Harper Lee Morgan wants to be a poet. Actually, she’s already a poet. She just wants to have a chance to share her poems onstage, at her school’s poetry contest. She writes about her experiences, and she has had a lot of pretty difficult ones in her young life. Her Daddy walked out on her family soon after her little baby sister died. Now her Mama has to work even harder to provide for Harper and her brother Hemingway. It seems like things couldn’t be much worse, but then the family gets evicted from their house. Harper ends up having to stay home from school to care for Hemingway, right at the time when she wants to be there most, to get her poems all perfect for the poetry contest. Feeling stuck and forced into circumstances no one would choose, Harper discovers a lot about responsibility, creativity and the secret places beauty can live.
I loved this book, from start to finish. Debut author, Ann Haywood Leal, is a writer worth watching. Her novel addresses challenging real world issues (homelessness and poverty) in a way that is entirely understandable for children, without shying away too much from how scary the situation is for this family. Kids will grasp the desperate circumstances of Harper’s family, and no doubt be interested in seeing how this girl copes in such an unimaginable situation for most children. You’ll fall for this character, for the way she is an ordinary child and yet sometimes sees the world with a kind of wisdom and forbearance beyond her years. I enjoyed the way that Harper’s poems were scattered throughout the narrative. I’ve read numerous children’s books with main characters who are aspiring poets, and I think that Leal did a fantastic job creating poetry that could indeed have been written by a child. The poems read very believably – never overly refined and seemingly too adult in tone and style. There are several memorable secondary characters as well, particularly Dorothy, an older woman Harper meets early in the story and who has secrets that Harper does not discover until much later. Leal has a way with words that seems graceful and natural, never forced. She tells the story simply but with real care.
Also Known as Harper has much to offer readers in its themes and would make an outstanding choice for literature circles in the classroom or book club discussions. I’m imagining conversations about hope and the way people judge each other. This narrative has a lot to say about compassion, feeling compassion for others even while you’re in a situation that deserves compassion as well. I was reminded of Waiting for Normal, although I thought Harper was a more believable character than Addie in Waiting for Normal, because while Harper was optimistic and hopeful, her strength was tempered by frustration and sadness too. I plan to recommend Also Known as Harper to many, and I will be looking out for Ann Haywood Leal’s next books. Ann will be here soon for an interview, and I’ll hopefully be giving away a few copies of her book when she visits.
Also Known as Harper is published by Henry Holt.