina attends a Jewish Montessori home-school with four other girls. A typical Torah-observant fourth-grader, she is a bit insecure, trying to work on her faults; asking why, if eating carrots can turn your skin orange, eating blueberries can’t turn your eyes blue; being careful about shmiras halashon; and pondering hair:
[My sister] was hogging the…mirror. “I need to get rid of the bump,” she tells me as she brushes her red hair into a ponytail. Brush, brush. She takes at least ten minutes. Maybe that’s why she gets the top of her head so smooth and flat. The top of my head is always bumpy….But Malka says all the girls at her school have smooth tops. “Every single one,” she insists…When did my little sister get so smart about hair bumps and not wearing socks with pink dots?
Above all, as is typical of any girl, Bina wants to be liked.
Bina has a best friend, Deena. Dependent upon Deena’s friendship to make her feel “whole,” she accedes even to unreasonable demands. Deena, friendly one day, haughty the next, slowly turns into a master, intimidating and freely insulting her slave. Bina accepts and integrates Deena’s opinion: She, Bina, is a nobody.
Children will empathize with Bina’s experiences as her diary records them, her pain, and her loneliness. When she independently befriends another of the small group of girls, Deena hijacks, then absconds with that friendship. Now come the whispering, the taunting, the ignoring, the exclusions of Bina...
But all is not angst. Bina’s private assessments of classmates are fourth-grade-truthful and funny, and since they are written privately, are not lashon hora.
Aviva is a brain…She’s not snobby…but she likes to learn all these facts, like, say, about…pollution…rabbits…or spiders. So now I know…that rabbits sweat through their feet, purr like cats, drink as much water as dogs, are born without fur… that there are 40,000 different kinds of spiders…living everywhere in the world except Antarctica…Sometimes she gets on my nerves…There’s no stopping her. Help!
The antagonist, Deena, is as interesting as the protagonist. Initially Deena is best-friend fun, if unpredictable. She admits jealousy of Bina’s successes and competes with her – then punishes Bina by abandoning the friendship. The ex-friend becomes spiteful, cleverly turning all against the one, yet cagey enough to play the innocent before adults. When Bina defends her adversary, the complex Deena will neither thank nor speak to her. Role-reversal is out.
Bina Lobell’s Super-Secret Diary explores the sensitivities of school children – sensitivities that surprise us by their depth. A telling moment is Bina’s diary entry once her classmates have ostracized her. “I hate everyone. And do you know who I hate most? Me.”
Ms. Feuerman has done her homework on the unhappy phenomenon of bullying. It underpins layers of a well-written, plausible, engrossing story for Jewish children. Layers include dialogue that children will like, and believable characters: a tormentor, her victim, and observers remaining silent. If Ms. Feuerman continues to write for this age group, she will help fill a lack of well-written, provoking and interesting material for Torah-observant children.