Tag Archives: YA fiction

“The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen”: healing with literature

Susin Nielsen is a genius. She writes for teens, but she had me hooked. Her novel The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen had me fighting with my students over the school copy of the book. This book is about Henry and his journal that his counsselor makes him write after his brother’s death. The entire book is a glimpse into the world of teens living with trauma and trying their best to survive.


Source: https://www.amazon.ca/Reluctant-Journal-Henry-K-Larsen/dp/1770496548

My teenage self connected with Henry is several ways:

  • I loved wrestling growing up, and I loved watching it with my family.
  • I love trivia and watching Jeopardy and would have loved to join a quiz team in high school
  • I was also hassled and bullied during school and dreaded encounters with certain groups of boys
  • I had amazing friends in junior high and high school who liked me for me, weirdness and all.

As a teacher, this book was hard to read because most of the negative interactions happened in the halls and stairwells, locker rooms and cafeteria. There isn’t much power teachers have in helping kids survive the horrors of being bullied 100% of the time. As much as teachers long for a safe school and a group of empathetic kids, that’s not always the case. Power struggles are real and this books was a reminder, a funny reminder at times, yet a reminder that being a teenager is so hard.


Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/493636809126860552/

Today in my Gr 8 Health class, we were talking about emotions and healthy ways to share and express emotions. Kids know what happens when they bottle up emotions. We watched Inside Out and talked about what happens when we get to that place where we don’t feel anything at all. We looked up websites and centres where teens could go to get help. I sincerely hope that parents are having these same conversations at home, yet I know that’s not always the case. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “real boys don’t cry” and “good girls smile more.” It’s easy to default to societal norms, yet that’s what bogs down teens: they don’t know what is normal, what is weird, what is healthy, what is unhealthy, and who to talk to about all of this. So I am grateful to the arts for once again allowing us an opportunity to have these important conversations.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is a book that encourages teens with a broken family to have hope. Life might suck, yet there are always people around and those people make life worth living. Henry’s mother is in Ontario in a mental illness hospital, his dad works long hours at a construction job, and his older brother is is a box under his dad’s mattress. That’s rough. Yet the neighbours in their Vancouver apartment building become family. Through his journal and through his conversations with his school friends and his neighbours, Henry starts to heal and start to live life again. Neilsen doesn’t sugar-coat life, instead she shows true depth of feeling and pain in the midst of a truly horrible situation. Life never turns out how we want or plan, yet that doesn’t stop Henry from losing all hope. What an amazing story of resiliency for teens to read.


Source: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/resilience-quotes/

Teens reading about teens in well-written books that include humour is an amazing way to engage reluctant readers and to help teens see positive ways of expressing their emotions. I think of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian and Susin Neilsen’s other book We Are All Molecules. These books use humour as a way in for teens to see that they are not alone. What a powerful message.  So thank you Susin Neilsen and other YA authors who are tackling really hard topics and doing it with respect, humour, and depth.


Source: http://blog.book-pal.com/education/25-teachers-who-have-seen-books-change-lives


“God Loves Hair”: growing up

Here is another young adult book on my summer reading list. It is actually a collection of short short stories by Vivek Shraya.

Source: http://vivekshraya.com/books/god-loves-hair

In this collection, Vivek Shraya moves from childhood into adolescence and all of the shocking and confusing and inspiring things that come along with becoming an adult. In this case, Vivek explores “sexuality, gender, racial politics, religion, and belonging” (from Vivek Shraya’s website). I cannot relate to wanting to shave my face, but I can certainly relate to wanting to shave my legs. The pain of being bullied in Junior High is very real in Shraya’s stories. I love his description of Junior High: “Junior High has marked the sudden death of sweat pants. They have been replaced by name-brand denim and name calling which will continue every day for the next six years” (55). Almost every one you talk to has similar memories of Junior High. It almost seems like a test: if you can survive Junior High then you can survive anything life throws at you.

Throughout the collection of stories I couldn’t help by think, YES! to some of his descriptions. When his friends tries to get him to dye his hair red, Shraya’s reaction is perfect: “This is my induction, my own episode of My So-Called Life. I am Angela Chase to her [Vicky’s] Rayanne Graff” (71). My favourite TV show!!

I went to England for a summer to stay with my cousins and aunt and uncle. While there, my cousin and I got into a routine: ham sandwiches, The Crystal Maze TV show, and always My So-Called Life. Then an ice cream sandwich. Glory days! What more could a 13-year-old girl and her cousin of the same age want?

Source: http://www.thefrisky.com/photos/8-best-bff-costumes/angela_rayanne_101111_m/

My So-Called Life was an important show, especially if you were tired of Degrassi. My So-Called Life looked at so many issues that face teens and it never trivialized them. I feel like Shraya’s God Loves Hair is the same: it looks at growing up in an honest, humorous, yet respectful way. He writes about depression, suicide, gender identity, puberty, sexuality, faith, and just being human.

This is an important collections of stories for teens to read to know that it is ok to be different and to ask questions. Shaya’s ending is fabulous; after finding a picture of Ardhanaraeeshwara, a half male and half female deity, he writes: “I am not invisible anymore” (pg 110).

Every teenager needs that message: they are not invisible!

“The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)

“This project [film What I Love About Being Queer] is about celebrating our resilience, that we find ways to love this part of ourselves in spite of—and sometime through—the struggle.” (Vivek Shraya interview)

Source: http://vivekshraya.com/news/2012/06/12/what-do-you-love-about-being-queer-new-tumblr/