Where the Heart Is

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Where the Heart Is
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Release Date
April 02, 2019
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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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Where The Heart Is
(Updated: July 06, 2019)
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The start of thirteen-year-old Rachel’s summer doesn’t go as she planned. Tensions are high at her home and she knows that her parents are having financial problems. Then there’s her BFF Micah, who wants to be more than friends, but she doesn't feel the same way. She’s not sure what this means. Then her parent’s problems get worse and Rachel finds that things do change.

What worked: I love Knowles writing something fierce. Her books, especially this one, feel comforting and warm. Knowles tackles contemporary issues like homelessness, body changes, and fear of the unknown in a way that isn’t preachy at all. She’s this generation’s Judy Blume.

Knowles nails the emotional struggles a young teen has with changes that happen around her. The scenes that show Rachel’s fears of being homeless are very genuine. She dreads the changes and battles the fear she might lose her friends too.

There’s one scene where Rachel talks about how her mother goes through a box where ‘rich people’ leave clothing. When I was in my teens this very thing happened with me after my father loss his job. I especially remember having to wear a bathing suit that someone else tossed out.I still remember the embarrassment and how ashamed I felt. Knowles shows a similar reaction with Rachel's fear that someone might recognize a used bathing suit on her.

Another big part of this novel is the changes happening within Rachel. She doesn’t understand at first why she can’t feel more than friendship toward Micah. Then when she’s around Cybil she feels a stirring of something and she’s not sure what to call it.

Engaging coming of age tale of a girl who steers through changes around her that involve not only the financial difficulties of a parent losing their job, but the changes going on inside of her. Realistic portrayal of a family losing their home and moving into lower income housing.
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Timely story about what makes "home"
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Rachel's summer is not off to a good start; her parents don't remember her 13th birthday right away, and new neighbors move in across from her family's run down farm. They are very wealthy, and while Rachel is angry that their new home took away the sledding hill she always used, she is somewhat interested in a summer job taking care of their rescue animals, since it pays better and is less stressful than babysitting bratty young neighbors. She's glad of the money, since her parents seem to be struggling quite a bit. Rachel tries to be more helpful, taking care of her younger sister Ivy and trying not to complain about the lack of food in the house. She has a good friend, Micah, who has been by her side for years. Unfortunately, Micah "like" likes her, and she doesn't feel that way about Micah. In fact, after an encounter at a pool party with Evan, she is reminded that she really doesn't have any romantic feelings towards boys at all. Micah is okay with that, but angry that she kissed Evan and not him. Rachel's time is spent working on the neighbors farms and hanging out with friends, including Cybil, who seems really nice, but her mind is occupied with the increasingly unstable situation at home. When her parents finally let her know that they have to sell the house, Rachel isn't happy, but tries to make the best of the situation. Her friends rally around her, she manages to get her pony, Rainbow, placed with her neighbors, and life continues even though bad things happen.
Good Points
There are lots of good details about living in the country and farm chores, which young readers who don't live in the country will find fascinating. I especially appreciate the explanation of the chain of circumstances that lead the family to have to sell their house and move into low income housing. Rachel's questioning of her sexual identity is lightly done, which I think is appropriate for books for middle school students. Her friendship with Micah is sweet, and her attempts at being a better sister and daughter are touching. This book moves along very quickly in an interesting way. I enjoyed this a lot.

Rachel sometimes complains about details of her impoverished upbringing in a way that may be enlightening to some readers. While I raised my daughters in a neighborhood where children ride beat up bicycles and shopping at the thrift store is what everyone does, and I frequently make a mean scalloped tuna and saltine casserole, this will be completely alien to some very fortunate children.

This hits that hard-to-define sweet spot of sad but hopeful books that my students enjoy. The sense of place and cover are great, and I can see this being very popular! Pair this with Tyre's Hope in the Holler, Applegate's Crenshaw, Braden's The Benefits of Being an Octopus or Jacobson's The Dollar Kids.
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