Guest blogger Katya Schapiro finds Jacqueline Woodson’s latest audio a thoughtful and alluring listen.
What can’t Jacqueline Woodson do? In any genre she writes, her special brand of sincerity, simplicity, and lyrical honesty shines warmly through. Anyone fortunate enough to have met her or heard her speak knows that that is the real Ms. Woodson—warm, direct, and insightful. She allows her characters to ask hard questions, and tries to let them answer them as honestly as they know how.
Woodson’s new middle grade novel, Harbor Me, is a small, talky book, almost a novella. Light on plot but heavy on topical themes, Harbor Me is the story of a very unusual school year alliance. Six kids, all atypical learners, are given a weekly Friday afternoon safe space—A Room to Talk (ARTT), by their teacher, Ms. Laverne (voiced by Woodson). There they slowly come to know and support one another, sharing their fears (of deportation, of racial profiling) and their losses, as well as their art and their dreams. While the premise seems heavy-handed on the surface, Woodson’s care for her characters brings it to life. The scenes in the ARTT room are interspersed with memories and scenes from narrator Haley’s life, as she awaits the return of the father who has been incarcerated most of her life.
With conversation and sharing as the book’s main action, it’s perfectly suited to the audiobook format, possibly even improved by it. The use of a full cast brings each character to very specific life. The cast is strong, and Mikelle Wright-Matos, as Amari, particularly stands out. The production is a true family affair—not only does Jacqueline Woodson voice Ms. Laverne, but her daughter, Toshi Widoff-Woodson, also does a character, and the crowning charm of the audiobook, as or more engaging than the story itself, is the included conversation between Woodson and her son, Jackson.
This conversation, which follows the reading of the text, covers topics from race to writing to Jackson’s love of audiobooks on repeat (he’s a big Justin Reynolds fan), and is required listening. Clearly, parenting is one more thing Jacqueline Woodson is pretty damned good at.
Watching the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor the other day, I spent a lot of time thinking about the things that Mr. Rogers could offer by embracing being a little…boring. Safety. A time and space to talk and think. Room for emotions and self-understanding. In its deceptive simplicity, Harbor Me offers that same space, both to its characters and to its readers, and listening to it is a meditative and thought provoking experience.
Harbor Me, by Jacqueline Woodson, read by N’Jameh Camara with Jose Carrera, Dean Flanagan, Angel Romero, Toshi Widoff-Woodson, Mikelle Wright-Mados, and Jacqueline Woodson. 3 hours, 20 minutes. Listening Library, August 2018.
Katya Schapiro is a Senior Children’s librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. Some of her first literary loves were audiobooks (on vinyl!), and she remains a voracious listener of radio plays and audiobooks. Originally trained as an actor, she relishes the nuances and the production values of the rapidly expanding audiobook world. Katya also blogs for Guessing Geisel, and reviews for School Library Journal.