Mezzowriter's ReadWriter Blog

Reading, Writing, and The Search for Buried Gems of Literature

What I’m Reading #29: The Burn Journals April 23, 2010

The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon

Knopf, 2004

This was a re-read.  I read this book a few years ago when I was working on my Master’s Degree.  In my YA Lit class, the hardcover caught my attention:

I’m normally not a fan of memoir.  But I REALLY liked the cover. After reading it, I returned it to the library and sort of forgot about it.  A couple of years later, I stumbled across a copy at a used book store and felt compelled to buy it, even though I didn’t like the cover NEARLY as much…

I picked it up the other day to read through it again and it was as good as I remembered…

Courtesy of

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Gr. 8-12. On the sixteenth page of this incisive memoir, eighth-grader Brent Runyon drenches his bathrobe with gasoline and (“Should I do it? Yes.”) sets himself on fire. The burns cover 85 percent of his body and require six months of painful skin grafts and equally invasive mental-health rehabilitation. From the beginning, readers are immersed in the mind of 14-year-old Brent as he struggles to heal body and mind, his experiences given devastating immediacy in a first-person, present-tense voice that judders from uncensored teenage attitude and poignant anxiety (he worries about getting hard-ons during physical therapy) to little-boy sweetness. And throughout is anguish over his suicide attempt and its impact on his family: “I have this guilt feeling all over me, like oil on one of those birds in Alaska.” Runyon has, perhaps, written the defining book of a new genre, one that gazes as unflinchingly at boys on the emotional edge as Zibby O’Neal’s The Language of Goldfish (1980) and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (1999) do at girls. Some excruciatingly painful moments notwithstanding, this can and should be read by young adults, as much for its literary merit as for its authentic perspective on what it means to attempt suicide, and, despite the resulting scars, be unable to remember why. Jennifer Mattson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Strengths: As I’ve said, I’ve never been a fan of memoir.  But this one just sucked me in.  Runyon’s story is fascinating without being too sensationalist and graphic.  Even though he wrote it years after the events, he captured the essence of himself in 8th grade, instead of merely sounding like an adult reflecting on his past.  He avoided sounding preachy (which would have been an easy trap to fall into, given the subject of suicide) and instead focused clearly on the impact of his suicide attempt on himself, his family, and their lives together.  It’s an excellent example of what a well-written memoir can be, and would be highly suitable for young adult readers.

Potential Flaws: Only that I found myself not wanting it to end.  I craved to know more about his journey to recovery and re-entry into “normal” life.

My Rating:

A compulsively readable, well-paced memoir on a painful yet fascinating subject.


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