The Reluctant Diary of Henry K. Larsen, by Susin Nielsen, has a lot going for it. It is one of those books that I couldn’t put down until I was finished, and couldn’t stop thinking about afterward. With likable and very realistic characters and a style that is both hilarious and sad, Nielsen takes the all-to0-real subject of bullying and shows her readers every side of the story. This book doesn’t treat the underlying issues lightly, but it will probably make you laugh. A lot.
Henry K. Larsen doesn’t want to keep a journal, but his psychologist thinks it will be good for him. Henry would rather not think, talk, or write about his feelings; once he has moved in with just his father in their cramped new apartment and enrolled in his new school, he would prefer to remain pretty much invisible:
“When you get older…you learn that it’s best to fly under the radar. I know I can’t change my stupid red hair or my stupid freckles. But I can lower my freak flag.”
It’s not just growing up that is making Henry want to disappear. Henry’s family has just undergone a harrowing tragedy. His family has been ostracized by their entire hometown, and he and his father have picked up and moved across Canada. Henry’s mother is no longer living with them. Worst of all, his older brother, Jesse, is dead after leaving the house early for school one morning with his father’s rifle.
Understandably, Henry wants to escape from the grief, loss, and guilt that he feels surrounding his brother’s death. Through his journal entries (which he claims he doesn’t want to write and yet still faithfully pens every day), we begin to learn about Henry K. Larsen. It turns out that Henry is funny, intelligent, and interesting. He loves professional wrestling (something that his entire family used to watch together every week), and he’s fantastic at trivia. The problem is, Henry doesn’t see the good things about himself; he sees a kid who could get picked on in school like his brother Jesse did, especially if anyone found out about the awful tragedy (which he refers to as “IT”) that happened in his old town.
When Farley, who seems like the geekiest kid in school—and, Henry worries, the subject of plenty of torment—decides to befriend him, Henry does everything he can to avoid it. No, he does not want to join the trivia team. No, he does not want to hang out with Farley and play video games or watch ‘Saturday Night Smash-Up’. For all of his reluctance to open up to people around him, it is the small kindnesses of Henry’s neighbours and his classmates that begin to show him that he is not alone.
Nielsen treats loss and grief with the same sensitivity that Alan Silberberg does in his (also funny-sad and great) book Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze. Henry’s story also reminded me of of the (wonderful) Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, as Henry grapples with the cruelties of bullying.
I am not the only one who enjoyed The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen; it won the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award for children’s literature, and came highly recommended by our own staff (Kayleigh had nothing but good things to say about it). This is the sort of book that perfectly captures the trials of being a young teenager, while dealing with a very real issue. I can’t do it justice here, but I can tell you that it’s an important book and a great book. Please, check it out!