Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible. Her dad is always busy planning how to increase traffic to the family business. Her Mom is constantly going off to meditate. Her sister Sarah, who’s taking a “gap year” after high school, is too busy finding ways not to work; and her brother Holden is too focused on his new “friend” to pay attention to her. And then there’s Charlie: three years old, a “surprise” baby, and the center of everyone’s world. If it wasn’t for Ran, Fern’s best and oldest friend, there would be nowhere to turn. Ran is always calm, always positive. His mantra “All will be well” is soothing in a way that nothing else seems to be. And when Ran says it, Fern can almost believe.But when their lives are unexpectedly turned upside down, Fern feels more alone than ever, and responsible for the event that wrenches the family apart. All will not be well. Or at least, all will never be the same.
BRIDGE: Jo Knowles writes the quintessential middle grade book and See You at Harry’s is another gem. Fern is the perfect balance of needy child still doting on her parents and adolescent who is resentful of her parents’ supervision. Fern suffers from the same ailment that afflicts many children in multi-child households: she feels overlooked and ignored. She wants her parents to take notice of her but secretly relishes the independence her parents’ neglect provides. Every reader who has siblings will relate to some aspect of their family dynamics. The real power of Fern’s story is in its fragmented emotionality. Fern is struggling with the typical roiling emotions of becoming a teenager: her most treasured friendship becomes complicated, her brother is struggling with an identity crisis, and a family tragedy changes everyone’s family roles. It is through Fern’s eyes that we watch this family unravel and then slowly begin to knit itself back together.
It is difficult to discuss all the wonderful ways in which students will connect and learn from See You at Harry’s without giving a little of its secrets away. Rest assured that if you don’t read the rest of this post, you’ll want to come back once you’ve finished the book to confirm what you will more than likely intuit as you read: this book will save lives. I liken this book’s potential life-saving qualities to those of Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Fern struggles to gain her mother’s attention and approval and readers who have an emotionally or physically absent parent will immediately recognize the internal argument Fern has with herself to gain self-worth on her own instead of through her parents’ approval or admiration. She does feel hopeless and ignored at times but works through it with help from Ran and her older sister Sarah, avoiding a potential depression. Readers might see that there are ways to find the help and attention they so desperately need.
Fern’s brother Holden’s identity crisis will resonate with several reader groups. He is bullied for his perceived homosexuality and, while even his family feels that his sexuality is basically a foregone conclusion, he continues to grapple with admitting it to himself and his family. Knowles does an amazing job of portraying the gamut of reactions a family might have to this revelation. Their father is in denial, Holden’s sisters love him regardless, his mom is cautious that it might not be his ultimate lifestyle choice, and Charlie just wonders what all the fuss is about. Watching Holden grapple with his sexuality, being bullied because of it, and seeing multiple reactions to it and ways to deal with the externally and internally related struggles will give a myriad perspectives and outcomes in such a potentially volatile life milestone. Readers will see that enduring and standing up to bullying may not be as difficult or as easy as it might seem as is one’s sexual identity.
Finally, with the family member’s death, readers see and feel the overwhelming surges of grief and guilt with losing a sibling. Fern’s family fractures, as most families do with an unexpected death, and readers experience all the gut-wrenching emotion that Fern goes through. Readers will ache right along with Fern and her family as they attempt to come to grips with their loss and redefine “family” with a missing member. This window into a life taken too soon will help young and old readers alike remember to take every day as a gift and to treasure those we hold dear.
READERS: This book will appeal to readers of contemporary fiction but would appeal to male and female readers alike. With a good balance of sorrow, humor, and common sense, Knowles has crafted a book that has something for most readers. Die-hard fantasy or horror fans might be uninterested but the characters’ personalities and emotions ring true.
OTHER TITLES: Readers and teachers who enjoy this book will also find similarly touching and empowering stories in Wonder by R. J. Palacio, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, and The Misfits by James Howe. All of these titles would be excellent choices for literature circles to tackle bullying and other peer relationship issues.