Julian Twerski’s honest, self-deprecating and waggish voice finds its way to your heart before he’s uttered as much as a sentence. And by the time he’s finished unburdening his conscience of the highs, lows and hilarities of his year, he’s right up there on your favourites shelf with Spinelli (Stargirl), Palacio (Wonder) and Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me). This sixth-grader really has a way with words.
We know from the beginning he’s writing this journal for his involvement in a bullying incident, for which he and his friends were suspended. His teacher suspects that writing about it will help Julian process what happened, and hopefully learn from it. He’s not wrong.
While Julian narrates many things that occurred that year, somehow the whole book is part of his reflection on that final, regrettable event, and the part he played. He begins with a recount of a ‘pigeon incident’ which allows the reader to see the peer dynamics of his group of friends. To Goldblatt’s authorial credit, we can detect Julian’s change of tone even by the time he finishes the first chapter. Score one for the teacher.
One of the most impressive elements of this story is the change in the protagonist. More than witnessing the mere fact of his change, we are privileged to travel with him through the process. To read, in the first few chapters, sentences like,
“I hate Shakespeare. I know that’s hard for English teachers to hear, but it’s the truth.”
is possibly realistic—perhaps disappointing—in a sixth-grade boy, but to read just chapters later that he goes back to his dreaded fourth grade memorisation speech “What a piece of work is man!” and concludes “That’s life in a nutshell, if you ask me”, and to hear why he’s changed his mind makes this a gem among middle grade novels. Julian’s pejorative comments about people, too, are often reassessed by the end… this change is just one among many that take place in the process of writing the journal.
Julian’s account couldn’t feel more authentic. We experience his writer’s block, his sixth-grader embarrassment, his playing up to his teacher, and we’re even sometimes able to see through his account of events to get a better picture than he himself has put in words. Somehow Goldblatt makes the reader identify with Julian, his teacher, his parent, his friend and even his victim, all at the same time. That’s just remarkable.
The second most impressive thing about this story is that Goldblatt makes deep thinking accessible to young readers. He meets us with sixth grade jokes but by the end has us pondering the meaning of life. We go from learning about how his friends got their nicknames (like Shlomo Shlomo, whose mum always calls him twice for dinner) to an hilarious account of a fire cracker incident (entitled ‘Quentin’s Eyebrows’) which had me laughing buckets of tears, to his clever jabs at his teacher (whom he knows will have to read them),
“So you guys can go back to talking about the usual stuff, like whether to erase the blackboard from top to bottom, or from side to side, or around and around in a mishmash.”
to his thinking through what he’s learned in class (and the times he’s put his foot in it), to wondering about his bar mitzvah, to his being mad at God for the grievances of his sixth-grade life, his regret for being so and his reflections on life and suffering and mistakes and beginning again. About three quarters through he’s dazzling us with statements like,
“That’s what it means to be a man. You do what you think is right, regardless of who it hurts, and whether it works out, because in the end you have to live with yourself.”
There are a few things to be aware of for young readers, not least of which is the bullying incident recounted at the end (wait for it, don’t jump ahead!). There’s also a brief romance which doesn’t get beyond the first date to an amusement park, a barbeque at a friend’s house where her supposedly attractive mother is noted lounging by the pool in a bikini (the girl even asks whether the boys think her mum ‘has a good body’), and various occupational health and safety breaches which reflect the book’s setting in the 1960s (one boy landing split-legged on a railing while trying to walk across it—without sparing us the details of the consequences, race-running alongside cars, using dangerous fire crackers, etc). There’s also a boyish obsession with body parts (why must they include this???)—probably nothing more than you’d hear in a primary school playground, but girls might find it a little TMI (hopefully it might go over their heads).
But the impressive thing is that all these things are brought into context by Julian’s seemingly unintentional assessment of whether they were right or wrong, and he’s just about always spot-on. For readers with a minimum level of reading maturity, accompanying Julian on his journey to discover these things for what they are could be invaluable.
Funny, endearing, character building; it will be mighty hard to top this for the year.