Welcome to the latest installment of Brightly’s Book Club for Kids, where we provide you with engaging books and book-inspired activities that young readers can enjoy together. Our new pick, Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson, is a beautifully written book that packs a big emotional punch. For an hour each week, six kids with learning differences share their stories together — stories that include an incarcerated parent, a parent detained by immigration, bullying, and racial profiling. As they build friendship and trust, these kids model for us the meaning of being a safe harbor for each other.
About the Book
Best For: Kids ages 10 and up.
You’ll Like It If You Like: Realistic stories that address timely issues with honesty and hope.
Major Themes: Immigration, race, forgiveness, bullying, identity, friendship, and family.
What It’s About: Harbor Me is about a diverse group of children whose insightful teacher lets them have a weekly hour of kids-only sharing time, which the book’s narrator, Haley, captures on a voice recorder. What the six kids discuss is real, honest, and often difficult. For instance, Esteban is afraid for his family after his dad was picked up and detained by ICE. Ashton, who is white, shares his new awareness of race as well as how he’s being bullied. Amari thinks it’s unfair when his dad forbids him to play with Nerf guns due to police violence against African-American boys.
Although Haley listens and supports her friends when they share, she feels reluctant to tell the group that her dad is in jail after causing the accident that killed her mother. When her friend Holly encourages Haley to share, Haley discovers for herself how they have her back. These kids’ brave interactions model healthy communication skills and show the growth possibilities within trusted friendships.
Why We Picked It: This timely book contains themes that are particularly significant in today’s world. We think it will be a catalyst for discussion, thinking, and empathy.
The Book Club Meeting
You’ll notice that Harbor Me provides an excellent example of a safe, trust-filled group discussion. None of the kids gossip about each other; they keep one another’s stories safe. As you read, consider the importance of maintaining your own safe book club environment. Perhaps before you begin your time together, review (or create) guidelines for your group to allow for respectful sharing, listening, and safe harboring.
- Haley says, “So much can change in a minute, an hour, a year.” Do you agree? Why?
- What does Ms. Laverne mean when she says that she wants each person to say, “I will harbor you”?
- We learn a lot about Esteban’s situation. He misses his Papi, who is being detained in Florida for possible deportation to the Dominican Republic. What else do we learn about Esteban, his Papi, and his family?
- Which of the six main characters’ stories most resonate with you? Why?
- How does Tiago describe the difference between his mom inside their home and outside their home? Why does he say this is?
- Ashton shares that he’d never thought about skin color until going to this school. What are the other kids’ reactions? What would you say to the ARTT group about your experience with racial identity?
- What did you learn from Tiago’s story about Perrito?
- Why does it take Haley so long to share about her dad? How do the other kids react when Haley shares her story?
- Haley’s uncle says to forgive and forget. Haley eventually decides she can forgive but not forget. Who do you agree with? What do you believe about forgiveness?
- Haley and Holly talk about their dream superpowers. What powers do they want? What would you want?
Activities to Dive Deeper into Harbor Me
Current Events: Find current news stories about any of the themes in the book, such as immigration, police brutality, or bullying. Share your articles with the group and discuss. Do these news stories seems more relevant to you after reading the book? Do you have any personal stories related to these themes that you feel comfortable sharing?
Listen: Get an inside look at Harbor Me by listening to this brief conversation between author Jacqueline Woodson and her son, Jackson-Leroi. It’s a sweet discussion and they talk about many of the themes that surface in the book.
(This conversation is excerpted from a longer interview — if you want to hear the whole thing, check out the audiobook version of Harbor Me!)
Art: At the end of the book, Amari shares a drawing that represents the group: “‘That’s us,’ he said. ‘And that’s a harbor.’” What do you imagine this picture looked like? Draw a picture to represent one of the messages in this story.
Poetry: Poetry is a big part of Esteban’s narrative. His father writes his own poetry, but he also mentions other poets such as Pablo Neruda. Read the picture book, Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda and His Muse. Talk about what you notice about Neruda. What does Neruda learn from an onion? How does he express this in a poem? Do you think Esteban and his Papi see the world like this, too?
Original Inhabitants: In the book, we learn that the Lenape Tribe lived in New York before European settlers arrived. If you don’t live in New York, use this map by Aaron Carapella to see who lived in North America before Europeans arrived. (You can learn more about Carapella’s map project here.) Find the area where you live right now. What Native American group lived where you do now? Continue learning about this tribe. Do an internet search or look them up on the Native Languages of the Americas page for kids.
Knit: You may have noticed that Holly often knits during their Friday afternoon discussions. Why not try your hand at knitting, too? It’s something you can do during the book club or at home. Have an experienced knitter teach your group how to get started or find step-by-step directions with a kid-friendly rhyme here.
What to Read Next
If you liked Harbor Me, you’ll want to read these other beautifully written, realistic books whose stories tackle big topics like immigration, refugees, race, and bullying.