Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson: The story we need right now to talk to our kids about the world we live in
When I was a child, in the quaint old days of the mid 1980s, news was contained. Tame and predictable, it appeared right around the start of dinner time, and departed promptly at the start of the prime time TV hour. Other than infrequent visit to the classroom in the form of Readers Weekly, nightly news and current events were vague, infrequent visitors from the adult world.
Not any more. Well beyond the twenty-four hour news cycle ushered in by the cable television age, news and current events are everywhere. On Facebook; Youtube; two thirds of the television programming; in podcasts; on twitter and Instagram. And unlike my own childhood, news and snippets surround our children. Flooding them with bits and bobs of news, current events and endless commentary both true and false. To me, it’s impossible for me to pinpoint what bits of news my children have peripheral knowledge of. From the Parkland School shooting, to the retirement of Anthony Kennedy from the Supreme Court, to the separation of immigrant families who cross the border without papers, my children have surprised me again and again by piping up with partial knowledge of these events.
It’s in this new landscape that Jacqueline Woodson’s book Harbor Me, arrives. Narrator Haley is a 6th grader in a combined classroom of fifth and sixth grade kids at her school in Brooklyn. A class of students with various learning differences, the kids are outcasts, often teased and picked on by the other kids. Thrown together in this classroom, there are a couple of preexisting friendships, like Haley and Holly and Amari and Ashton, but by and large the kids start the year as strangers.
When classmate Esteban’s father goes missing and the family suspects he has been taken by immigration services, the crisis leads the kids' teacher Mrs. Laverne to pilot a radical experiment. For the last hour of school on each Friday she leads the class to a forgotten room where they are left alone to talk, without instruction and without adult supervision. The kids dub the room the ARTT room - A Room to Talk, but at first they don’t.
Haley, the story’s heart, is obsessed with memory. Since she can remember she’s lived with her uncle after her father went to jail and her mother died. She hungrily eats up stories of her parents and especially her mother in the hopes of reconstructing her. Sensing that even her time with this class is fleeting, Haley brings a tape recorder to the ARTT room sessions, so the kids can record their stories. The idea of recording and preserving seems to free the kids to talk honestly about their lives and their worries and hopes.
Beautifully written and ambitious, Jacqueline Woodson uses each student to highlight different aspects of current American life. From the role of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the wealth gap and issues of race and racism, Woodson openly, if somewhat artificially, explores how these sometimes distant ideas actually affect the students of the ARTT room.
Harbor Me isn’t a perfect story. It is somewhat heavy handed and pedagogical in nature. Some of the characters are shallow representatives of their concerns. Sometimes it reads more like a lesson than a true story. But it's a pedagogical tool we need at this time. As our children grapple with news and current events. As we, as parents, struggle to meaningfully discuss and address these world issues, Harbor Me is a smart path into those conversations, full of heart and meaning.
© 2018 Nancy Paulsen Books an imprint of Penguin Books
Sometimes pedagogical in nature, Woodson’s new novel is a good way to talk to your kids about the barrage of news and current events they are often confronted and bombarded with on a daily basis, including US Immigration policies, racial and ethnic bias, wealth disparity, prison and police brutality.