Updated: Jan 20, 2019
Thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of this book for the purposes of review:
Like many modern authors, Jacqueline Woodson is known for her innovative themes and ideas that usually translate well to aspiring children’s works, may it be lavishly illustrated books such as this coming week’s release of The Day You Begin or her chapter book Brown Girl Dreaming released back in 2014. As a result, Harbor Me, Woodson’s latest chapter book release, is expected to fall under that banner of innovative stories for children. Fortunately, Harbor Me doesn’t crack or stutter under that expectation but instead succeeds because of it. It boasts a powerfully novel idea for a story that has riveting themes and messages that appeal to all age demographics. It has a roster of characters, that may ultimately be stereotypes and have little development as characters, that prove to be compelling and serviceable for the story. And even despite some taxing issues littered throughout the 192-page length of the story, Harbor Me still succeeds thanks large in part due to the merging of all the previously listed factors. The book is a heartfelt, touching and impactful story that has critical issues with its pacing and character development, but still wraps up nicely for an enjoyable literary experience.
As a sole premise, Harbor Me is probably one of the most brilliant concepts for a story in recent literature. Portraying the stories of six unique, troubled children through the lenses of one central character proved to be a highlight of the experience. It allowed each story to be emphasized, creating an effect that seemed to ripple across the entire story.
The book is effectively told in two separate storylines. One involves the six children in a school classroom where they are allowed to freely discuss with one another without the keen eyes of their teacher. The other involves the main protagonist, Haley, and her own personal journey that she takes throughout the entire story. Both storylines are interesting and deeply impactful. They have thematic elements that would make any person weak at their knees. For a book targeting a younger audience, it was shocking to discover that the messages of Harbor Me rivaled some of that in advanced adult literature in their complexity and tone. However, while the two storylines work wonders on their own merits, they simply don’t merge with another that well. The purpose for multiple storylines is to create effects of comparison or merging storylines where characters interact with each other. Harbor Me largely avoids this purpose until the very last few scenes. This causes a climax that feels rather weak and unintentionally at that. In addition, the actual pacing of both storylines feels off-putting and discombobulated. There was never a single moment where the scene felt balanced. This is most likely due to just how short the novel is. When the copy from Penguin Random House first came in, I was shocked to see the meager length of the book only stretching to an inch worth of pages. Due to this short length, the book feels as if there is a major time constraint. Events occur without much development, leading to certain consequences and other events that feel lackluster in comparison. For example, a particularly early sequence was used to essentially set a whole storyline into gear. However, this sequence was never developed to its proper form as to where it was impactful in any way. It rather just felt like the book was scrolling down a list of events, rather than letting it occur in a natural manner.
As for the characters, they are essentially the focus of the entire story as they should be. The premise promises an impressive roster of deep characters, thanks to the unique lens that Woodson decided to implement within this novel. However, while certain characters are deep and complex in their design, the overwhelming majority feel like stereotypes, an utter shame given that the book is attempting to support diversity in cultures. This issue is particularly seen in supporting characters, where not as much attention is given. They come across as one-note and not particularly interesting in the slightest, once again a disappointing shame considering that the primary focus of the story is on these six characters.
As a whole, Harbor Me is a fascinating and enjoyable read for all. It may have a childish word choice that some older readers may scoff at. But it contains a heartwarming story that will certainly appeal towards all ages. It may have serious issues that prevent it from ranking as one of the best books of the year, but it’s simply undeniable that it is one of the most important novels of the year. Its sheer boldness and inventiveness outrivals most of the literature released thus far and I am confident that few books will be able to outclass its genius story structure in the coming few months. Harbor Me is a book that can be classified as good, but unfortunately not great.
Score: 7.0 out of 10