Review of the Day: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
A good book, whether it’s written for a nine-year-old, a nineteen-year-old, or a ninety-year-old can tilt your perspective, if only momentarily. Consider the concept of the “happy ending” and what it’s supposed to resemble. What does a real happy ending actually entail in real life? In children’s books, many times the ending of a given story is happy when day is done. In real life, something happy may happen to a child but where’s the “ending” in all that? As an author, Jacqueline Woodson doesn’t eschew a sense of completion when you get to the end of her books. Kids could spend a long time debating whether some of her endings could be so simplified as to call them “happy” or not. Harbor Me falls into that category. The satisfaction a reader feels upon its completion is intrinsically tied to its writing, but to call this a “happy” book is to diminish it. Shooting for the moon, Ms. Woodson manages to fill this svelte title with a host of different ideas, lessons, and teachable moments. And while I don’t think it knocks it out of the park with every swing, it still manages to be one of the most interesting and well-written books of this or any other year.
It sounds like a social experiment more than anything else. Six kids are removed from their classmates and placed in their own room for a weekly discussion. Their teacher’s rules are clear. “Every Friday . . . the six of you will leave my classroom at two p.m. and come into Room 501. You’ll sit in this circle and you’ll talk. When the bell rings at three, you’re free to go home.” Putting kids in a separate space together can end with either a “Breakfast Club” situation or a Lord of the Flies conundrum. Predictably, at first the kids don’t want to say a word, but when Haley starts bringing in a hand recorder, something cracks open. Esteban is able to talk about his dad, recently taken by the police and sent back to another country. Amari about the restrictions put on black boys in America. Ashton on being one of the few white kids in their Brooklyn school. But it’s Haley herself that has the hardest time talking. About her mom’s death. Her dad’s incarceration. As the room comes together and bonds, people listen to one another and everyone gets and ending. Happy or not.
Now every children’s book that strives to imbue its pages with weight and meaning must contend with a danger that I like to call “the rogue cute”. The rogue cute is that moment where the author’s writing tips from meaningful into faux meaningful. From something that is honestly moving into something that feels like it’s trying too hard. All children’s books novelists contend with this issue to varying degrees of success. Ms. Woodson is no different, and there are times when she is more successful than others. For example, to read this book is to accept that it is, to a certain extent, an idealized situation. Six kids, mostly strangers to one another, are placed in a room where they may argue, disagree, or even tease but who are, in the end, devoid of cruelty. That’s the premise, but fortunately there’s a lot more going on here than just that. As with many children’s books, Ms. Woodson is conveying a message, but where she may seem to be painting with too broad a brush in some places, at other times she’s quite circumspect. For example, many novels for kids stress the need for us to empathize with one another. Woodson actually turns the concept of active listening into a whole book without hitting the reader over the head with the message. Each time a kid in the classroom wants to speak, everyone lets them, with a minimal amount of interruptions or interjections. Equity and diversity trainings often include a portion of the training where people are taught this very skill. Leave it Ms. Woodson to model this behavior for the next generation.
As for the six characters, some are better delineated than others. I found myself thinking that single character points (being bullied, moving, etc.) are rarely proper stand-ins for personality traits. So I do wish just a smidgen more work had gone into showing precisely why this group has bonded as tightly as it has. I understand that much of it has to do with being able to talk honestly in a safe space. I guess I just wish there’d been 215 pages rather than 192, to allow for some more of those connections. That said, Ms. Woodson has somehow managed to write a handsome novel at less than 200 pages. If she stopped and thoroughly examined in depth every character to the same extent that she follows Haley, you’d be looking at a book that was at least twice the length of the one here. And while I wish I’d been able to know more than just one thing about some of these characters, I can’t help but admire the almost Hemingway-esque succinctness of the narrative. After a while, it got me to thinking about how we meet characters in books and how we meet them in real life. When you meet someone new, your brain essentially reduces that person to their most essential parts. This is in large part because we have to find a way to consolidate and organize the information about that person as quickly as possible. Authors, in turn, have to mimic that process on the page AND for a younger readership that’s been reliant on compartmentalization for years. It takes a certain amount of talent to accomplish this. Talent Ms. Woodson has in droves.
When Ms. Woodson does delve deep into a character, the story ends up in some interesting places. Four of the kids in the room are described pretty darn well. Esteban is hard to separate from his own headspace, but I liked how you got glimpses of his life away from the page. “His nails were bitten so deep, there was a ring of pink skin at the top of his fingers. It looked painful.” Haley, meanwhile, was of interest to me because she highlighted something I’ve noticed in my own 7-year-old daughter. For children, memory can be shockingly short. I’ll read a book repeatedly for months when my kid is four only to find she has no memory of it at all at six. Haley is old enough to want more of her own forgotten memories. As she says at one point, “I’d lock every moment of memory inside a room in my brain and hope they’d multiply like cells in our bodies, until I was a grown-up all filled with memories. Maybe that’s what made us free. Maybe it was our memories. The stuff we survived, the good stuff and the bad stuff.” And it’s thoughts like this that push this book out of the ordinary into the distinguished.
In some ways, the author is working a lot of themes into a single novel. She touches on everything from the Lenape, to the reasons why black boys have to get a talk from their dads about why they can’t play with Nerf or water guns in public anymore, to the death of a dog that manages to be heartbreaking in a shockingly short amount of time. Sometimes these elements land with the reader and sometimes they don’t but you cheer on the effort. Plus, you get a lot of really good lines along the way. Lines like, “I think this is what the world is – stories on top of stories, all the way back to the beginning of time.” This sentiment is echoed later when Haley remembers a moment when a familiar painting was taken off the wall, leaving a pale green square behind. This disturbs the girl immeasurably. “… I didn’t want to believe that was all there was. That when one thing went away, just the pale ghost of it remained. I wanted to believe in stories on top of stories. Always something else. Always one more ending.” Esteban’s dad’s poems are a clever inclusion too. Essentially, they enable Ms. Woodson to slip some poetry in there that would be too mature for the kids to be able to write, but that remains simple enough for them to parse themselves.
A friend of mine mentioned to me recently that in some ways, Jacqueline Woodson’s two books for children out in 2018, Harbor Me and The Day You Begin contain similar themes. Of the two they preferred the picture book, and I do see why. For a lot of people Woodson manages an emotional resonance in those scant 32 pages that can be elusive in novels like this one. Harbor Me has strong emotional beats in the usual places, even as it doesn’t go for the jugular as often as I wanted, personally. For example, when it becomes clear that Esteban and his father are gone, I wanted more of a kick to my heart. Other choices didn’t appeal to me personally, like the fact that most of the book is a flashback from present day, right at the beginning. For the first fifteen pages I was confused and felt that the book had some difficulty finding its feet. Once it did, however, it continued forward cool and collected. That pretty much summarizes a lot of how I felt about the book. I didn’t always agree with the author’s choices, but I couldn’t argue with the results. At one point I wrote in my notes, “Oh, man. It’s good.” It is. I don’t think it’s perfect but perfection is kind of beside the point. I’ve only touched on a few of the myriad elements spotted throughout this book. Ripe for discussion, this is the book that will get kids thinking and talking and (maybe most importantly for some) listening for decades to come.
On shelves August 28th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network