Let us all rise and give thanks for Susin Nielsen's amazing new book:
I picked this ARC up at the Tundra booth at ALA. My pal Kay did too. Before we even read it, we were tremendously excited. We had a conversation that went roughly like this before the USBBY panel on writing about war for young people:
Kay: I got Susin Nielsen's new -
Shannon: (interrupting as usual): Oh me too. It looks really -
Kay and Shannon: (in unison) Really good.
Kay: I think this is going to be the one to really break her into the American market.
Shannon: Me too. And then we can be all smug about it.
The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen tells the story of thirteen-year-old Henry and his dad. They have just moved to Vancouver (the entire story takes place within a three block radius of my apartment which is so cool. But I digress). Where is Henry's mom? She's in a psychiatric facility in Ontario. Why is she in a psychiatric facility? Because Henry's older brother, Jesse, took a hunting rifle to school and shot a classmate before shooting himself. Henry is now being encouraged by his hippie therapist to keep a journal as a means to help process his feelings. The results are hilarious and poignant and absolutely true-to-life. In other words, you will LOL and you will :`(
That is a crying emoticon by the way - not some weird Canadian symbol used to review stellar books.
You will just fall in love with Henry. He has gained a bit of weight since the tragedy and refers to his new un-svelte bits as his "wobblies." He loves wrestling. He never fails to notice his female neighbour's huge bazongas. When he shuts down emotionally, he will only talk in a robot voice. He is both sensitive and rude, deeply insightful and totally clueless. He is Nielsen's most authentic, hilarious character to date, which is really saying something because no one can write a middle grade character like Susin Nielsen.
This book also manages to deal with the aftermath of a school shooting in a way that is totally realistic without ever tipping over into melodrama. Like The Fault in Our Stars was so much more than a cancer book, this is so much more than a school shooting book. There are some definite tougher moments, especially around the bullying that Henry's brother endured before committing the murder-suicide, but they are quick and never unnecessary. This is solid middle grade material that is ideal for Grades 6-8 and won't traumatize your heartier Grade 5s. I think some librarians might order it because of the subject matter, but they will be pleasantly surprised to find that it makes just as big of a contribution to their humour collection as their "issue" collection. Fans of Tom Angleberger and Jack Gantos will really dig this.
When I was trying to explain this book and Susin Nielsen to my mom, she quickly interjected "I know who Susin Nielsen is, Shannon. I watched the credits of Degrassi. Credits are very important." Americans are really missing out on how awesome Degrassi Junior High was in the 1980s - the original series before Drake was on it. The coolest thing about Degrassi was the ensemble nature of the cast. A few episodes would focus on a handful of characters and then the focus would shift to other characters and their storylines. Half the fun of watching Degrassi was seeing your favourite characters walk by in the background; the actors would be principal actors in one episode and extras the next. Nielsen wrote a whole bunch of Degrassi episodes, and her mad screenwriting skillz really shine in her novels as she also takes the ensemble approach with her books. Ambrose from Word Nerd is on Henry's school trivia team. Karen from Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom is Henry's upstairs neighbour. The list goes on. I can't tell you how much kids love making these connections and reporting them to us at the information desk.
So for those of you in the know about Susin Nielsen: this book lives up to everything you are expecting and more. For those of you who are Nielsen neophytes, stock up on her stuff now so you can share in my smugness.