Middle Grade Monday Review for See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles
What it’s about
Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible. It seems as though everyone in her family has better things to do than pay attention to her: Mom (when she’s not meditating) helps Dad run the family restaurant; Sarah is taking a gap year after high school; and Holden pretends that Mom and Dad and everyone else doesn’t know he’s gay, even as he fends off bullies at school. Then there’s Charlie: three years old, a “surprise” baby, the center of everyone’s world. He’s devoted to Fern, but he’s annoying, too, always getting his way, always dirty, always commanding attention. If it wasn’t for Ran, Fern’s calm and positive best friend, there’d be nowhere to turn. Ran’s mantra, “All will be well,” is soothing in a way that nothing else seems to be. And when Ran says it, Fern can almost believe it’s true. But then tragedy strikes- and Fern feels not only more alone than ever, but also responsible for the accident that has wrenched her family apart. All will not be well. Or at least all will never be the same.
Three things I liked about this book
1. Loved seeing a larger family in a story. It’s seldom that you see a family of more than 2 or 3 kids, so it was nice to see 4 kids in a realistically chaotic household.
2. I also enjoyed reading about siblings who are not deep in conflict or preoccupied with petty bickering. Fern has the normal amount of friction with siblings that you’d find in a family of this size, but she clearly loves her brothers and sister and when trouble comes they form an alliance which is good for everybody even their beleaguered parents.
3. I also enjoyed seeing a story where the gay character is not the viewpoint character but the sibling and he has a happy resolution. The story makes it pretty clear that gay bashing is more common in the parent’s generation and that plenty of high school kids meet their gay classmates with genuine warmth and friendship.
Something to think about as a writer: There are two major plot threads here, the one with the baby brother Charlie (I’m avoiding spoilers here) and the one with the gay older brother Holden. Of the two I like the Holden thread better. Which made me wonder if the story would have been okay without the Charlie thread. It’s a tough balance to get enough but not too much happening in a story. I’m always asking myself in my writing, do I really need all these characters? Could I make it a little tighter? And yet perhaps without the Charlie thread the story would not have felt substantial enough.
So what do you think readers? How do you know when you have enough “stuff” to carry a whole novel? How do you know when you have too much?