I went into this book expecting it to be similar to the novel Wonder, which I read in February of this year. (If you haven’t read that book, you should. It’s fantastic.) I wasn’t totally sure what to expect from True Diary, but it won the National Book Award, so I figured I couldn’t go wrong. And the theme seemed similar to Wonder, so I assumed I knew what I was in for. A boy who is very different than his peers goes to a new school, faces some major challenges, and ends up better for it. Great, I’m in.
And, of course, every time I assume something about a book, I’m dead wrong. The themes of the two books are similar in a general sense, but I should not have assumed that this book would be like Wonder. It was most definitely not. There isn’t really even a comparison between the two – they are completely different stories altogether.
True Diary revolves around Junior, a young teen dealing with a lot of deep but relatable issues such as poverty, hate, racism, othering, and even love. He is an American Indian living on a reservation, and the formative events in his young life almost all relate to the alcohol abuse of those surrounding him. He endures several tragedies, witnesses all kinds of violence, and lives in poverty, all mainly due to alcohol (it’s heartbreaking when we realize that his kind and loving but flawed father would rather spend his last bit of money on drinks and gambling than on basic necessities for Junior). Only when he changes schools does Junior truly realize that he can have a better life, but even this glimmer of hope is tempered by the realities of abuse and hatred he faces at the hands of his new peers and teachers. Despite all of the forces threatening to derail his life, though, Junior is still a relatively hopeful kid. He wants to break the cycle and do better for himself and for others, which is such a great message. My major takeaway from this book is that with perseverance, there is always hope for growth and the possibility of change, betterment, and forgiveness.
This book has a truly engaging style, with Junior’s scrap-paper drawings interspersed throughout the text. His sketches are mostly hilarious, sometimes childish, and always perfect. They reflect how he’s feeling as he grapples with the major events in his life. His voice is extraordinary and unique, yet somehow not unlike that of a typical young teenager. But Junior is an artist through and through, and I found his art to be one of my favorite parts of the book. Although sometimes the drawings are there simply as a supplement to the text, they also frequently come into play when he doesn’t have the words to fully express himself.
I like that Junior’s life is so real. He is clearly a whip-smart kid who is more intelligent, both traditionally and emotionally, than most of the adults around him. There is no sugarcoating the truth with him, and he is painted so strikingly that it’s easy to believe he’s a real kid dealing with all of life’s ups and downs the best way he knows how – through his art. Junior’s story is incredibly powerful, and gives a good insight into the type of strength and creativity that can never be stifled by harsh circumstances.
Recommended for those who want a fast, YA-literature type of read, but can handle some truly heavy subject matter.