Jacqueline Woodson, Author
Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Aug. 28, 2018
Suitable for Ages: 10 -12
Themes: School, Friendship, Diversity, Open-minded dialogue, Deportation, Racism, Loss, Empathy, Courage
Synopsis: It all starts when six kids are sent to a room for a weekly chat – by themselves, with no adults to listen in. At first they fear this new unfamiliar and wonder what on earth they’ll even talk about. But in the place they dub the ARTT (“A Room to Talk”), they discover it’s safe to discuss stuff they usually keep private.
A father has recently gone missing, and that starts a conversation about the things causing angst their lives, from racial profiling and fears of deportation to a deep yearning for family history and a sense of belonging. When the six of them are together, they find they can express the feelings and fears they usually hide from the world. And together, they can grow braver and more ready for the rest of their lives.
With her always honest, lyrical writing, acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson celebrates the power of friendship, open-minded dialogue and empathy. Harbor Me digs in deep to show how so many of America’s social issues affect today’s kids — and they creatively learn to forge their way in spite of them.
Why I like this book:
Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me is a powerful and timely book that is soulful and moving. Her first-person narrative is intimate and perfect for this poetic story. The setting, the characters, the plot and the imagery are brilliantly intertwined to create an exceptional experience for readers. They will feel the awkward silence of being in an unfamiliar place with six diverse students with only one rule — to treat each other with respect. Otherwise, they can talk about anything.
Woodson’s focus on 5th and 6th graders is perfect, because it is such a transitional time in the lives of kids. They want to be cool, but still have an urge to play with Nerf water guns and American Girl dolls. The boys voices haven’t deepened. There are no boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. They are six students who develop a lasting bond because they are able to share their secrets, feelings and fears in an honest way. They become best friends.
The characters, two girls and four boys, are memorable. Their backgrounds differ, but each one has a story to share in a place with a group of friends where they feel safe and supported. Twelve-year-old Haley narrates. She is bi-racial and longs for a real family life. Her mother was killed in a car accident, her father is in prison and her uncle cares for her. Her best friend Holly is fidgety and has trouble censoring herself. Esteban’s father is an undocumented immigrant who is taken from his job. Esteban is desperate to find out news of his father’s whereabouts and what it means for his family. Ashton is the only Caucasian in the group and is bullied by older students who call him Ghostboy and Paleface. Amari hides behind his artwork, but shares his feelings about racial profiling. Tiago is from Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish and English. His puppy dies and he struggles with feeling at home in America.
This is a celebratory book of the human spirit for six young people coming of age. The plot is distinctly realistic, honest, brave and complicated. It tackles relevant topics young people deal with daily. During their Friday group discussions, they learn to be vulnerable, build trust, listen without judgement and be sensitive each others challenges — a recipe that allows kindness, empathy and freedom to blossom. I highly recommend this novel. It belongs in school libraries as it is an important classroom discussion book.
Jacqueline Woodson is the 2018-19 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. She received the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the 2018 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. Her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming won the 2014 National Book Award and was a NY Times Bestseller. Her adult novel, Another Brooklyn, was a National Book Award finalist and an Indie Pick in 2016. Jacqueline is the author of nearly thirty books for young people and adults including Each Kindness, If You Come Softly, Locomotion and I Hadn’t Meant To Tell You This. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.
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Book: Library copy.