Francie starts a diary on December 15th, which is her thirteenth birthday. The first entry is about what the new year will bring. In January, she talks about the pretty carved box from Austria that Grandma Mary Rommely shows her and the family’s ensuing discussion about whether it’s better to be cremated or buried. Johnny also gets sick that month. By March, Neeley has taken pussy willows from a park to give to a girl he likes, though Katie insists that he is too young to like girls.
Francie’s diary entries capture the flow of her daily life, which are replete with new beginnings and things coming to an end. Mary Rommely is planning for her funeral arrangements, while Neeley is approaching adolescence and, thus, discovering his attraction to girls. In her desire to hold on to him, Katie resists this sign in his growing up.
By the beginning of April, Johnny hasn’t worked for three weeks. He is sick repeatedly for the next couple of months. Meanwhile, Sissy announces that she’s pregnant, though she shows no signs. Neeley gets a paper route in late May and, around the same time, Francie sells junk to Carney. Instead of pinching her cheek, he pinches something else. Francie gathers that she’s “getting too big to sell junk.”
As Neeley approaches his teens, he takes on the paper route because he wants the responsibility of supporting his family. Francie, meanwhile, senses that her physical development is to blame for Carney’s behavior. She doesn’t yet realize that’s he’s the one who’s inappropriate.
In June, Francie gets an A on a composition entitled “My Ambition,” in which she writes about wanting to be a playwright. Johnny continues to get sick. When Katie finds and reads Francie’s diary, she makes Francie cross out every entry in which she writes “drunk” in favor of writing “sick.” Francie hopes that her mother will respect her privacy in the future. Meanwhile, Miss Tynmore continues to teach the family compositions and Neeley can soon play Alexander’s Ragtime Band without notes. He also announces that he has a girlfriend, though Katie still insists that he is too young.
Francie’s compositions are ways of distracting herself from the unpleasant realities in her world. She focuses on pleasant things, such as the changes of the seasons and her hopes for the future. She knows that her educations in writing and music will offer a path out of her current situation. Neeley, meanwhile, continues to try to assert his independence, despite Katie’s resistance to his growing up.
Later in June, Uncle Willie gets a new horse, Bessie, who does worse than wet on him. In July, Sergeant McShane brings Johnny home when he is “sick.” The Nolans spend the first week of July playing “North Pole.” By late July, all of the money from the tin-can bank is gone. Francie gets a summer job washing dishes in Hendler’s Restaurant and Katie does some washing for Mae McGarrity. Also, Flossie Gaddis and Frank get married.
Uncle Willie remains miserable in his job as a wagon driver and the family suffers more poverty than usual when they run out of savings. Their game of “North Pole” occupies their imaginations but the game is also an exercise in endurance.
By mid-August, Johnny has another job and works steadily for three weeks. The family has “wonderful suppers,” then Johnny is “sick” again and out of work. Francie is fired from Hendler’s for being unreliable. In September, Francie enters her last year of school before high school. Miss Garnder says that, if Francie continues to get A’s in composition, Miss Garnder will let her write a play for graduation. By late September, Francie asks her mother if she can have her hair cut. Francie also looks at her nude body and sees that she is changing into a woman. By November, she confesses to her diary that she is curious about sex.
Francie, at the urging of her mother, changes “drunk” to “sick” in her diary. Katie doesn’t want Francie to acknowledge her father’s alcoholism. This may be some effort to avoid the possibility that Francie and Neeley will begin to think ill of their father. Thus, it’s better for them to think that he has an illness that is out of his control, which is actually the case when one is an alcoholic.