Reviewed by Stephanie Dror
Susin Nielsen, accomplished TV scriptwriter (Degrassi Junior High and cocreator of Robson Arms) and author of young teen fiction (Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mother and Word Nerd), uses her skill, experience and humour in her affecting 2012 Governor General Awardwinning, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen.
Thirteen-year-old Henry has just moved to Vancouver with his dad. His new high school is typical with students divided into pods – jocks, stoners, nerds and bullies. Henry, who describes himself as a pygmy with a lowered freak flag and a bad case of the wobblies, finds that, despite his best efforts at living the rest of his life as a wallflower, he is a nerd magnet.
Henry, like other Nielsen protagonists, finds salvation in words when he is forced to keep a journal by his hippie therapist, Cecil. The purpose of the journal is to confront "IT," which provides the story with its mystery and dark undertow, and is revealed to be the incident where his older brother killed the boy who bullied him in school and then took his own life. The lives of Henry and his family were shattered, leading to the move and is parents' separation.
While friendships begin to form in Vancouver, both with the nerds at school and the eccentrics in his apartment building, Henry begins the long road of recovery. The slow reveal of the tragedy is deftly handled by Nielsen, as Henry, at first reluctant, becomes an affective memoirist keenly documenting, with humour and heart, both his outer and inner worlds.
While at its core The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is an "issues story", it is an impressive one as it takes the viewpoint of both victim and perpetrator and accounts for both the tragic and comic ways that life plays out. The journal highlights the depth of character that Henry (and in turn all of us) have, despite the events and choices that have stained him. He has had to grow up faster than his peers, but he is also an innocent thirteen-year-old nerd obsessed with Saturday Night Smash Up and infatuated with a classmate named Alberta. Nielsen injects humour into the story in a way that balances the drama of Henry's ordeal with the honesty with which he confronts his feelings, and is both disarming and endearing.
This is a middle grade novel suitable for ages 10 and up, though the issues dealt with are quite intense they are met with gentle humour and wonderful character. I would also recommend it to older readers and adults who have a child in their life that is dealing with bullying or is a bully themselves. Otherwise, if you are a reader that is particularly fond of realism, style and character development you will enjoy it. It reads similar, if a little younger than, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.