Review: Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles

  • Genre: Middle grade realistic fiction
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Publication Date: April 2, 2019

If home is where the heart is, what would happen if you lost it? Compassion and humor infuse the story of a family caught in financial crisis and a girl struggling to form her own identity.
It’s the first day of summer and Rachel’s thirteenth birthday. She can’t wait to head to the lake with her best friend, Micah. But as summer unfolds, every day seems to get more complicated. Her “fun” new job taking care of the neighbors’ farm animals quickly becomes a challenge, whether she’s being pecked by chickens or having to dodge a charging pig at feeding time. At home, her parents are more worried about money than usual, and their arguments over bills intensify. Fortunately, Rachel can count on Micah to help her cope with all the stress. But Micah seems to want their relationship to go beyond friendship, and though Rachel almost wishes for that, too, she can’t force herself to feel “that way” about him. In fact, she isn’t sure she can feel that way about any boy — or what that means. With all the heart of her award-winning novel See You At Harry’s, Jo Knowles brings us the story of a girl who must discover where her heart is and what that means for her future.

Disclaimer: I received an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley.

Three years ago, I read See You at Harry’s, Jo Knowles’ most popular middle grade book and perhaps her best known work overall. I enjoyed it, though I confess I never wrote anything about it and so I don’t remember specific reactions to it. But I remembered Jo Knowles as a good writer of middle grade, and so when I saw her latest release up on Netgalley, I requested it. I’m not even sure I read the summary very intently, though if I had, it’s pretty clear why I clicked request–it suggests the main character is some sort of LGBTQIAP.

I kind of devoured this book. Knowles balances essentially two major threads: Rachel witnessing her family’s financial crisis, and her figuring out her sexuality and relationship to her friends. (There are also chapters earlier on about her job taking care of the new neighbor’s animals, but this eventually sort of combines with her family’s situation.) I was very invested in both of these and so when I saw the next chapter was going to progress one of the storylines, I had to keep reading.

Rachel lives on a farm with her parents, her younger sister Ivy, and an old pony named Rainbow. They’re within biking distance from the beach, where her classmates hang out, with Ivy often included because her friends are away at summer camp which her family can’t afford. At the beginning, new neighbors move in, and Rachel can tell immediately that they have more money. Rachel’s home life comes from less money than her classmates, especially since her mother recently lost a job as a school librarian because of budget cuts (booo, school librarians are so important!!), and this self-consciousness plagues her. She knows her parents whisper and argue about money and their mortgage. Her clothes come from thrift stores or were given away, and she’s always aware how she doesn’t have the name brands other students do and that she only has a singular one-piece bathing suit. She wants the money she makes taking care of the new neighbor’s animals to help her family out. All of this was heartbreaking but so realistic, and definitely will be relatable to many kids out there (including me, honestly, though I acknowledge my situation has never been as dire).

Meanwhile, Rachel’s a thirteen-year-old dealing with everything that entails, including her classmates starting to flirt and have crushes and date. When she was little, she and her best friend Micah said they would be together forever, and while Micah definitely likes her…she doesn’t feel the same way him. In fact, she’s not sure she likes anyone (but if you’re looking for asexual representation, this isn’t it). But she’s afraid of being different and losing him as a friend, especially since Micah seems to be interested in a new girl. Even though her situation seems fairly progressive–they had an LGBT-inclusive health class, and two boys in her grade are dating–so it’s the internal struggle of figuring out herself that is focused on, and I really appreciated that. This is also the first middle grade I’ve read with multiple queer characters actual of the same age as the main character, which I loved; there’s the two boys I mentioned earlier, and another girl Rachel reconnects with who says she has crushes on people regardless of gender, but doesn’t claim a label. (It gives me so much hope for the kids out there!)

(Spoilers ahead, perhaps!) Ultimately, this is the secondary plot, and with everything that starts to happen with Rachel’s family, she can’t focus much on exploring her sexuality. She definitely has feelings for the girl I mentioned above, and there’s a promise of more to come at the end, which I really liked, especially as some middle grade books feature queer girls who end up crushing on girls who don’t have or aren’t capable of feeling the same way. She doesn’t claim a label, either, and is pretty frustrated when Micah keeps pushing her in the direction of coming out (as gay, it is implied). But I was kind of disappointed about the general lack of disregard of labels in the book, especially since as far as I know, it isn’t #ownvoices. Rachel’s says her health teacher gave them a list of sexuality labels, which she found confusing because it was so much information at once, and the other girl says she’s not into labels. It just veered a little too close to an adult’s attempt at “kids these days and their labels for everything” with some “I saw that article that Gen X kids are saying they’re queer or fluid instead of specific labels” for my liking. At least acknowledging some possibilities of some labels and desperately trying to find representation out there, rings truer to me. It makes sense this was avoided because it wasn’t the focus of the novel as it continued, but…this tends to be a recurring issue with girls in media, and it repeats itself here. The boys have no problem saying “we knew we were gay,” after all.

However, I also really connected emotionally with Rachel as her family’s situation became more serious and apparent to her. Unfortunately, I do think the cover spoils some of that, and I’m glad I didn’t look too closely at it, but I had the advantage of reading it digitally. Still, the emotional rollercoaster the whole family went on and the fact they can get through it, even if things will change, brings about some hope. I also loved Rachel’s relationship with her parents and her sister. They loved and care for each other, but there are also arguments and fights.

Where the Heart Is is a worthy addition to the middle grade canon and tackles financial hardship head-on, with all the complicated feelings that arise. I wish it was a little more nuanced about queerness, but I still think many kids will see themselves in this, and thankfully it’s joined by quite a few other MG books featuring queer girls!

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