Review: Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me Is a Radical Exercise in Empathy

Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me explores systemic American violence with a gentle force.

Of all of the kid lit I’ve been reading lately, Harbor Me has been one of the most intense reads. I considered myself a Woodson fan since picking up Red at the Bone, a story geared towards adults, but one that shares salient themes and warm, incisive writing with this latest read. Harbor Me doesn’t shy away from institutional realities that break apart families and endanger children. But it does this without casting its characters as victims — in fact, Woodson even establishes, through Amari’s comic, that they are superheroes. 

Haley’s perspective guides us as she reflects on the events that happened to her when she was younger. Haley is half-Black, with big, electric red hair that’s a symbol throughout the book. With Haley’s emotional maturity, I sometimes forget that the story looks at the lives of six 7th graders. At this point, Haley’s father is in jail, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. She lives with her loving uncle, who takes her to see her dad every other month. At school, her teacher puts her and five other classmates alone into ARRT, A Room to Talk.

Over time, the children open up to each other. Haley records their conversations as Woodson does so through the book. There are salient conversations about race. How Amari couldn’t get a toy gun because he’s Black. How Tiago feels ostracized for speaking Spanish, even though he’s Puerto Rican, and Puerto Rico is a part of America. How Esteban worries over his father, who’s been detained by ICE. Their teacher, Ms. Laverne, reminds them that America isn’t necessarily the home of the brave and free, not when they’re living on Lenape land that was violently taken by colonizers. 

Woodson really knows her craft so well. And she’s brave. She reveals how institutions such as ICE and prison hurt families, how they trace back to the violence of colonization. But she never relinquishes joy and hope. We get moments where Kira treats Haley’s hair, where Tiago wears a silly Santa hat with a beard. Woodson uses her precise sentences and evocative language as vehicles for the stories that the children tell. We see an emphasis on details that develop mood — Haley’s nostalgia for her mother’s bright red nails and her complicated love for her father as she feels his stiff prison uniform. 

Harbor Me is a radical exercise in empathy, propelled by beautiful language and strong characters. It’s a reminder for both older children and adults to harbor each other. 

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Grades: 5 – 8

Published: 2018

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