Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart

Common Sense Media says

The real-life diary of a child of nature.





What parents need to know

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Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that kids may need some help understanding Opal's strange dialect. Her love of, and attentiveness to, nature may inspire some of the same in your own children.

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What's the story?

Opal Whitely was a little orphan girl taken in by the wife of a lumberman in turn-of-the-century Oregon. A budding young naturalist and preciously gifted writer, Opal kept a journal of her difficult life on scraps of paper. When she was around twelve, a foster sister found her journal and tore it up into tiny pieces. Opal kept the pieces in a box.

In 1920 the editor of the Atlantic Monthly persuaded her to spend nine months putting all the pieces back together again, and published it. The result was a sensation, albeit a controversial one (there were some who claimed it was a hoax, though it seems clear that it's genuine). In 1976 Jane Boulton edited it down and broke up the lyrical lines into free verse poetry. This is the result.

Is it any good?


The journal, written in Opal's strange dialect that included numerous French words and phrases (and which give rise to speculation that Opal was descended from French aristocracy), is lovely, and warrants the poetic treatment. It's also not the work of a professional (most of it was done when Opal was 6), and Boulton's editing makes the whole tighter and more cohesive. Opal's tendency to see soul and intelligence and feeling in everything, living and inanimate, brings her world to magical, shimmering life, and hearkens back to animist and pagan religions.

This is clearly not a book for every kid, or even for many. There's no plot, little action, and a confusing abundance of characters, both human and animal. But for children who love nature, and language, the way Opal did it could be entrancing, and any reader will be inspired to look at their own world through Opal's eyes. This gentle, visionary journal is perfect for sharing in small doses between adult and child, and would be a perfect companion on hikes, picnics, and camping trips.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about humans' connection with the natural world. Do you think people are as close to nature now as they used to be? Why or why not?

Book details

Author:Opal Whiteley
Book type:Non-Fiction
Publisher:Random House
Publication date:January 23, 2005
Number of pages:185

This review of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart was written by

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