The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen is exactly that, a journal kept by 13-year-old protagonist Henry as mandated by his psychologist, the ponytail sporting Cecil. The book begins in Vancouver, where Henry and his father have recently moved after a horrific event, “IT,” happened to their family. Henry’s mom is in Ontario with her parents, visiting a psychologist and then entering a facility. As a reader, there is a sense that the family that Neilsen introduces at the beginning of the book is much changed from the way they were before.
In Vancouver, Henry is finding it impossible to move on from what happened to his family; his bullied brother Jesse took matters into his own hands when principals, teachers, and students did not. He lives in a rented apartment with his dad, and tries to keep the secret of his family and what happened to them before they moved to Vancouver. The book moves from the present to the past, as Henry reconstructs the events leading up to IT, and the way high school bullying ruined the life of his brother.
As a 13-year-old, Henry seems incredibly young for his age, reverting to tactics that would seem much more suited to a protagonist under the age of 10 than one well into adolescence. I really thought I was reading about a ten-year-old, or at least a character who had not yet left elementary school. For Henry to be already in middle school was a stretch while reading this book.
As well, in the background of the book is an emphasis on a fictional international wrestling federation with characters and storylines that are based largely on those who actually populate the world of WWE. I would have loved to see the real characters, maneuvers, and storylines of WWE in this book, rather than fictional ones that are loosely based on reality. WWE is something that appeals so much to adolescents, and a recognition of the same stories that they watch being played out on WWE in book form might have added to the realism of the book. The high school competition Reach for the Top also makes an appearance, as Henry is on his new school’s team, which gives the book a similar feel to something like E. L. Konigsberg’s The View from Saturday (there are many questions and answers interspersed throughout the book!). Neilson’s new book is a quick read that uses a journal entry form to communicate its material, and the way bullying can change a family forever.