HARBOR ME by Jacqueline Woodson — Book Recommendation (plus thoughts on writing, Thanksgiving, and supporting each other)

October 8, 2018

Today is Thanksgiving in Canada. Usually I would write a post about some of the things I am grateful for, and in a way, this post is about gratitude, for gratitude is important. But it’s a different kind of gratitude than the sort we usually think about on Thanksgiving.

As you know, I write for kids (and adults) and I’m working toward being published one day. There are many of us working toward that goal, and sometimes it isn’t easy. Sometimes I’m sure others wonder, as I do, if it’s worth the hard work, if we have anything to say in the increasingly difficult world kids live in these days.

Then, in the midst of all that’s going on in the world, in the midst of the work of writing something relevant, an affirmation comes that says, “Yes. Writing for kids is not only worth it, it’s of the utmost importance, especially in these difficult days.”

One of those affirmations came for me this week through a book – a middle grade novel that touched me deeply, inspired me, and spurred me on to dig deeper into my writing and work to touch the kids out there who need the kind of books I write.

That book was Jacqueline Woodson’s deeply inspiring and challenging Harbor Me. This is a powerful book for our time. It is a necessary book for our time. It is poignant, and moving, and true. If you haven’t already read it, I hope you will.

And so, on this Thanksgiving, my gratitude goes to Jacqueline Woodson, and other writers who write deep and true and real books that speak to our world as it is, and as it can be.

Title: Harbor Me

Author: Jacqueline Woodson

Publisher: New York: Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House, 2018

Genre: Middle Grade fiction

Audience Age: 9 to 12 years

Themes/Topics: working past our differences, Dreamers, immigration, race, friendship, empathy

Opening Sentence: We think they took my papi.

Synopsis: The book begins with the main character remembering – remembering the year when six of her classmates in the classroom for “special” kids embarked on a great experiment, begun by their teacher, but brought to life by the kids themselves.

One Friday, Ms. Laverne, the kids’ teacher, tells them to take their books and follow her. She takes them to the old Art Room, and says this is now going to be their room on Friday afternoons, their room to talk and just be – just them, no teacher, no monitoring, no one to keep them from saying whatever they want. As one of the kids says after she leaves, instead of an ART room, it’s now an A.R.T.T. room. A Room To Talk.

Gradually, the kids begin sharing deeply of what is happening in their lives. And the main character records it all on a small, handheld voice recorder. Esteban begins the sharing with the words We think they took my papi. His father has been taken, as they eventually learn, to a detention place in Florida, but the suspicion is that he will be sent back to Puerto Rico. The family fears being separated permanently, although they think surely, surely, the children who have been born here, like Esteban, will be safe.

It’s a time of fear and uncertainty for him, and for the others in the A.R.T.T. room who come to value him and care for him. One by one, they each share their story. They talk of race, and fear, and family struggles, and of their need to belong. They learn to listen to each other, to bridge the gaps between them, to empathize and to share from their hearts. They learn the importance of being a safe harbor for each other. The main character wonders if she can share her story, if she is brave enough, if she will find that safe harbor if she tells the truth about her family. I found myself yearning for her to be able to share and to feel the power of being supported by the others.

As I read this book, I realized how important it is these days that we all seek to be harbors for each other, to be sensitive to those who are in need of harbor, and to recognize when we, ourselves, need to rest and rely on someone else to harbor us for a while. We need to harbor each other, be there for each other, be aware of and aware for each other, be with each other. Be.

And yes, we need to write books that will speak to kids: books that will give them harbor in whatever storms they face, books that will uplift and challenge, but also books that will take them away to new worlds for a while, or will make them laugh uproariously for a while. Books are important. Writing is important. All the different kinds of books that kids reach for are important.

For Further Enrichment: There is a teacher’s guide at the Penguin Random House website.

There are interviews with Jacqueline Woodson, about writing realistic kids’ fiction from an African American perspective as well as other topics, and more teaching information about Harbor Me at the Teaching Books website.

Find Jacqueline Woodson’s website here.

Availability: Readily available.

5 People reacted on this

  1. Thank you so much, Beth. This is such a valuable book, especially now. And I love what you said…WE ALL HAVE TO HARBOR EACH OTHER. And we need to write books where kids will find safe harbor, at least in moments they are reading the story. Yes. Beautiful book and a wonderful review.

  2. Aren’t we connected today! I enjoyed you gentle way of telling the story and going into greater detail. I think it such an excellent book for 5-6th graders who are making that important transition into their teen years. Like you, I enjoyed the discussion group. Hope this nudges teachers to experiment with small groups. Hard to put this book down!

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