Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

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Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen, 2018.

Here’s my last review of the books I read for the 2nd round of the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction award. Harbor Me probably generated more discussion than any of the other books and was more divisive. But here’s the great thing about the Cybils: the shortlist can include the cozy wish fulfillment of, say, The Doughnut Fix and as well as the gritty reality of Harbor Me. It’s a hard job comparing the two, but was most gratifying, and if you haven’t had the opportunity to read about the winner, The Parker Inheritance, now’s your chance!

A class of 6 special education 5th/6th grade kids are given a weekly opportunity by their teacher, “tall and soft-spoken and patient Ms. Laverne” to just talk to each other about anything without any adult supervision. Over the course of the novel, we get to know these kids and what they’re going through.

Biracial narrator Haley is dealing with an upheaval in her life as her uncle, who has been her only parent while her dad was in jail, is moving out when her father is released. Latinx Esteban’s father has been detained by ICE and the rest of his family are fearful about what has happened to him and what might happen to them. Ashton, the only white kid in the grade, is being physically bullied by other kids. African American Holly, Haley’s best friend, has ADHD and can’t sit still. Native American Taino and African American Amari have both faced racism and prejudice.

This sounds like a list of “issues” but Ms Woodson is such a skilled writer that the kids’ problems are integrated very naturally into the novel and are only part of their story and who they are. As they go to the art room, which they re-name the ARTT (a room to talk), each week they gradually form a deep bond as they tell their truths and start looking out for each other, fulfilling Ms Laverne’s request that they be a harbor for people who need it.

Overlaying all of their individual family and social situations is that they are a special education class and, though they pretend not to, they do care about what other kids say. Even though the teacher tells them “how special we were, how smart, how kind, how beautiful – how tons of successful people had different ways of learning…some days it got inside us.”

I found it particularly interesting how the author takes on race through Ashton who has the “white pass” but is now in a school with mostly brown and black kids. He’d never thought about being white before but now he is as aware of the color of his skin as his classmates have already had to be and the other kids in the ARTT help him to thresh through those feelings.

These are real kids who are not defined by their problems but who have to deal with them as part of their daily lives. And let us not forgot, as the cover reminds us, these are all American kids, no matter their ethnicity or family origins. The reader will care about all of them and it’s a wonder that Ms Woodson manages to cram so much into such a short novel (less than 200 pages!) without it feeling in any way forced.

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