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.
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.
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.
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.