Runyon, Brent. The Burn Journals. New York: Vintage, 2005. Print.
If you work with or parent teens, you’ve likely heard of the Netflix sensation 13 Reasons Why.
You might also know that the series is based on a YA novel by Jay Asher and centers around some tough topics—bullying, sexual assault, and suicide. Having taught the novel to high school juniors, I was anxious (and a little nervous) to see the adaptation. I enjoyed it overall, though some parts were downright painful to watch. I thought a few of the scenes might even be triggering to young people struggling with depression or other mental health issues.
This presents a conundrum. Many of us in the education field encounter students struggling with suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors. What books and media, then, can we bring into our classroom that will handle these topics in a sensitive and helpful manner?
I was searching for a non-fiction YA book (a rarity—I am certainly open to suggestions!) when I came across Brent Runyon’s The Burn Journals. Reviews and key words revealed the book was about the attempted suicide of an adolescent boy. I purchased the memoir and steeled myself for what was to come.
Brent Runyon is fourteen-years-old and often acts impulsively. This behavior culminates in Brent tossing a lit book of matches into a gym locker, setting a t-shirt ablaze. After being told that the perpetrator of this crime will be in serious trouble, Brent feels trapped, especially in light of some earlier offenses. Brent comes home from school, douses his robe and body in gasoline, climbs into his shower, and lights a match. Writhing in pain, Brent eventually turns on the shower and then yells to his brother for help.
After being airlifted, Brent regains consciousness in a children’s hospital. Now he must face his new reality: he is severely burned, and will require multiple surgeries, skin grafts, and physical therapy before he can return to a “normal” life. Although various psychologists attempt to delve into the reasons why, Brent remains guarded and unsure of his own motivations. Will Brent tell his family about his previous suicide attempts? Will he grow accustomed to his new scars and limitations? Will he be able to recuperate and go back to school?
This book brilliantly places readers in the mindset of a teenage boy. The conversations between Brent and his friends are crass and nonsensical. His feelings of unexplainable sadness are stated plainly. The most revealing part, for me, were Brent’s thoughts regarding his out of control behavior. When Brent lights the locker on fire, for example, he says: “I don’t know why, but I grabbed them and lit one of them on fire and then, because I thought it would be funny to see everybody’s reaction, I set the whole pack on fire.” Descriptions like these—rash actions with no logical reason behind them—add to the chaos of the story.
Like most memoirs, there are moments in The Burn Journals where the action and pacing feel slow and certain anecdotes seem unnecessary. For example, Brent meets and speaks with a few celebrities during his hospitalization and recovery. These are usually short meetings, but Brent rarely has many thoughts to share afterward. This, I thought, was a missed opportunity for Brent to possibly comment on his conflicting emotions of excitement and shame or the coddling of children with serious afflictions.
Just as I would not show the television series 13 Reasons Why in my classroom, I would likewise not make The Burn Journals required reading. There’s simply too much objectionable material—language and sexuality—even though some of the themes are redemptive. Even so, I would not dissuade my students from independently reading Runyon’s memoir. In fact, I urge educators and parents to seek this book out immediately. I came away from Runyon’s story understanding more about the psyche of the children in my classroom, and that was certainly valuable information.