From the Publisher
“[The Burn Journals] describes a particular kind of youthful male desolation better than it has ever been described before, by anyone.” -Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon
“A fascinating account of the mending of a body and mind, told with the simple and honest sensibility of someone too young to have endured so much.” —Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha
"Runyon has, perhaps, written the defining book of a new genre, one that gazes...unflinchingly at boys on the emotional edge ." -Booklist (starred review)
"A taut, chilling account of the author's attempt to commit suicide...a must-read for teenagers struggling with self-doubt."-The Denver Post
“An excruciating, brilliant book...WOW.” —A.M. Homes, author of Things You Should Know
After a bad day at school, eighth grader Brent Runyon comes home, plays a little basketball with his brother, then goes inside, soaks his bathrobe in gasoline, and set himself on fire. Thus begins the real-life odyssey of a 14-year-old boy struggling first to survive and then to retrieve a place in the universe. Runyon's first-person account of his close brush with death and his painful rehabilitation is reminiscent of Girl, Interrupted and Running with Scissors.
Engrossing from first page to last, this book based on Runyon's own adolescent experiences draws readers into the world of an eighth-grader whose life is irrevocably changed the day he deliberately sets himself on fire. Brent, after narrowly escaping death, wakes up in a hospital with 85% of his body severely burned and begins a slow, arduous path to recovery. Rather than analyzing reasons the patient wanted to kill himself, the first-person narrative remains focused on the immediate challenge of survival, incorporating meticulous details of Brent's day-to-day ordeals in the hospital and later in a rehabilitation center. Time, at first, is measured by Brent's fluctuating levels of discomfort and comfort, ranging from the excruciating pain of having bandages removed to the sheer bliss of tasting ice cream for the first time in several weeks. And his repentant apologies to his parents and to Craig, his brother, who discovers Brent immediately after the incident, are wrenching in their honesty ("I hope Craig can love me again"). When his wounds begin to heal, Brent's thoughts turn from the present to the future as he nervously makes plans to return home and re-enter society. Despite its dark subject matter, this powerful chronicle of Brent's journey to heal expresses hope, celebrates life and provides an opportunity to slip inside the skin of a survivor with a unique perspective. Ages 14-up. (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Runyon tells the shocking true story of his fourteenth year. He was depressed, had attempted and failed to commit suicide several times, and ultimately set himself on fire. Runyon begins his story just before that tragic event, giving the readers some background into his mental state but never revealing that he could go so far to hurt himself. The author tells of the afternoon when he went into the bathroom, soaked his bathrobe with gasoline, and lit a match. He continues the story from his walk out of the bathroom, to the horrified face of his brother who called 911, to his trip to the hospital and the subsequent surgeries, procedures, pain, and therapy over the next year. Runyon burned 85 percent of his body and nearly died, and readers are given all the grisly details of the boy's physical and emotional recovery in a very matter-of-fact fashion. There are high points, however. Runyon received phone calls, autographs, and visits from celebrities such as Magic Johnson, Jay Leno, and Dennis Miller. He developed a special relationship with the nurses and hospital staff and grew closer to his parents, and eventually, his brother. This book is an unbelievable story of survival, even more powerful than Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr (Holiday House, 1997/VOYA October 1997) and Out of the Fire by Deborah Froese (Sumach Press, 2002/VOYA October 2002) for the simple fact that it really happened and because it was something that Runyon brought upon himself. His is a cautionary tale to beat all cautionary tales. VOYA CODES: 3Q 4P J S (Readable without serious defects; Broad general YA appeal; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2004, Knopf, 384p., Ages12 to 18.
Kimberly L. Paone
KLIATT - Patricia Moore
Not for the faint of heart, The Burn Journals chronicle the life of 14-year-old Brent Runyon from the day he stood in the shower, poured gasoline over his bathrobe and set himself on fire. Now in his late 20s, Runyon wrote this book as therapy to set down what he remembered of the year it took for him to recover enough to return to school. He writes of what he saw as his failure in school, his failure within his family, and his determination to kill himself. As soon as the flames encircled him, however, he turned on the shower to douse them and cried for help. The Journals tell of his painful hospitalization, his gradual recovery and realization of the harm he had done himself, and his constant apologies to his distraught parents for his actionswhich they insisted on calling his "accident." Gradually he became more mobile, better able to interact with his family, friends and the hospital staff, although never with the string of psychologists and psychiatrists who tried to get him to analyze his self-destructive motives. At the end of a year, Brent was ready to return to his high school, and the reader holds his breath.
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up-One February day in 1991, Runyon came home from eighth grade, had a snack, soaked his full-length bathrobe in gasoline, and set himself on fire. He intended to kill himself. Everything shortly after is written in short bursts as the author takes readers in and out of his various states of consciousness: the helicopter ride; the parade of nurses, doctors, therapists, and orderlies at Children's Hospital in Washington, DC, and the regimented details of his care divided among them; and the pain of the burns on 85 percent of his body. The entries lengthen and the story builds like a novel as the author takes readers along as co-patients. The dialogue between Runyon and his nurses, parents, and especially his hapless psychotherapists is natural and believable, and his inner dialogue is flip, often funny, and sometimes raw. The details of the surgery, therapy, and painstaking care that go into healing burns are fascinating, and are likely to grip teens with a taste for gore or melodrama. Runyon's brave willingness to relive this horrifying year in unflinching detail is perhaps even more fascinating, as is the slowly unfolding mystery of the sadness that made a smart, popular, funny, loving boy try to take his own life. Depression, regret, and rebirth are the themes that tie the narrative together, and the subtle tension among the three are beautifully related, offering no neat resolution. The authentically adolescent voice of the journals will engage even those reluctant to read such a dark story.-Johanna Lewis, New York Public Library Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
This true story of a 14-year-old boy who tried to commit suicide by setting himself on fire certainly has the power to grab the attention of many young readers, despite its length. Formerly an excellent student, Brent suddenly begins to fail in school and pulls one too many pranks. Sure he'll be caught and expelled for impulsively setting a fire in a locker and unable to admit his guilt, he decides that it's best to die. The bulk of the narrative follows Brent through his treatment and recovery, his pain, pleasures, and frustrations, his family's love, and his relations with his friends. Rarely stated but always lurking below the surface is the question of why Brent set himself on fire, because he doesn't know himself. It's a fascinating journey through a teenager's mind, only lacking information about what happened to Brent after he returned to school. (Nonfiction. YA)
Read an Excerpt
When seventh period is finally over, I run to my locker and put all my books inside. I won’t need them anymore. I grab my lock-picking set and a spare Ace of Spades that I have lying around.
At the end of the hallway, I can see Stephen talking to Megan, the girl we both have a crush on. I walk up to them and say hi. She smiles at me and I try to smile back. He looks a little suspicious.
I don’t really want to say anything, I don’t want to tell them what I’m going to do. I hand him the Ace of Spades and say, “Good-bye,” and I walk away. I hope they’ll be happy together.
I see my friend Jake at his locker and give him the lock-picking set. “Use them wisely,” I say, and head toward the bus.
Laura walks with me down D hall. She says, “Hey, I heard you set that fire in gym class.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to set myself on fire.” She stops at her locker, and I keep walking.
On the bus ride home, I sit by myself. I lean my head against the cold glass window and try not to think about all the stupid things I’ve done, all the bad things I’ve done, and all the pain I’ve caused everyone.
My brother is playing basketball outside the house when I get home. He’s shooting free throws.
I rebound the ball for him and throw it back. I don’t want to take any shots. I tell him the whole story, about what I did and what they’re going to do to me. I don’t tell him what I’m going to do to myself.
When I’m done talking, he says, “That sucks,” and I go inside the house. I don’t have to write a note anymore. Craig knows everything.
I walk out to the shed to get the gas can. I bring it inside to the bathroom at the top of the stairs because that’s the room with the most locks. I go back downstairs and get the matches from the kitchen.
I take off all my clothes and put on the pair of red boxers with glow-in-the-dark lips that my mom bought for me at the mall last weekend. I bring my bathrobe into the shower and I pour the gasoline all over it. The gas can is only about a quarter full, but it seems like enough.
I step into the bathtub and I put the bathrobe over my shoulders. It’s wet and heavy, but there’s something kind of comforting about the smell, like going on a long car trip. I hold the box of matches out in front of me in my left hand.
I take out a strike-anywhere match and hold it against the box.
Should I do it?
Yes. Do it.
I strike the match, but it doesn’t light. Try again.
I light the match. Nothing happens. I bring it closer to my wrist and then it goes up, all over me, eating through me everywhere. I can’t breathe. I’m screaming, “Craig! Craig!”
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.
This hurts too much. I need to stop it. I need to get up. I stand. I don’t know how I stand, but I do, and I turn on the shower. I’m breathing water and smoke. I unlock the door and open it. My hand is all black. I walk out. There’s Craig with Rusty, our dog, next to him. They have the same expression on their faces.
Craig yells something and runs downstairs. I think he’s calling 911. I’m following him. He hands me the phone and runs off. There’s a woman on the phone asking me questions. I try to tell her what’s happened, but my voice sounds choked and brittle. There’s something wrong with my voice.
The woman on the phone says the fire trucks and ambulances are on their way. Somehow she knows my address. Craig is gone now, gone to get Mom, and Rusty is hiding somewhere. Smoke is coming from the bathroom upstairs and I can see that the whole room has turned black. I look down and see my flesh is charred and flaking and the glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts are burnt into my skin.
The woman on the phone says everything is going to be all right, and I believe her. She has a nice voice. She keeps asking me if I’m still on fire and I say, “I don’t think so.”
I’m walking around the kitchen, waiting for the ambulance to come. I can see my reflection in the microwave. Where’s my hair? Where did my hair go? Is that my face?
We used to put marshmallows in the microwave. We used to watch them get bigger and bigger and then shrink down.
“Oh God, just tell them to get here, just tell them to get here, okay?”
She says, “It’s okay. They’re coming. They’re almost there.”
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, that’s okay.”
I can hear the sirens in the distance now.
I say, “I want to lie down. I’m going to lie down.” It hurts to talk. I think there’s something wrong in my throat.
“You can’t lie down.”
“But I have to.”
“Okay, you can lie down.”
The men are here. The firemen are here. They’re putting me on a plastic sheet. They say I’m going to be okay. One of them puts something over my face. That feels good. That feels so good. The cold air feels so good going into my lungs.
What are they talking about? What are they saying? They’re giving me a shot. They say it’s going to make the pain go away. Make the pain go away.
I’m looking at the faces of all the men who are gathered around me. Their eyes are so blue and so clear.
I turn my head and see Craig in the front hall. He’s yelling and punching the walls. He’s angry.
And my mom is here, and she’s smiling and saying she loves me, and her eyes, which are green like my eyes, are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.