Thursday, September 6, 2018

How Jacqueline Woodson's Harbor Me Perfectly Depicts Adolescent Friendship [Contributor: Megan Mann]

(Image credit: Penguin Random House)

"Once there were six of us. Once we circled around each other, and listened. Or maybe what matters most is that we were heard."

Within the first few pages of Jacqueline Woodson’s stunning new novel Harbor Me, Haley lets us know that back when she was in fifth grade, everything changed. After being placed in a specific class with five other kids, their teacher, Ms. Laverne, takes the children into the old art room and tells them that every Friday, the group would meet for the last hour of school and talk. Just talk. The subject matter was irrelevant, but they had to talk. When Haley gets the bright idea to bring a recorder and to capture what’s said within those walls, the group opens up and realizes that without that room, their lives would be different. Without each other, they would be different.

Being an adolescent is tough. Anyone who’s been through middle-school and experienced rapid change knows that those were not the greatest years of our lives. You worry that people will judge you and believe that no one wants to hear your story — that no one wants to know what’s going on with you. You hide parts of yourself you would rather not talk about. You’re worried about being too different and just want to be “normal.”

This notion — this thought process of just wanting to be “normal” — is perfectly exemplified in Harbor Me. The six students come together in this defunct art room, now renamed ARTT (A Room to Talk), and realize that they don’t know where to begin. What do we talk about that won’t make the others look at us funny? they wonder. But when Esteban steps up and talks about how immigration has taken his undocumented papi, the conversation opens the floodgates.

Amari talks about the scrutiny that young African-Americans suffer from and how his dad recently talked with him about no longer being able to play with his Nerf guns outside of the house. This opens a dialogue about racism in America that it takes Amari’s best friend Ashton time to fully understand. Tiago opens up about how fearful his mother is when she’s speaking in Spanish, since someone has yelled at her to go back to her country. He says that having to “learn American” is hard, but that the group makes him feel like he’s more than just the language he speaks or the color of his skin.

Ashton talks about being bullied, which leads the group to banding together to protect him from attack by a trio of eighth graders. He also discusses how hard it was to move from Connecticut to Brooklyn when his dad lost his job. Holly admits to hating that people call her “rich girl” when the money is her parents’, not her own. She also confesses that she wishes she didn’t have such a big mouth and wasn’t always so fidgety.

While everyone talks, Haley sits and soaks it all in. She waits to tell her story until the very end. She doesn’t want others to make assumptions about her when they find out that her dad is in prison for vehicular manslaughter. She has all of these memories stored up and is afraid of how they might see her after she spills them.

But what each of the kids learn is that these stories — all of these things that make up who we are and how we view the world — these things are what link us. Sharing their stories draws the group even closer together. Because the stories we share with each other, the memories we create, and the shoulders we lean on help us realize that we’re not that different. If we open up and let go of the fear of judgement, we discover bonds we might not have known were possible.

Friendship is crucial at a time in life where change is inevitable. For tweens and teenagers, this is even more important. Jacqueline Woodson makes it clear that isolating yourself isn’t worth it in the end. What matters is finding your tribe and relying on them to understand you and hear you when you need it most (which Haley brilliantly points out at the beginning of the book). When friends act like a safe harbor, it’s easier to walk through life’s hardest moments and share in its best moments.

A story like Harbor Me reminds readers to pay attention to those around us, and those that we hold close. Each of us is going through something and we need to find our own anchors. This book proves that friendship is important at every stage of our lives. As Jacqueline Woodson says: “Always remember, when you are with your people, you are home.”

That’s something we can all believe in.

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson is out now from Penguin Kids.


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