About the Book

3 NBs of Julian Drew is a novel about the strange and sometimes magical life of 15-year-old Julian Drew.

For ages 12 and up.

When I was in high school, I secretly began to write what was to become some twenty-seven years later a novel eventually entitled 3 NBs of Julian Drew. The first draft of that novel, which was an untitled stream of consciousness narrative, is nothing like the one that was published, but it was the beginning of a story that I knew I had to tell.

Divided into three notebooks (or NBs in the special abbreviated and coded language of the narrator), the book tells the strange and sometimes magical story of an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abused teenager named Julian Drew who addresses his NBs to a person he calls U, a person he has not seen for four years. The reader senses that Julian is in great pain because of U, and his memories of U spur him to begin writing a journal. He buys a notebook (abbreviated as NB, it is the first NB of three that he fills for this book) on October 25 at an Osco Drug in Tempe, Arizona. It is a spiral green Econoline with 80 pages, 34 lines per page.

For four days he tries to write in his NB or notebook, but his pen will not cooperate until it lets him write in a secret code to someone he calls U:

My hand is going 2 write U if it K1775 me," his pen writes. "My brain had a nowhere dream 4 20 nights. My eyes saw a book on a shelf. My fingers found a letter inside. The letter was from U.

Word by mysterious word, his NBs become a refuge from his bewildering circumstances and a record of a special dream about U and the journey he undertakes to solve the puzzle of his life. As he writes, he invents a code to keep some of his innermost (and most disturbing) thoughts safe from the prying eyes of two people that he labels 43 and 543.


I don’t like to describe events in my books that are better left to readers to discover on their own, so I cannot say much more about 3 NBs. Still, I have been asked many times if the novel is autobiographical, because it sounds real. My answer is always a carefully qualified “yes." The book was based on some of my childhood experiences, but I did not live the life of Julian Drew.

For example, at one point Julian writes “The Story of His Life” for an assignment in his English class. The facts that he relates include these: he was born in Wheeling, West Virginia; his mother died a few days after fifth grade ended; three months later his father remarried a woman who had two children; his father and stepmother began to treat Julian badly in West Virginia. After the family moved to Arizona, he was treated badly there as well.

Although our lives shared certain events, Julian and I were also very different. I would never have run away from home (though it occasionally crossed my mind as a fantasy). I was very involved in my school. I was senior class vice president and co-editor of the yearbook. In writing the book, I allowed my imagination to wander freely. I created U (a different U than my own U), the NBs, and many other parts of the story about Julian. My own teenage years were painful but not as painful as the life I devised for Julian. By reinventing the facts of my life for a character, I was able to tell a more poignant story.

So why did I write the book? I wanted the reader to understand the pain that a child or teenager feels in losing a parent or other loved one. Some readers have said that the book is more like poetry than a novel. Well, Julian does have a way with language. Despite his troubles, he manages to express himself in ways that seem to break down the walls of a traditional novel. His pain is tangible. If, as a reader, you could feel that pain, I succeeded in my goal.

Honors and Reviews

A 1999 Popular Paperback for Young Adults (YALSA, ALA)

1995 Notable Book in the Language Arts (NCTE)


1997-1998 TAYSHAS High School Reading List (Texas Library Association)


1994 Outstanding Book for Middle School Teens (VOYA)

1995 New York Public Library's Books for the Teenage List


(starred review)

"A challenging and ...compelling story of an abused teenager who fights a heroic battle to deal with his mother's death and to survive the mistreatment of one of the most vicious stepmothers in all of literature...a well-written book"


Notes from the Windowsill

"This fascinating, compelling novel well repays the initial effort of deciphering it. Julian's strange writing--not that difficult once you've gotten the hang of it--gives us the story in tantalizing bites, becoming more and more revealing as he slowly conquers his need to distort his own words...this is a brilliant portrait of a troubled person, and of the ways even a troubled person can find to help himself--perhaps the strongest part of the portrait is that despite everything, Julian is far from helpless.  The ending is especially insightful, offering hope for Julian's survival without  denying the damage that may never be healed."

Horn Book  

"A memorable, challenging look at a disturbed abused adolescent...a powerful story of desperation and survival."


"It is the unusual language which gives the story its power: the words evoke stinging layers of hurt and the galling horror of abuse, as well as the courage, hope, tenacity needed to survive and escape."

Kirkus Reviews

"With an inventive vision, Deem present a hard-edged tale of abuse and recovery."


"A special read, well worth the effort."

Adult and Child

"In 3 NBs of Julian Drew, by James Deem, the title character is an abused teen boy so terrorized he can only communicate his true feelings in code. In his NBs (notebooks), Julian writes about his mentally ill stepmother, who has chosen him as the family scapegoat, his neglectful father, and his four siblings.  The rest of the family is subject to the woman's peculiar, penny-pinching ways, but Julian is the only one starved, humiliated, and locked away in the garage. Julian 70V3s (loves) his real M (mother), and dedicates his NBs to her.  He 4AT3s (hates) his "stepnother" and wonders whether to K177 (kill) her or himself.  Deem challenges the reader to crack this code; no key is offered for translation.  More than halfway through the book, after Julian has met a caring teacher, found a job, and befriended a coworker, his code begins to fade and he is able to state for the world to hear:  I am an abused child. It is a tribute to Deem's skill that by the time Julian is writing in clear, easy-to-follow sentences, we already feel we understand him.  The code, maddening at first, becomes clear through context.  3 NBs of Julian Drew begins this way:  "TO25 427WP".  Soon we realize that Julian is writing the date (Tuesday, October 25) and the time (4:27 PM). Read 3 NBs of Julian Drew for the challenge, and you may find yourself sticking with it for the story, which is heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful."