Notebook Narratives

  • Susin Nielsen
    The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen. Tundra Books (purchase at
  • Douglas Coupland and Graham Roumieu (Illustrator)
    Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People. Vintage Canada (purchase at
Reviewed by Philip Miletic

There are at least two forms of writing that young people take to: the journal and doodling with (sometimes) an accompanying story. Both these modes of writing are often therapeutic and are revealing of the young person, as well as what s/he is writing/doodling about. Both the journal and doodling, whether out of boredom in a classroom or before going to bed, are ways for a young person to understand the world in which s/he is struggling to grow up in. Susin Nielsen’s The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen and Douglas Coupland and Graham Roumieu’s Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People each present one of these two modes of writing, Nielsen’s the journal, and Coupland and Roumieu’s the doodle with an accompanying story. Although both books deal with contemporary issues that young people encounter with a humourous slant, one excels above the other.

Written by Coupland and illustrated by Roumieu, Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People contains seven short tales of “seven evil characters you can’t help but love.” These miscreants include (to name just a few) Donald, the “Incredibly Hostile Juice Box”; Kevin, the “Hobo Minivan with Extremely Low Morals”; Sandra, the “Truly Dreadful Babysitter.” Just gleaning these titles reveals the content’s satirical tone. But do not be misled by these straightforward names; the tales’ satirical content is more complex than the titles may suggest. For instance, although Sandra, the babysitter, asks the kids she babysits to steal or start a fire, the narrative notes that despite the kids’ instincts, they obey Sandra because they were always taught to either “respect your elders” or “raised to try to see the good in people.” What these kids are not taught, and what this inappropriate tale posits, is that they should trust their own judgments and instincts, that they should have some sort of autonomy and not just rely on adult dictums and authority.

Roumieu’s illustrations are a wonderful accompaniment to Coupland’s absurd tales, elevating the humour by providing a visualization of these miscreants and their victims. I am curious whether the illustrations or the tales came first. At times the text appears to be playing off the illustrations, and at other times the illustrations are playing off the text. The playfulness of these two forms creates an entertaining dynamic, but I felt that this playfulness trumps the satire of the book’s stories. Although hilarious and entertaining, the “punch lines” of each tale fall flat for me, the satire feeling empty at times.

Susin Nielsen’s The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, on the other hand, contains much lighter (and less grotesque) humour to discuss a poignant concern of young people today: bullying. The novel is in the form of Henry K. Larsen’s journal, an activity his psychologist prescribed to him. Despite his reluctance to write, Henry is continually drawn to the journal, and the result is an intimate, funny, but also incredibly sad, tale of Henry’s self-recovery and self-reinvention after a traumatizing “worst-case bully scenario.” To reveal this scenario would ruin how Henry confronts this issue. But let it suffice to say that the scenario is the worst-case of bully scenarios.

Nielsen’s novel is a well-written and -handled story of a very touchy subject. Although the journal format is a tad unrealistic with full, detailed conversations, the journal nonetheless effectively provides an insightful and intimate look at Henry’s maturation. Henry grows from speaking “robot voice,” which “strips emotion out of everything,” and criticizing others’ shortcomings to appreciating and loving those with the strangest of quirks. The Global Wrestling Foundation (Henry’s favourite form of entertainment) stands in as a metaphor for the blurriness of good vs. evil. All people (the novel suggests), including “bullies,” should not be categorized in binary terms. As Henry’s neighbour tells him, people do horrible things but this does not mean they are horrible people. Nielsen does not wrap everything up in a neat package; rather, she ends the novel once Henry has matured and learned that he has to confront the difficulties and ambiguities of life ahead, an ending I believe keeps Nielsen’s novel grounded.

Appropriate or inappropriate, both these books are widely entertaining and do not disappoint. Whereas Inappropriate Tales is a book you pick up and share with others and have a good laugh, The Reluctant Journal is a novel that you sit down with and think through to consider the struggles that Henry encounters. Either way, both books allow the reader to see what a young adult’s notebook might look like and the narrative it constructs.

This review “Notebook Narratives” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 146-48.

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