award winner · Contemporary · I am Canadian · review · YA

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen

13330305Hardcover, 256 pages
Published September 11th 2012 by Tundra Books
Source: ALA Winter 2013

Darker than her previous novels, Susin peoples this novel about the ultimate cost of bullying with a cast of fabulous characters, dark humour, and a lovable, difficult protagonist struggling to come to terms with the horrible crime his brother has committed.


This novel won the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature in 2012. I have heard Susin speak at an event and had the opportunity to meet her at the Winter ALA conference in Seattle. My friends, all of the ones who have read this novel, have loved it and I have a brand new hardcover signed copy!

And yet, it took me months to read it. Simply because I am a wimp and I had been told by the friends mentioned above, that this book puts you through the emotional wringer. The kind that requires tissues, perhaps even boxes of them. The novel focalizes on the titular character, Henry K. Larsen as he navigates the hellish hallways of high school with a broken family, a dead brother and regular sessions with a local shrink. The journal in question comes into being after the shrink hands Henry a notebook and tells him to journal his feelings and life. He does so but only reluctantly or so he says.

It is a difficult life and Nielsen doesn’t flinch away from exploring the dirty details. I loved that the setting is local and one I pass every time I go to UBC. It makes visualizing the story so much easier. I also like how Nielsen doesn’t gloss over the reality of living in a small apartment in a shabby complex. I love Henry and his vulnerabilities. How he is still so much a kid despite the grown up things being foisted on him by life. The novel takes a look at a family after Henry’s brother takes both his life and that of his bully with a gun owned by his father.

The novel accompanies Henry as he tries to settle in a city far from the one he used to call his own and makes friends with people the school hierarchy has deemed rejects. We see him face his demons both internal and external. We see him come to terms with the fact that parents are people too and they don’t always have the answers and they aren’t always strong. We see him get over his prejudices and just become a better person, wobblies and all.

I haven’t read anything else by Nielsen though I do own a couple of them but if they are anything like The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, I’m bound to enjoy them. Nielsen has a very frank style that removes the usual distance a reader has between themselves and the story they’re reading. I found that unsettling at first but I ended up appreciating the honesty this forces upon the narrative. If you haven’t read this book yet, do so. I promise you won’t regret it. Just keep a box of tissues around. You’re going to need it.


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