Title: The Freedom Writers Diary
Author: The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell
Publication Date: 1999
Purchase Price: Around $10
Erin Gruwell is twenty-three and teaching at Wilson High in Long Beach, California, where drugs and gang activity are the norm. The students are drawn along racial lines, and each group feels that everything would be better if the “other” would leave. After intercepting a racial cartoon scrawled by a fourteen year-old freshman, Gruwell launches into a speech comparing the drawing to the racism and death perpetrated during the Holocaust.
Only to have a student raise his hand and ask, “What’s the Holocaust?”
Together Ms. Gruwell and her students embark on a journey of discovery, loss, and eventually hope. Using books like Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata Filpovic’s Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo as the backdrop, the students of room 201 learn how hate can cause death, and understanding and compassion can save a life. And because nothing exists in a vacuum, soon the students begin to see how they are like Anne, and Zlata, and all the people who have dealt with injustice, hatred, and fear.
I went into Freedom Writers Diary with no real idea of what to expect. I had seen the first part of the film of the same name, and was intrigued enough to seek out a copy of the book. I was drawn in by the fact that each of the characters in the book learn how to understand others, and themselves, through books and reading. Books can alter your perceptions and change your opinions, and I loved seeing those changes happen in the kids’ minds as I turned the pages.
However…I’m afraid it’s the first occasion (in my entire life) where I preferred the film over the original book. Freedom Writers Diary was interesting, of course, and I loved some of the insights that the kids had. The subject matter was definitely not cheerful, and some parts were very difficult to read.
The biggest problem I had, though, was in regards to the characters. Every well-written character has a “voice.” It’s not a literal one, because obviously it’s ink and paper and not acting, but readers should be able to know some things about a book’s characters based on the way the characters speak and think. And while “voice” is important, generally the first way a reader gives a character a label is by associating the character with a physical or mental description and/or a name.
All of the journal entries (except for Ms. Gruwell’s) in the Freedom Writers Diary journal are anonymous; the reader doesn’t know any names or any physical descriptions of the characters, and only occasionally knows if the writer is male or female. Because of this I found it very difficult to become invested in any of the characters — not only was I raised in a world wholly different from their own, but the book did not provide me with any real way to immediately connect with any of the kids. I couldn’t get a clear mental picture of anyone except Ms. Gruwell, and so I was not as invested as I usually am in and with other books.
Although I didn’t fall in love with Freedom Writers Diary, it was definitely a good way to get a glimpse of lives which are very different from my own. It was also a great way to show that reading and writing can be powerful tools in the education and bettering of human beings. The students in Ms. Gruwell’s class learned to connect with people from every time and place in ways that no one thought possible — and it was all done through reading.
If my review has turned you off of reading the book, I do highly suggest that you watch the Freedom writers film, released in 2007 and starring Hilary Swank and a really talented group of teen actors and actresses. Come prepared with your righteous indignation and a handful of tissues.
A Dream (Will.i.am)
“During dinner, Renee came to speak with us at my table. She showed us the tattoo on her arm from Auschwitz. The tattoo looked like little numbers from a barcode. She told us how some of the needles they used were infected and that some people got skin diseases. She told us how one person sucked out the ink from her skin because the doctor who gave her the tattoo quietly told her to. If she had not sucked the ink out, she would have been sent to the gas chamber the next day, because her number was called.” (p. 43)