For this week’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, I’m going to review another Canadian author with another book set in the lovely lower mainland of BC, where I live. THE RELUCTANT JOURNAL OF HENRY K. LARSEN, by Susin Nielsen. Here’s the blurb from the publisher:
Thirteen-year-old Henry’s happy, ordinary life comes to an abrupt halt when his older brother Jesse picks up their father’s hunting rifle and leaves the house one morning, before the family is awake. What follows shatters Henry’s family, who are forced to resume their lives in a new city, where no one knows their past. When Henry’s therapist suggests he keep a journal to record his thoughts and feelings, he is resistant. But, soon, he confides in it at all hours of the day and night.
In spite of Henry’s desire to “fly under the radar,” he eventually befriends a number of oddball characters, both at school and in his modest apartment building. And even though they know nothing about his past – at least, not yet – they help him navigate the waters of life after “IT.”
I devoured this book in a single sitting despite it being around 65,000 words long. I was extremely caught up in Henry’s anxiety, his pain and his terrible secret. His character was well drawn and believable, with motivations and actions that made sense. The plot moved along at a very fast clip and the immediacy of the journal format suited this. I never felt that the journal entries were implausible for a thirteen year old and yet the author didn’t fall into the trap of making this all “voice” and no substance. There is substance galore in Henry’s character and his story.
Most of the supporting characters worked perfectly as being reflected in the eyes of a thirteen year old. Their motivations are maybe not so clear, but that is also Henry’s perception, which makes sense. I had a bit of a problem with Farley, as he is expressed as a kind of cartoonish nerd, pocket protector and all. This felt out of place in this book, and since he is Asian, a bit of a negative stereotype. I have met many Chinese kids in Vancouver who live just like Farley, but none of them are cartoonish nerds. The love interest, Alberta was very fun though and I loved that she was chubby and a bit of a b*tch.
I enjoyed this book very much, but I’m a little concerned about the market for it. While Henry is thirteen some of the language and subject matter felt a little strong for middle grade. Personally I don’t mind but I think this book might have problems getting into school libraries. As I read an eARC, maybe the language will be softened for publication. A character says “sh*t” for example, when perhaps “crap” would do just as well. If Henry was a little older I wouldn’t be so concerned. Despite the dark subject matter, it is hard to get older teens to read books about younger kids. So that’s a catch 22.
As I said, I don’t care about strong language in kids books, so I would recommend this book to competent readers aged 11 and up.
For this week’s I Can’t Wait to Read I’m going with LIAR & SPY by Rebecca Stead. I adored WHEN YOU REACH ME and this one sounds just as good.
When seventh grader Georges (the S is silent) moves into a Brooklyn apartment building, he meets Safer, a twelve-year-old coffee-drinking loner and self-appointed spy. Georges becomes Safer’s first spy recruit. His assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend?
Liar & Spy is an inspired, often-funny story about destiny, goofy brilliance, and courage. Like Stead’s Newbery Medal-winning When You Reach Me, it will keep readers guessing until the end. (From Amazon)
Great cover, great author, great premise. LIAR & SPY will be released on August 7th. Wishlisted!
10 thoughts on “Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE RELUCTANT JOURNAL OF HENRY K. LARSEN by Susin Nielsen”
You know, this sounds like the type of book perfect for my son. At 14, some middle grade is too young and much YA focuses on boyfriend/girlfriend stuff, which he’s not into either.
There’s a smidge of romance, and I love that the love interest is chubby!
I don’t know a teen that doesn’t want to “fly under the radar”. It sounds like Henry has some valid reasons for doing so. I love books that provide accurate voice and substance, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy this, as would my grandson. Thanks for telling us about it!
Cool! I’m excited about Liar & Spy, too–it sounds like just the mix of mystery and contemporary themes that I enjoy reading and writing! Thanks for the tip 🙂
Hello! I just found your blog and LOVE it. I was wondering if you can give me some input on whether you think The Journal of Henry Larsen would make a good school-wide read aloud….I do this every year with my school where we pick one book and have all the teachers read it to their kids. Is it too dark? Could teachers substitute certain words? I loved Word Nerd and Dear Mr. Clooney.
Thanks for your advice!
I’m not sure what grades you are talking about but the plot concerns a shooting and a humiliating assault which are both discussed in detail.
Thanks so much for that! Hmmm…I don’t know if it will fly for the beginning of the year. Do you have any suggestions for a school-wide read for the beginning of the year? I’m at a middle school and just getting back from a sabbatical so I am a bit out of the loop with current titles. In the past, I have done Run, Schooled, and Jolted with my school and they all worked fabulously.
Love your blog and will surely be reading it regularly when I am back in the library in September.
Thank you again if you can offer any suggestions!
Would you consider a verse novel? May B or The One And Only Ivan are both very good and uncontroversial.
I LOVED Word Nerd and When You Reach Me. And May B. I will track the other books down. And I will devour them. Mwahahaha.