The Freedom Writers Diary (book and then movie)

freedom writers diary cover Title: The Freedom Writers Diary: How A Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing To Change Themselves and the World Around Them
Author: Erin Gruwell with The Freedom Writers
Publication Year: 1999
Pages: 292
Genre: Nonfiction
Count for Year: 63

Title: Freedom Writers
Director: Richard LeGravenese
Release Date: January 5 2007
Starring: Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey and Scott Glenn (the latter two, barely)

How I discovered

I believe I had heard of the movie that came out last year and was semi-intrigued. I’m really not sure if I knew there was a book at that time. However, while choosing books for my Personal Banned Books Weeks Challenge, I happened across the book on a list of books banned last year and ordered it through interlibrary loan at my local library. It didn’t arrive until after Banned Books Week was over, but I thought since I had ordered it, I might as well read it. In the meantime, I also had put the movie starring Hilary Swank in my queue. When it arrived earlier this week, I waited until I read the book to watch the movie– which I did this afternoon.

The setup

As an idealistic first-year English teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, Erin Gruwell confronted a room of “unteachable, at risk” students. One day she intercepted a note with an ugly racial caricature and angrily declared that this was precisely the sort of things that led to the Holocaust– only to be met by uncomprehending looks. So she and her students, using the treasured books Anna Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo as their guides, undertook a life-changing, eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding. They learned to see the parallels in homage to the civil rights activists “The Freedom Riders.”

With funds raised by a “Read-a-thon for Tolerance,” they arranged for Miep Gies, the courageous Dutch woman who sheltered the Frank family, to visit them in California, where she declared that Erin Gruwell’s students were “the real heroes.” Their efforts have paid off spectacularly, both in terms of recognition– appearances on Primetime Live, The View and All Things Considered, coverage in People magazine and major newspapers, a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley– and educationally. Through the application of the innovative Freedom Writers Method, Erin’s students graduated from high school in 1998.

— from the back cover of the paperback edition

Before even reading the book, I was skimming through the book while talking to a friend on the phone and came across this passage from one of the students’ diary entries:

My drinking never really bothered me before we started reading all these books about people changing and wanting to make a difference. It makes me feel like such a hypocrite. The story that sticks with me is how the the Nazis deliberately hurt innocent people like Anne Frank, and in my case, I’m the one who’s hurting myself. I’m the one choosing to hide. Unfortunately, Anne Frank was never free. It makes me wonder if I’ll ever be.

Obviously, where the book excelled was with the students actually telling the stories of their own lives. That also was where the movie excelled, in their stories and in the performances of the young actors portraying them. However, the stories they tell after about 100 pages became monothematic in their telling. Unfortunately, once you’ve heard one tragic story about how bad it is “growing up in the ‘hood”, you’ve heard them all– at least, that’s how it felt.

Besides gang violence, domestic violence, or spousal abuse, is common. So common, in fact, that people ignore it, turn the other cheek, or go back to bed. I have watched men pistol-whip their girlfriends or smash their heads through car windows. Damn! I have seen a lot of crazy stuff. Stuff that makes me thankful it’s not me.

It’s easier for me to pretend I don’t live where I live or see what I see. That’s why I go to school so far away from home so I can escape my reality. Like Anne Frank, I live through the pain of being stuck in my house because I don’t want to become a casualty of war, gang warfare that is going on outside of my bedroom walls. I sit in my room wishing I could fly away from all of the madness. Writing about my own pain will make it worse.

Stories like this and the previous one, though poignant, blended together after awhile– and once the students made it to their senior year, you more than got the point.

Personally, I felt the story could have been told in about 200 pages or less. However, maybe because Gruwell wanted to get in as many of the teens’ diaries, she felt like she needed to do that. After reading the blurb above, I also felt like the story could have ended after the first sentence of the second paragraph and not continued into all the recognition they received. Thankfully, the movie didn’t go that far and ended at the end of their sophomore year.

All this said, I give the book a 3 out of 5, because it is worth picking up at the library, just to hear the perspective of teenagers for a change. As for the movie, I also give it a 3 out of 5, because it’s worth putting in the queue at Netflix, even though you don’t need to move it to the top and can skip the parts with the unnecessary subplot with Patrick Dempsey.

This book also counts for the Lit Flicks Challenge sponsored by Jessica at The Bluestocking Society and the same-named challenge sponsored by Jessica’s brother, Blake, at Bitchin’ Film Reviews. For reviews of other books I’ve read for this challenge, click here.

Starting with this post, I’m defining my rating system, which I will add soon to my sidebar:

5- Classic, must read
4- Worth owning a copy
3- Worth picking up at library
2- Worth skimming at the bookstore
1- Worth being a doorstop

7 responses to “The Freedom Writers Diary (book and then movie)

  1. I need to know the differences between the book and the movie.

  2. I loved the movie. It kind of showed me that my school life wasn’t as bad as I thought it was (going to school in Jamaica, Queens). It was very inspiring but very different from the book. I found the book to be more detailed and more on point. I suggested the movie and the book to all my peers. I believe its a must see.

  3. While I love the concept of books changing people’s lives, sometimes the books and movies on the subject wax a little trite. Still, this seems like something worth a glance or two. Thanks for the review.

  4. Great review and I agreed with it 100% I got a chuckle out of your rating system. Good to know.

  5. “Worth being a doorstop”! Nice.

  6. justareadingfool

    Oh, Blake, I didn’t say it WASN’T 😉 an after school special. It still is, but a few performances make it more than bearable.

  7. I passed on this film, thinking it seemed a little too ‘after school special,’ but perhaps after reading your review, I’ll check it out.