This is the second of three books I'm reading for the Books to Movie Challenge. I chose this one because I live in Southern California and remember following the news stories on this group of young people. I'm also a teacher (elementary now but have taught middle and high school during my career) and wondered how Ms. Gruwell accomplished all the things she did with her students. Also, my husband has many ties in the Long Beach community where the book and movie are set.
I read the book before I watched the movie. The book is a series of unrelated diary entries from the 150 students who came to call themselves Freedom Writers. The entries represent their four years of high school and are prefaced each semester by a diary entry from Ms. Gruwell. To protect the students' privacy, the entries are numbered and no names are attached to them.
I found the format of the book quite difficult. I kept getting pieces of information about a student but never felt like I got the whole picture. There were times when I wanted to know more about a student or wondered how a situation had resolved itself, but the next diary entry was unrelated. The entries were arranged chronologically so it was clear what the students were doing in class and how that was affecting their writing. This, unfortunately, gave some of the entries the feel of a "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" school essay. When they retold events, like meeting Holocaust survivors or visiting the Museum of Tolerance, I wasn't always drawn into their emotions. Some of the entries felt a little too "schooly." I realize that the goal was to give everyone a voice, but I do wonder if the quality of the book was sacrificed. It might have been a better book if it told a few students' stories well.
I also had difficulties with Ms. Gruwell's sections of the book. Being a teacher, I was wondering about her methodology and how the writing was produced and edited. How authentic were the voices, and how edited were the entries? She didn't provide much insight into the teaching process, as her entries tended to secure the chronological timeline.
The movie was a whole different matter. I absolutely HATED it! The movie didn't know if it wanted to tell the story of a teacher fighting the system, or the story of a number of young people, as seen through their diary entries. I normally like Hilary Swank, but she was wasted in this movie. She seemed to have two expressions - overly earnest or overly chipper. Patrick Dempsey, of Grey's Anatomy, was her husband. I didn't really care about him or their relationship. (This part was totally added to the movie and isn't in the book.) The book's major strength for me was the focus on the students and their stories. The movie diluted this focus, which was not a good choice.
Overall, do I admire Ms. Gruwell for her work with these students? I'm not sure. She took one group of 150 students and stayed for four years. She left the high school when they did, instead of taking on a new batch of students. I've read a number of statistics about teachers leaving the profession in the first five years. While she remained teaching in higher ed, I wonder if her success could have been repeated.
I don't think I can recommend either the movie or the book. Both are unsatisfying for different reasons. The movie is too unfocused, and the book leaves out too much to be a satisfying read. Was the book better than the movie? Slightly - because I liked the book's focus more than the movies. But that's not saying much.
As always, I'm open to hearing what other people thought of either the book or the movie.