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  • Writer's pictureLynda LeVan

What the Fireflies Knew - Book Review

How can KB, a ten-year-old girl, make sense of the world that she once knew and loved being shattered in front of her very eyes? Why won’t any of the adults – or even her sister – tell her the truth and stop keeping secrets from her? KB’s search for answers to her many questions lead her down a path of trying to fix everything that’s been broken in her life, transitioning her from her childlike innocence into a reality that’s hard to handle.

What the Fireflies Knew is Kai Harris’ debut fiction novel that follows Kenyatta Bernice, nicknamed KB, through her rapidly changing life as her father dies from an overdose and their family loses their home in Detroit, Michigan in 1995. Their mother moves KB and her older sister, Nia, to live with their seemingly stoic grandfather in Lansing, Michigan for the summer. Just as KB thought her mother would stay with them, she leaves without telling KB or Nia when she’ll come back, leaving KB with a flood of mixed emotions from anger to sadness to worry and a strong desire to find out where her mother went.

As KB explores what there is to see of Lansing, Nia’s interest in her friends – and boys – creates a distance in their previously close relationship while KB gets to know her grandfather and learn about a family history she was never let in on. She meets cousins she’s never known of and tries to make friends with the White neighbor’s kids across the street who are hesitant to play with her. KB struggles to find a footing in Lansing, longing for her mother to come back, wishing her father was still with her, wanting a picture-perfect family that she sees everywhere but her own life. KB feels as if she doesn’t belong. Almost everyone she thought she could trust – who she felt secure with – leaves her. Nia seems to lose interest in KB and their relationship. She doesn’t want to talk about their dad after he died – doesn’t even want to remember the good times they had with him, which stumps KB. She tries to connect with Bobby and Charlotte, the kids across the street, and it turns out they’ll never truly understand her or stand up for her when she needs them. She thinks her friendship with Rondell, a boy she meets at the pool in Lansing, is going well, even trusting him enough to go to him when she tries running away, but he does something unspeakable to her. It seems everyone around KB has failed her and taken advantage of her until she finds love, comfort, and support in her grandfather.

Written in a voice with authentic prose, Harris tells a strong story filled with emotion that is both impactful and intense as well as warm and caring throughout the novel. Harris puts the experience and feelings of the almost eleven-year-old KB in full view – it lets the reader want what KB wants, feel her anger, feel her sadness. The reader feels her vulnerability and her desire for connection to help her cope with all that she’s been through. Harris doesn’t shy away from heavy and dark themes of racism, drug addiction, sexual assault, depression, or death. She writes a realistic and detailed story that beautifully comes to life on the page and shows the full range and complexity of humanity within families and relationships – all the brutal and painful feelings of a quickly fading childhood to love that seems boundless.

What the Fireflies Knew is an absolutely worthwhile coming-of-age novel that tells an authentic story from the Black experience and shows the true ups and downs of a childhood that’s been disrupted by forces that KB had no control over and how she tries make sense of everything that’s happened, ultimately finding comfort and a home where she never thought such a thing was possible.

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