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Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

*The Burn Journals* by Brent Runyon - young adult book review

Also by Brent Runyon:

The Burn Journals
by Brent Runyon
Young adult 336 pages Vintage October 2005 Paperback    

If the subject himself doesn't bring you to your knees in a posture of supplicating awe, then the subject matter will. And if this second element - a fourteen-year-old boy who sets himself on fire in a suicide attempt - doesn't set your eyes dancing in a water ballet of tears, then the sheer, stripped-down elegiac-like prose this twenty-four-year old reveals should leave you speechless and haunted forever.

Books on the Self, emphasis on the capital S here, always seem to be somehow the last place you'd want to go to find out about yourself. Books on Self-Help, Self-Spirituality, Self-Success, Suicide, are just that - someone else's experiences about those things. They've been there, they've struggled through it, and now they wanted to help you - or rather us, the readers, the ones in need - with those problems. It always feels so secondary. Why should we read about what you endured in hopes of finding an answer? Arbitrary, that's how it feels.

Truly, the healing comes in the simple act of purchasing the book, the wanting to be better, the positive forward motion. The words are almost secondary. Psychologists and psychiatrists, in the main, are listeners. By making the jump to therapy, you've already made the leap of faith. A set of educated and caring ears on the opposite side of the office, a kind or patient utterance every now and then, and that degreed or non-degreed individual sitting across from you becomes sage, guide, and maybe even God him/herself. But you've done the mending - you've brought yourself and put yourself in a state of readiness to be cured.

That said, at first glance this burn memoir appeared to be little more than a disaffected young teen with a lot of troubles and no one to care. Do we want to read about someone else's depression? Chances are, we all have our own problems and nasty little creatures crawling around inside us already. Why add to the confusion?

But Runyon offers no solutions. His bare verse, terse and conversational, tells a story and doesn't editorialize or tell us to seek help or tell us to think happy thoughts. He does just that in the way he presents his story of depression and suicidal nature, but he never comes right out and says it. And that's why this book has such strength and movement.

"I fall down. I'm going to die. I'm going to find out what death is like. I'm going to know. But nothing's happening."

Five sentences, 23 words, 85 letters, and we understand. The writing is so simple and uncluttered. Bukowski-like, Fante-like. And not one in a thousand novelists could make it work. In fact, that bothered me when I read the press materials that accompanied the book. Ten years after dousing himself in gasoline and applying a match, Brent Runyon decides to write about it. This is going to appear unforgivable, but it was almost as if he had staged the event in order to gain an audience for his writing, for this hidden novelist waiting to be freed.

That's an insane and stupid comment to make. It's only brought up to define a point. Without question, he would trade it all in to go back one day prior to the burn - with the knowledge he now carries - and do it over. But how many people do attempt suicide and don't have the grammatical tools to write about it? In a strange and horrible and unendurable sequence of events, the author was ultimately able to find his hidden voice. Had the fire episode never happened, would Brent Runyon still have been a writer? Truly, some things are miracles and this is one - the miracle of a boy surviving an horrific ordeal, and then finding the gift of words to write about it.

Remember, some years back, an author named Whitley Strieber wrote a book called Communion? He swore it was an actual, real-life episode of being abducted by aliens. He was subjected to tests and poked and prodded and hypnotized and remained steadfast in his assertion that little green men had captured him. The only thing taken was taking advantage of the gullibility of an all-too-willing-to-believe readership desperately wanting to experience an ET moment. This is brought up to reinforce what was mentioned earlier in this review; in other words, the economics of coincidence. It is almost impossible to believe that this boy, this Runyon, has never written before and yet here he has this amazing story to tell and tells it with the eloquence of a seasoned novelist. That is the miracle, if you'll recall. Strieber, on the other hand - and more power to him because you do what you have to do to sell a book - was a calculated and coldhearted manipulation. Of all the people in the world who have been taken aboard spaceships and seen the oversized heads sitting upon the child-like, Silly Putty-looking bodies, how many of them have been professional writers of any type? Much less professional writers in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. It was impossible to believe - the more Whitley screamed his innocence of fraud, the more were we led to disbelieve.

Anyway, this review has digressed. The book will make you cry and rip you apart and put you back together again. And it will make you wonder how could anyone ever want to consciously end a life. You will try and understand why would someone who did want to die try to reach the other side by becoming a human torch. Pills. A gun. There are so many less painful ways of doing it. But you will not find the answers. Nor does Runyon find them.

In a brief Afterword, he talks about falling into the sinkhole again two years after writing this. What he did learn is that outside help is necessary and he consciously made the effort to seek it out, to find medications that would lighten the shadows.

He is currently working on his first novel and for that one, we'll keep the flame burning.
Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

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