Harbor Me by Jaqueline Woodson, 192 pp, RL 4

In December of last year, National Ambassador for Children's Literature, Jaqueline Woodson spoke to the New York Times about two children's books she was working on, The Day You Begin and the middle-grade novel, Harbor Me, saying, "I am talking about what it means to be in this country at this moment in time in certain bodies." Woodson's many memorable, meaningful, moving books - picture, chapter and verse novels, as well as novels for adults - explore emotions, difficult connections and how to find acceptance and belonging. To this, Woodson adds a timely novel that explores what it means to be an outsider in a time when boundaries are being very clearly drawn by our current president and his supporters.

Narrator Haley tells the story of what happens in Room 501 of a school in Brooklyn every Friday during the last hour of school. Once an art room, the six students in Ms. Laverne's class rename it the ARTT room - A Room To Talk. Ms. Laverne wants her students, who know they have been labeled, "special," to have the, "space to talk about the things kids talk about when no grown-ups are around." In telling the stories of her classmates, Haley also tells her own story, one that she has never shared with her classmates, and one that will soon be changing. Woodson uses the brilliant premise of a classroom of "special" kids to put characters on the page who reflect the rapidly growing diversity of our country - both racially, ethnically and socioeconomically. In doing this, Woodson shows readers what it means to be an outsider and what it means to find acceptance and belonging.

Haley brings a handheld recorder to the ARTT room, hoping to record her classmates stories. At the start of the story, Esteban's father, who is an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic, has not come home from work. After agonizing weeks not knowing, his family learns that he has been picked up by ICE and sent to a detention center in Florida. Esteban's father sends him letters with poems he writes while waiting to learn his fate, and the fate of his wife and children. Tiago, who moved to New York from Puerto Rico, shares a story about walking down the street with his mother, speaking Spanish, and being harrassed by by a man, shouting, "This is America! Speak English!" Frustrated by this comment, noting that Puerto Rico IS America, too, Tiago is saddened by the silencing effect it has on his mother. Amari, with skin so dark, "you could almost see the color blue running beneath it," tells the story of a talk his father has with him, explaining that he can no longer play with toy guns because he is a boy of color. Telling this story creates tension in the room, as Ashton, who moved with his family from a suburb in Connecticut to Brooklyn when his father lost his job, is the one white boy in the class. Ashton struggles to understand why he can still play outside with a toy gun while his classmates of color can't, saying, "on my first day here, almost every kid seemed to be some shade of brown. I had never seen so many brown . . . and black people. . . I'm not saying anything to be racist, it's just what I remember. I never thought about my color until that day." 

In Harbor Me, Woodson's characters have the hard conversations that many adults struggle with - the conversations that I struggle with as the white lady in a school where almost every student is a beautiful shade of brown. The six characters in Harbor Me share stories that I have heard from my students over and over. Haley, Holly, Amari, Tiago, Ashton and Esteban are not six examples of the challenges children in America face today, enhanced for fictional purposes, they are not six diverse stories from all over the country put into one room as a storytelling device. They are happening now, all at once and in so many schools across the country. I am deeply grateful to Woodson for writing this book - this 176 page book (only 40% of the students at my school are reading at grade level, a number that I know tracks nationally) that is accessible to my fourth and fifth graders - because, to use a phrase from her magnificent picture book that comes out next week - she has given us a way to begin. A way to begin sharing our stories, a way to begin listening to the stories others have to share, a way to begin connecting with others and practicing the empathy that we need to desperately right now. 

Source: Review Copy

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