One of our recommended books for 2019 is Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles

WHERE THE HEART IS


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.

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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.

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  • Candlewick Press
  • Hardcover
  • April 2019
  • 304 Pages
  • 9781536200034

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$16.99

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About Jo Knowles

Jo Knowles is the author of Where the Heart IsJo Knowles is the award-winning author of the young adult novels Lessons from a Dead Girl, Jumping Off Swings, and Read Between the Lines, among others. She has also written two middle-grade novels: Still a Work in Progress and See You at Harry’s. She lives in Vermont.

Praise

“A gently told story about tough transitions, family and sibling love and stress, and evolving friendships…Even as Jo Knowles tackles some tough issues, especially income insecurity and loss of home, she keeps the tone quiet, warm, detailed, and often funny, leaving the reader space to work out questions and problems along with Rachel and her loved ones. A good read for fans of Rebecca Stead and Jeanne Birdsall.” –School Library Journal

“In this bittersweet coming-of-age novel rooted in some of the author’s own experiences, Knowles (Still a Work in Progress) paints a down-to-earth picture of an adolescent girl who is saddled with too many responsibilities. Rachel’s anger and frustration over not being able to control her situation is as vividly expressed as her growing maturity and courage.” –Publishers Weekly

“Knowles deals with specific yet relatable upheavals in a young teenager’s life with nuance and understanding. Rachel’s emotional turbulence, as well as her growth and change, are realistically presented. The story offers no easy answers, but plenty of hope, heart, and love. A sensitive, character- driven story about change.” –Booklist Online

“Knowles handles Rachel’s evolving feelings about her sexual orientation with particular nuance: Rachel’s concerns center on her own comfort and sense of self rather than worries about how her identity might be perceived, offering readers an exemplar that is compelling and fresh. The world is foisting a great deal on Rachel in a singular moment, and her responses are believable and affecting. This is one of those rare novels that feels less like a constructed story and more like a momentary glimpse into a real young life— genuine, stirring, and raw.” The Horn Book (starred review)

“Each story thread has its own significance and weight, and when woven in with the others and dotted with moments of joy and humor creates a fully realized portrait of a girl trying to figure out how to be a teenager when all she really wants is to stay a kid…This is bittersweet in its realism, but readers can leave with the knowledge that the lessons of the summer have equipped Rachel to do more than just manage and to flourish into a confident, self-assured young woman.” Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (Starred Review)

Discussion Questions

1. Bittersweet Farm is the name that Rachel’s mother gave to the family home. How does the property live up to its name?

2. The title of this novel is drawn from the common expression “Home is where the heart is.” But what happens when you lose your home? How is Rachel’s heart changed when her family is forced to leave Bittersweet Farm?

3. In Rachel’s town, there is a wide range of income levels, with some very rich families living alongside some very poor ones. What are some of the obvious signs of wealth in Rachel’s community? What are the telltale indicators of financial strain?

4. Why is Rachel so ashamed of her family’s money troubles? Is Micah right when he calls her a snob (page 7)?

5. Examine Rachel’s evolving relationship with her parents. How well do they communicate with each other? How honest are they with each other? How do they look after each other’s needs?

6. “This is all my parents’ fault,” Rachel decides when she learns that her family is losing
Bittersweet Farm (page 239). “I don’t care if it’s unfair to say or think — it’s true.” Do you agree? Are the Gartners responsible for their family’s financial woes? What more could they have done to hold on to their home?

7. How would you rate Rachel as a big sister? When does she enjoy looking after Ivy? When does she resent it? What responsibility do you think older siblings should have for younger children in the family? What do younger children owe their older siblings?

8. “I just want to get used to feeling how I feel,” Rachel insists (page 270). “I don’t want a label on me.” Yet other kids in her class are happy to be labeled as gay or straight. What are the disadvantages of having a label? What are the advantages?

9. “Money is overrated,” says Ivy (page 267). Do you think her parents would agree? Do you? Why?

10. “Do you miss being a kid?” Ivy asks her older sister (page 125). “Yeah,” Rachel replies. “All the time.” How would you answer Ivy’s question?

11. As young children, Rachel and Micah vowed to marry each other, but now that Rachel is a teenager, she feels differently. “I’m filled with guilt,” she says (page 3). Why does she feel guilty? Should she?

12. There are no talking spiders on Rachel’s farm, but references to Charlotte’s Web are found throughout the book. If you’re familiar with E. B. White’s classic, compare it to Where the Heart Is. What similarities do these two novels share? What are their significant differences?

13. Every vote always matters, but small-town elections can have immediate and obvious consequences. What happens to Rachel’s family when their town votes down the school budget? Why is it so hard for the Gartner family to recover from the loss of Mrs. Gartner’s job?

14. “I love him, but I don’t love him” (pages 64–65). This is how Rachel describes her feelings for Micah. What do you think she means by that? Why is she jealous when she sees him with other girls?

15. Rachel feels nothing when Evan kisses her, but she feels very differently when seated beside Cybil at the beach. “I’m not going to spell it out for you,” Micah says to Rachel (page 120). “You’re the one who needs to accept it.” What is Micah not spelling out? What does he think she needs to accept? Do you agree with him?

16. The health class teacher assures her students that they can safely explore sexual identity in her class, but Rachel has her doubts: “I don’t know if in the real world people are all that open-minded” (page 136). Do you share Rachel’s concerns? How open-minded is your school community about sexual identity? How open-minded is your larger community?

17. “It’s gonna be OK,” Rachel’s father says about their new apartment (page 259). “It’s temporary.” Try to imagine what the future holds for Rachel’s family. Do you believe that their new home will be a temporary one? Are you as confident as Mr. Gartner that the family will be OK? Why?

Excerpt

“This is pretty great!” Micah says when I ride my bike to his house the next day.

Micah always gets new stuff when he outgrows something. He never has to sort through hand- me- down bags like I do. He probably doesn’t even know what one is.

“Let’s go for a ride,” he says. “To celebrate summer. We can pack a picnic.”

I follow him inside. His parents aren’t home, so we raid the kitchen for snacks. We make peanut butter, lettuce, and mayonnaise sandwiches. They’re my mom’s favorite and have become mine, too. The first time I made one for Micah, he almost threw up when I told him what it was. But then he took another bite and realized how delicious they are. We add a bag of chips and half a box of ginger cookies. Then we put it all in Micah’s backpack and head out.

I follow behind Micah and get used to my bike, trying the gears and testing the brakes just to make sure they really work. I’m so used to being scared on my old bike that I can’t seem to stop worrying. We didn’t agree on where to go, but I have a hunch we’ll end up at our usual place, the small local beach that’s only a short ride away.

It’s early summer, so there aren’t too many people here. The lifeguard looks bored. We lock up our bikes and find a spot at the far end of the beach where no one likes to sit because tall grass grows where the beach ends, and there are lots of frogs and crayfish.

Micah unzips his backpack and hands me a small box wrapped in neon- green wrapping paper. “Happy birthday,” he says.

I slowly unwrap the paper, careful not to rip it. The box is white with a horse head drawn in blue pen.

“Did you draw that?” I ask.

He laughs in an embarrassed way. “You know I can’t draw horses.”

“I like it.”

Inside, there’s some folded tissue paper, which I lift out to reveal a woven friendship bracelet. “Wow,” I say. “Did you make this?”

“Of course I made it. That’s our rule. Do you like it?”

I nod, turning it over in my hand. “Thank you.” He chose all my favorite colors: purple, blue, and green. When we were younger, we made a pact that we had to make whatever presents we gave each other. I know this was partly Micah’s idea because he felt bad for me and didn’t want me to feel like I had to spend money on him. I like our tradition, though. It makes all of our presents more special.

“So what are you going to do all summer?” Micah asks as he helps me tie the bracelet around my wrist.

I shrug. “Probably help my parents out with gardening chores, and find some babysitting jobs.”

“Ugh. Babysitting. Not the Grayson twins, I hope.”

“They live the closest.”

“Those kids are horrors, though. Remember that time they tied you up and then wouldn’t let you go?”

“They have boundary issues.”

“They have life issues.”

“At least their dad pays well.”

“Well, if you take a job with them, tell me and I’ll come help you.”

“I can’t afford to split the money. Sorry.”

“I’ll do it for free! That’s how good a friend I am.”

“You just want them to tie me up so you can laugh and take a picture.”

“You don’t know me at all!” He makes a fake offended face.

“Fine. You can come. Maybe you can teach them some manners.”

“Exactly.”

We lean back on the sand and look up at the sky. There isn’t a single cloud up there, just blue, blue, blue forever.

When we’re too hot, we walk to the shoreline and stand up to our ankles in the water.

“Too bad we didn’t think to bring our bathing suits,” I say.

“Who needs bathing suits?” Micah starts to wade into the water.

“We don’t even have towels!”

“We have the sun! Come on!”

We race to see who can go under first. Micah always wins because I hate the ice rush. But I can’t be outdone, so I force my head under. Beneath the water, the world feels completely different. The echoey sound of the water surrounds me, and I open my eyes.

 

Micah swims over to me and waves as we hold our breath. I move my hands through the water to keep myself under, and my hair dances out around me. Micah makes a funny face, then blows bubbles at me.

“Can you hear me?” he yells, but it sounds all distorted and strange. I pop my head up and gulp fresh air.

“I won!” Micah says. I splash him and go back under and swim away from shore, out to where the rope line is. I’m going to be the first to touch it this time. As I push my arms through the water, it feels like I’m swimming through another world. Underneath me, I can see the sandy bottom, with a few rocks. Above me, the sun shines on the surface, making it look like a ripply window. The underwater sound echoes through my ears in a peaceful way, and it feels as though, for this brief moment, this is all there is and I am the only one here. Ahead, I make out the rope line and swim toward it, just as I feel a hand on my foot, pulling me back. I cough and breathe water and have to break the surface. “Hey!” I say, sputtering.

Micah laughs and swims past me.

“Cheater! That doesn’t count!”

I cough again. My throat and nose sting from the water going down the wrong way. I swim as fast as I can, but I can’t catch Micah. He grabs the line and lifts it up a little, smiling. He doesn’t even have to say I win.

The lifeguard blows her whistle at him. “Hands off the line!”

“Sorry!” he calls at her.

“Sorry not sorry,” he says to me as I swim up to him. He grins.

“You’re a jerk,” I say.

We float on our backs and squint up at the sky.

“Wouldn’t it be great if life could always be this easy?” Micah asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “Imagine if I didn’t have to get a summer job and we didn’t have any chores, and we could just come here every day all summer.”

“Do you think we’d get bored?”

“No way. We could swim, sleep, have picnics. Maybe get a boat . . .”

“How would we get a boat?”

“Maybe we’d inherit money from some long- lost rich aunt we never knew existed. And we’d never have to work a day in our lives.”

I think of all the relatives I know. I’m pretty sure none of them has a secret stash of money.

“Or maybe we could just win the lottery,” I say. “I watched a show about people who won the lottery, and they all ended up miserable and poor.”

“What? That’s crazy. If I won the lottery, I’d be so happy. I could pay off my parents’ mortgage and give them enough money so they could quit their jobs. And then I’d buy my own house, with a big barn with wood floors for Rainbow.”

“Yeah, you could buy him one of those fancy blankets horses wear for the winter!” “Only he wouldn’t need it because the barn would be heated.”

“Right! And he’d have an indoor riding ring, and he wouldn’t have to go out all winter unless he wanted to, and that’s when he’d wear his fancy coat.”

“Exactly.” I picture Rainbow in a fur-lined horse blanket and golden halter. He looks ridiculous.

“What about you? What would you do if you won the lottery?”

Micah thinks for a minute. “I guess I’d pay off your parents’ mortgage and buy you a house and a barn for Rainbow.”

Micah always says selfless things like this. I wish I had thought of saying something I would get for him. We’re quiet for a while after that, both floating on our backs, slowly turning in the water.

“If there were clouds in the sky, this would feel like a scene in a movie where we say what we see and argue about which animal the clouds look like,” Micah says.

I picture us in our own movie and wonder what the plot would be. Two bored friends doesn’t seem like much of a blockbuster.

“I see a bluebird,” I say. “The color of the sky.”

“No, it’s a sky- blue whale,” Micah argues.

“A blue pony. With a blue mane.”

“They have to be real things,” Micah says. “That are really blue.”

That ends our game because I can’t think of any other animals that are blue like the sky.

We swim to shore and lie on our stomachs to let the sun dry our backs, then flip over to dry the other side.

“Do you think being eighth-graders will change everything?” I ask. “What if we don’t have any of the same classes together? What if all our friends get divided up?”

“You really think not being in classes together will change things?” He sounds surprised and disappointed, so I don’t tell him that I do think it could. What if Micah meets someone new? Someone more interesting than me. What if he gets a girlfriend?

He reaches over and takes my hand, as if he can read my thoughts. “I’ll never leave you,” he says. “Together forever. No matter what.” He squeezes my fingers tight, and I squeeze back.

I concentrate on his hand in mine, wishing my heart would feel like a hummingbird trapped in my chest again, like when we were six.

But it doesn’t.

If I would let him, Micah would be my boyfriend. He used to try to kiss me sometimes, but I finally told him to stop. I don’t have those kinds of feelings for him. Or any boy. I never have, at least not since that time we got engaged under the lilac bushes. It’s something I’ve only told him once, last winter, when he tried to kiss me at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

“You don’t like any boys?” he asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”

He was quiet for a minute, studying my face. “Does that mean you — ?” He paused, looking awkward. “Does that mean you like girls?”

I shrugged. I wasn’t sure about that. “I guess I don’t know how I feel at all,” I said.

He nodded and then got quiet for a while. “It’s OK,” he said finally. “This stuff is confusing.” And that was the end of the conversation.

But sometimes, like now, the issue comes back silently. And silently, we let it slip back away.

© 2019 by Jo Knowles