Word Nerd // The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen – Susin Nielsen

Can someone please explain to me how I managed to live for 24.5 years without reading a Susin Nielsen book? Like, I realize it’s been a while since I was actually in the middle grade range, but when has that ever stopped me from reading a good MG novel? Never, that’s when.

Anyway, I read two of Susin’s books this week and I loved both of them.

Word Nerd

Ambrose is a twelve-year-old, self-described nerd with an overprotective mother. Despite his mother’s warnings, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with their landlords’ ex-con son, Cosmo, through a shared love of Scrabble: Ambrolse learned to play with is mother, Cosmo learned to play in prison.

In this brilliantly observed novel, author Susin Nielsen transports the reader to the world of competitive Scrabble as seen from the honest yet funny viewpoint of a boy who’s searching for acceptance and for a place to call home.

I’m not a fantastic Scrabble player, but after reading this, I want to lug my Scrabble board out of my closet and just play forever or at least until I’m as good as Ambrose (which could probably take forever).

It’s written from Ambrose’s perspective; I’m not sure how Susin does it, but she manages to capture the voice of a twelve-year-old boy pretty much perfectly (or, at least, she portrays him the way I imagine a twelve-year-old boy would behave, since I’ve never been a boy). He’s funny and quirky and a genuinely engaging narrator. You have to feel for the guy sometimes, with his somewhat overbearing mother, and his friendship with Cosmo is really sweet.

I just realized how I’ve been picturing them:

Except Cosmo thankfully doesn’t end up with Ambrose’s mom (it would have been weird). Plus, I liked how charming Cosmo became once he met Amanda.

When the protagonist almost dies in the first chapter after being fed a peanut by the school bully, you know you’re in for a good time. Word Nerd did not disappoint.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen

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. 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 keeps a journal, at first he is resistant. But soon he confides in it at all hours of the day and night.

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.

I keep saying this, but it deserves repeating: the next time someone tries to argue that MG/YA novels don’t deal with “important issues”, I’m going to throw a copy of this book in their face.

Not only does it deal with suicide as a result of bullying, but it also touches on school shootings and the aftermath, especially for the victims’ families. It was inspired by an article Susin read about the Columbine shootings; it’s also reminiscent of that really sad One Tree Hill episode (you know the one I’m talking about).

This was a powerful and poignant read. Henry’s feelings are so well described, I actually felt emotional when he finally revealed what Jesse had done. The events leading up to Jesse’s decision to take the gun to school are horrifying and, sadly, representative of the type of bullying kids these days really do experience. You genuinely feel sorry for the Larsen family and, like Henry, you can’t help but wish you could go back and change the outcome.

I don’t know how many other MG novels talk about school shootings or suicide, but I think it’s a really important discussion to have – the earlier the better.

On a happier note, Susin is one of those authors who mentions characters from previous novels: in this case, Ambrose (from Word Nerd) pops up in a cute cameo appearance. I love it when authors build worlds like this, don’t you?

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