Partially inspired by the Columbine High School massacre, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen won the 2012 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature. Susin Nielsen’s 2012 youth novel tells the story of Henry Larsen, a teenager who is forced to confront his feelings and learn how to carry on after his bullied, outcast brother commits a school shooting. It was also named the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children and received the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award.
Raised in London and Chatham, Ontario, Susin Nielsen began her writing career working on the television series Degrassi Junior High in 1988. In between writing episodes for the show, she wrote four tie-in novels for young adults. The experience encouraged Nielsen to think about writing original novels. She spent the next two decades working primarily in television, but she published her first youth novel, Word Nerd, to acclaim in 2008. Her second novel, Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, was released in 2010.
Nielsen was inspired to write The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen after reading Wally K. Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed. It is set in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting of 1999. Nielsen learned for the first time that one of the shooters had a school-age brother. She wondered what it would be like for the family members “left behind” after such an act.
The novel is structured as the journal of 13-year-old Henry Larsen, who lives in Vancouver, BC. Henry begins the journal at the suggestion of his psychologist, Cecil, who Henry suspects is “not the crème de la crème of psychologists.” The journal is Cecil’s way of trying to get Henry to open up about a traumatic experience in his recent past, which Henry initially only refers to as “IT.”
Henry resists offering specifics about IT. He only recently moved to Vancouver and is living in a small apartment with his father. Henry is surrounded by annoying neighbours, including Mr. Atapattu, a Home Shopping Network devotee who makes pungent curries; and Karen, who Henry suspects is trying to “steal” his dad from his absent mother.
At his new school, Henry makes friends with Farley Wong, the “nerdiest looking kid” Henry has ever seen. Though he knows being friends may be social suicide, he and Farley bond over their mutual love of professional wrestling. Farley also encourages Henry to join the school’s Reach for the Top team — a club that competes against other schools in trivia contests. On the team, Henry meets Alberta, a punk-ish girl for whom he slowly develops feelings.
Inspired by his nerdy new friends, Henry begins privately reflecting on his brother, Jesse. A social outcast at Henry’s former school in Port Salish, BC, Jesse was tormented by a school bully. Jesse stole their father’s rifle, took it to school and shot the bully; he then committed suicide. Henry doesn’t talk to anyone about the incident and is reluctant even in his journal to discuss how he feels about it.
Henry must also navigate his new, fraught social world. His mother is staying in a psychiatric facility in Ontario. Henry’s father works construction jobs and drinks heavily. Henry gradually warms to Mr. Atapattu, who makes meals for Henry and his father and joins them to watch wrestling. Henry also becomes closer with Farley and Alberta but still regards Karen with suspicion, refusing to allow his father to see her.
Over spring break, Henry travels to Ontario to see his mother, expecting that she will soon come live with them in Vancouver. When she opts to stay for more treatment, Henry explodes at her, blaming her for Jesse’s actions. When he returns, he learns his father met with Karen and feels betrayed by both parents. Karen eventually confronts Henry and tells him that her father committed suicide. She explains to him that the things he is trying to avoid feeling will never go away and must be dealt with.
Back at school, Henry learns that money he and Farley had collected to attend a wrestling event was stolen. When the school bully shows up with a new, expensive gadget, Henry steals and smashes it, leading to him being seriously injured by the bully. Henry then comes to accept that he must confront his feelings. He confesses the truth to his friends and attempts to be more understanding toward his parents — particularly his mother, who moves to Vancouver to be with them.
Shortly after it was published, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larson received the 2012 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature. The jury cited the book as “thought-provoking and relevant, [addressing] the effects of bullying in a realistic, compelling and compassionate way.” The book went on to receive the 2013 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award and the 2013 Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children.
Reviewers were generally positive, frequently citing the book’s compassion and sense of humour, particularly in light of its difficult themes. Kirkus Reviews said Henry’s story was “a realistic, poignant portrait of one teen who overcomes nearly unbearable feelings of grief and guilt,” while the School Library Journal called it “an insightful and nuanced novel about bullying and suicide, and familial love and resilience.”