by Jacquline Woodson (2020)
A Middle School selection.
“Always remember, when you are with your people, you are home.”
Welcome to the ARRT Room – A Room To Talk. Here, six Brooklyn middle school students are afforded one hour each Friday to talk amongst themselves – no adults present.
The students are blessed with a humane and understanding teacher who creates this private space. It’s a racially and economically diverse group of students, dealing with their own challenges – and it turns out they can really use the time and freedom to get to know each other – to find out where each of them is coming from and what each of them is dealing with.
Haley is bi-racial being raised by her white uncle, and serves as the story’s narrator. She has a compelling story, but she is reluctant to share it even as she encourages her friends to share their own struggles by speaking into her voice recorder.
Holly is Black and Haley’s best friend. Holly’s mother has taken Haley in, providing the Black female role model Haley desperately needs.
Tiago is a boy from Puerto Rico and frustrated by some of the ways he and his family have been treated – American, but not American enough.
Esteban’s family is a from the Dominican Republic and his parents are undocumented. His father has been deported, providing a through-line to the novel.
Amari is a young Black boy facing The Talk from his father who counsels him not to play with toy guns at the park.
Ashton, a White boy who is new to the school, is all ears and has a lot to learn.
Given the space and time and freedom of the ARTT Room, they listen to each other and create bonds that support each member with understanding and love.
Esteban’s story provides the narrative arc of the novel. His father writes him poetry, which Esteban translates into English to share with his friends. His father’s letters provide a platform for the students to evaluate their own feelings, stories, and secrets.
The novel is lean, brisk, and deeply moving. It is filled with choice moments and insights marked by Woodson’s poetic prose. At one point Amari remarks on Haley’s tape-recordings: “It’s like you’re trying to remember us.” It sounds simple, but Amari’s observation is profoundly true. Haley is not just creating a historical archive. Instead, she wants to hold onto the words and stories because they provide balm and insight. Learning about and empathizing with other students, other lives, helps her put her own travails in perspective. Haley will conclude: “Tragedy is strange. It takes away. And it gives too.” She is not alone. And she is fortified.
They all are. That is the genius of Harbor Me. A room and an hour each week is all it takes for these six remarkable young people to build their own harbor, to become that sheltering place for each other. Their stories intertwine, providing comfort and solace.
And we get to listen.
Harbor Me is sure to inspire your students to want to have space and time to talk amongst themselves. And the impeccable writing of Jacqueline Woodson will live on in their hearts long after they close the book.