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Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Particularly boys, aged 9 to 13, but the main character of this story is so relatable in his angst and turmoil that there is nothing to stop girls from loving and identifying with him just as much.

One Word Summary: Neurotic.

If Woody Allen or David Sedaris were to have kept a diary when they were in third grade, it undoubtedly would have read like Justin Case, a sharp, quirky, put-the-book-down-because-you’re-laughing-so-hard-you-can’t-see-the-words-anymore funny narrative that explodes with personality.

Justin Krzeszewski (“Most people just call me Justin K., because Krzeszewski looks like somebody fell asleep and their head rolled around on the computer keyboard”) is a little high-strung. If he were half as

Justin Case: School, Drool, and other Daily Disasters

By Rachel Vail

Illustrated by Matthew Cordell

good at the sports that his parents foolishly keep signing him up for as he is at fretting he would be a gold medalist. But unfortunately soccer, baseball and basketball fall on the same, long list as dogs, Jell-o, the boiler in his basement, his new teacher, failure, and public speaking: things that he not only dislikes intensely, but that send him into fits of near apoplexy.  The book shirks a traditional plot structure for a year’s worth of Justin’s daily diary entries. Some as short as “Mom says no blood. She ruins everything,” others covering long, tortured scenes of internal mayhem. The year is full of events that keep Justin up at night, sweating over the possible outcomes: a school election, holidays at insane and unpleasant relative’s houses, a dinosaur science fair, old, close friendships growing distant, new ones forming with people that challenge and rattle Justin’s sensibilities.

You might suspect that a book featuring a character who regards practically everything with a high level of apprehension and pessimism would become repetitive after a time. But what keeps Justin Case fresh in page after page of diary entries are the moments

where Justin surprises you, and sometimes himself, with his bravery and compassion. Vail makes interesting use of the concept of an unreliable first person narrator by showing us glimmers of how the world perceives Justin, rather than how Justin believes he is perceived. Friends seem to flock to him, though he doesn’t recognize it. His school projects are often the hit of the class, though he’s   consumed with how difficult they were to create. Teachers laud him, but he’s far more focused on what he must accomplish next to secure their approval. He worries constantly about the welfare of his little sister, revealing the depth of his love for her. The subtext of Justin’s words tell you so much more about him than Justin can himself, and with this little trick, Vail creates a wonderfully textured and nuanced character who is as lovable for his neurosis as he is for strengths. 

© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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