Much like Brown Girl Dreaming, Jaqueline Woodson’s ability to weave together challenging, yet relevant story lines with subtle imagery and graceful, melodic language does not fall short in her 2018 novel, Harbor Me.This is an important story for adults (particularly teachers) and older students alike, as it reminds readers that each child has defining layers to their life stories and deserves to be sheltered by the communities that care for them.
Harbor Me, begins with a small group of fifth grade students who define themselves only by the fact that they do not fit in at their Brooklyn public school, because they have special needs. Their teacher, Ms. Laverne creates a safe space (The ARTT Room – A Room To Talk) in their school lives to talk to one another without structures imposed by adults or the pressures of school. As the children become acclimated they begin to share and their storylines unravel and become revealed. Main character and narrator, Haley Anderson, and friends, Tiago, Amari, Ashton, Holly, and Esteban are all complex characters that present the challenge to readers of understanding that characters’ external personas often mask deep pain and insecurity within.
As the novel evolves, the children support one another as they struggle with issues surrounding immigration and deportation, parental imprisonment and death, race, SES, and police brutality. Haley uses a handheld recorder to capture the childrens’ stories. Though the children’s stories do have concrete resolutions, they learn through the behind the scenes coaching of Ms. Laverne, that when terrible things happen, when life ebbs and flows, we must always harbor one another. We must listen intently to the stories of our friends and students so that everyone has a safe place to feel protected and valued.
There is much to unpack in this story and it should be saved for older, more sophisticated readers. Middle grade readers will be able to grapple with the challenging subject matter and the symbolism in Woodson’s writing. Harbor Me is a beautiful whole-class read aloud, particularly if shared at the at the beginning or closure of a classroom community.It is also a wonderfully challenging book club book that presents readers with opportunities for important analysis at every level. Students unpack the symbolism of a harbor. They learn along with Haley that characters made by stories, piled up on stories. They feel heartbroken, vulnerable, and hopeful right along with each character. Teachers are reminded that sometimes the most important thing is to pause, listen, and shelter our children. Jaqueline Woodson has triumphed once again in crafting a narrative that is born from today’s pain with messaging that eloquently rises above.