Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Tuesday, April 2, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Where the Heart Is

Candlewick Press: Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles

Candlewick Press: Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles

Candlewick Press: Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles

Candlewick Press: Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles

Where the Heart Is

by Jo Knowles

With author Jo Knowles, readers always know where the heart will be: at the very center of her books. Truly bittersweet, Where the Heart Is features Rachel Gartner, a 13-year-old with some extremely relatable issues. Knowles gracefully captures that sliver of time when a young person sits at the cusp of adolescence but is still, occasionally, very much a child. She skillfully leads readers through the full span of Rachel's emotions as she navigates family, love and loss.

The summer she turns 13, Rachel gets an animal caretaking job. Her new neighbors, who recently built a fancy house on the land she and best friend Micah grew up playing on and sledding down, are hobbyist farmers. Rachel is sad about losing her beloved hills and fields, but tries to be philosophical about the job. After all, tending to horses, pigs, chickens and a sweet young steer named Ferdinand is not the worst way to make some money. Much-needed money, she thinks, since her parents are fighting more intensely than ever before, always about finances. In the past, she would have turned to Micah for support, but the friendship feels different lately. They "have always been perfect friends. Always, except for when he wanted to be more than that." Rachel wishes she felt "that way" about Micah, but she doesn't. In fact, she's realizing she's never been interested in a boy, and she has an uneasy feeling about what that might mean. Even though she's discovering it does feel nice to be close to her friend Cybil, Rachel tells her, "I feel like I'm too young to know who I'm attracted to."

Rachel's friendship with Micah, though strained at times, endures, in part because of their remarkable openness with each other. Micah has no qualms about telling Rachel when she's being weird and Rachel manages to admit that she feels jealous when Micah pays attention to other girls even though, as he says, "I thought you didn't want to be more than--never mind. You're really confusing me, Rachel." Even in the most delicate conversations, the two are heart-wrenchingly honest, as when Rachel says to Micah, "I know this is your way of helping me 'come out' or whatever, but I'm not ready to do that. At least not officially. I just want to get used to feeling how I feel. I don't want a label on me. Not yet."

In addition to all these confusing feelings, Rachel's charges are proving to be more challenging than she had anticipated. Lucy the pig is aggressive and stinky, although Rachel still hopes she can save her from her destiny as bacon for her owners. The hens peck at Rachel's ankles and pick on the smallest, scruffiest among them. And Ferdinand is cute but slimes her with his saliva. Luckily, her own beloved old rescue pony, Rainbow, remains a steadfast friend at home, even if he can't do much more than allow Rachel's eight-year-old sister, Ivy, to sit on him while Rachel reads aloud to them. Meanwhile, Rachel's parents need to work more so she has to let Ivy tag along with her, and Rachel's friends at the beach only seem to care about who's an "item" and when the next party is. Too much is changing, too fast. "Now it's clear who the girls are and who the boy is and we're not just a bunch of friends--we're potential 'interests,' " Rachel thinks. "And having fun and fooling around isn't just playing anymore--it's flirting. And I don't want it to be. I don't want it all to change." Bigger changes are coming, too, and at a time when Rachel is simply trying to find her place in her own small part of the world, she learns even the safest place of all may not be everlasting.

Although it's devastating to discover that her parents are flawed and can't save the family from all the stumbling blocks life sets in front of them, it's also comforting to know the love they all share is abiding and their resourcefulness and heart will carry them through--even if not in the way Rachel might hope. For any reader who has felt torn from one day to the next--or one minute to another--between the security of childhood and the confusing allure of adolescence, Rachel will be a friend. She finds no easy answers to her many questions during this summer of transition, and readers will likely identify with both her frustration and her eventual acceptance of a certain amount of ambiguity in life. Children who like "real" stories about "real" kids will adore this quiet, elegant novel. --Emilie Coulter

Candlewick Press, $16.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 10-14, 9781536200034, April 2, 2019

Candlewick Press: Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles

Jo Knowles: The Power of Emotion

(photo: Peter Carini)

Jo Knowles is the Vermont-dwelling, award-winning author of Still a Work in Progress, See You at Harry's, Living with Jackie Chan and Jumping Off Swings, among others. She is treasured by young readers for her intensely emotional, immensely real young-adult and middle-grade novels. Knowles recently spoke with Shelf Awareness about sexual identity and the many surprising details of her own childhood that can be found in her latest middle-grade novel, Where the Heart Is (Candlewick, April 2, 2019).

You wrote that many of the details in Where the Heart Is were drawn from your own childhood. Was it difficult to fictionalize some of these real events?

In some ways yes, and others no. The fun parts were a joy to write. I have such fond memories of my childhood home, playing with my siblings and neighbors, my old pony and other pets. But the harder parts were more of a challenge--revisiting how it felt to be afraid and uncertain both personally and financially, and to say goodbye to my beloved home, brought back a lot of sad memories. And, yet, the process of writing through these memories helped me accept what happened, and let go of some lingering hard feelings.

You gracefully weave together a number of themes in Where the Heart Is: friendship, identity, sexual orientation, gender roles, relationships, financial struggles, home. Is this the story you set out to write, or did it evolve as you went along?

Thank you! For a few years now, a dear friend has been after me to write more about my childhood, and in particular about the animals I took care of when I was 13. In my own life, our home wasn't foreclosed on until I was college-age. I blended a lot of things from my life into one summer, which was definitely a challenge. I don't think I really intended it that way before I started writing. But the minute I sat down and wrote those first words about Rachel and Micah, and how their friendship began, I knew I was going to explore identity and friendship. All the rest came out pretty naturally as the story progressed.

It's the emotions that power the book's plot. Rachel feels, in turns, desperate, lonely, joyous, helpless, guilty, embarrassed, anxious.... Does this part of your writing come naturally, or are you deliberate in incorporating so much emotion into your characters and stories?

It's funny you should say this. My first young reader just wrote a review saying, "I would feel emotions, as if I was a part of the story." I'm guessing this is going to be my favorite response! What more could an author wish for than to inspire empathy in her readers? I think because I was so emotional as I wrote this book, it naturally carried over into the telling of it. I remember so clearly having those same powerful emotions: confusion, helplessness, worry. They were all just seeping out of me as I relived it. When I wrote the chapter about Rainbow, I just started sobbing, remembering those feelings of despair, guilt and fear.

Rachel doesn't know for sure where she is in terms of her sexual orientation. Why did you choose to write about a character who is on the cusp but has not yet identified her sexual orientation?

When my son was in middle school, there were a fair number of kids he knew who had similar questions. The two of us talked about what that must be like and how to support friends. When I first started thinking about writing the book, I asked him how he felt about me writing about a kid who was in the questioning stage, and he encouraged me to do it--he felt like there were a lot of kids who really don't know how they identify yet, or aren't ready to decide, and that should be okay. We talked about these challenges as I wrote the book. I was worried I was drawing too much from my own experience, but he reassured me that that's what would make it feel honest. Those were the best talks, honestly, and I hope the book will inspire readers to have similar discussions.

You've said that Robert Cormier was inspirational to you, both as reader and writer. Tell us more.

As a teen, his books spoke to me like no others. He was so honest! His characters were deeply flawed but also deeply passionate, and I loved that. I grew up watching my older brother be bullied mercilessly, not just by kids but by adults as well. The Chocolate War was the first YA book I read that showed the same. When I studied children's literature in graduate school, I was able to meet Cormier at a conference. He asked me what I wrote for my master's thesis and I told him my first YA novel. He quietly wrote his address in the back of the book he was signing for me, and told me to send it to him when I had revised it. I did, and he submitted it to his editor! We shared correspondence back and forth after that, but he passed away before I made my first sale. If not for his encouragement during that first crucial year out of college, I don't think I would have pursued this path. I owe him so much, and try to pay it forward by giving the same kind of encouragement to my own students.

Whose books would you like to have next to yours on a shelf?

I'm going to be 100% honest here and say that having books on any shelf is still quite magical. But my dream is to see my books next to my two beloved writing partners, Cindy Faughnan and Debbi Michiko Florence.

Is home where the heart is? 

If home is the people we love, then yes. Wherever they go, so goes my heart. --Emilie Coulter

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