Sarah Winifred Searle made a new book! It’s called Sincerely, Harriet and it comes out this Tuesday (May 7th, 2019)! We were lucky enough to get access to a review copy and let me tell you — I cried. It’s so good, you guys. If you like friendship, cool parents, and escaping your life through storytelling, then this is the book for you!
Sincerely, Harriet is a middle grade graphic novel about Harriet, a young girl whose family has recently moved to Chicago from small-town Indiana — it’s about how she copes with that change and what it means for her life and her family. Also! It’s very much The 90s, so Harriet has absolutely nothing to do except retreat into her imagination and make friends with the old lady who lives downstairs.
The book’s vibe is very Are You Afraid of the Dark, except that no one is a ghost, actually, and the real monster was systemic oppression all along. Searle does a truly masterful job navigating explanations of ableism and racism in a way that is thoughtful and accessible to her middle-grade audience, without feeling over-simplified. She draws out and concludes the various reversals and revelations of this plot so powerfully that I’m wary of giving too much away. Suffice to say: Harriet is living with a chronic but invisible illness, and that experience creates opportunities in her life both to grow together with some and to grow apart from others.
The story starts with Harriet, alone in her family’s new Chicago apartment. Her family has moved to Chicago to get better access to the healthcare she needs, and that means leaving behind her friends from camp. But Pearl, the potentially-murderous old lady who lives downstairs, has had her own experiences with both illness and caring for people with chronic illnesses, which creates a point of connection between them — Harriet is able to feel understood by Pearl, and they become friends.
Sincerely, Harriet spends a lot of time exploring how we all come to those points of connection and understanding, and it focuses specifically on how we connect with one another through stories and storytelling. This book looks at what it means to be a storyteller, and at when that skill/behavior is appropriate and when it’s not. When she first comes to Chicago, Harriet fills her days by wondering about the ghosts in the attic, the evil mastermind pretending to be a postal worker, and the murderous old lady who lives downstairs. She sends postcards back to camp about how she’s totally doing so many cool, fun things in Chicago and how she’s definitely not just sitting at home all day, bored out of her mind. She spends so much time really trying to care about her summer reading list, but (shockingly) she just can’t seem to get into Lord of the Flies — a dumb boy book for Very White Boys.
Watching Harriet try and fail to get invested in her required reading list really stood out as one of the most relatable moments. Those books were not written for her, or for people like her, and she has an understandably hard time connecting with them. If this is what books are like, Harriet is reluctant to believe that reading stories could at all connect her to other people, let alone that books could make her feel connected to the world in the same way that her fibs and daydreams do.
After sending all these postcards full of fabricated exploits back to camp, Harriet eventually gets a response — a letter from the girl she has a crush on, but it is very much not what she had hoped to hear. This reply comes as a shock both to Harriet and to the reader, and she is really forced to confront the fact that the postcards she had been sending weren’t building the connections she thought they were. Harriet had been telling these fibs in the hopes of creating some understanding and building some friendships, but they were actually hurting, not helping, that goal. Harriet has to go through the work of acknowledging that she was wrong — that she had been lying to herself as much as she had been to others, and that real connection comes through vulnerability! That is! Such a heavy take! For a middle grade novel! But it’s a very human moment that we all deal with! And Searle handles it so poignantly. She builds in the space for Harriet (and for us, the readers) to feel the pain of that confrontation and to feel the subsequent relief of acceptance that Harriet gets from the support of her parents, and of Pearl.
As Harriet comes to know Pearl (and to realize that she is not, in fact, a murderess), she is able to connect with her not only through their shared experiences dealing with chronic illness in various capacities, but also through Pearl’s scrapbooking and extensive library. Pearl uses the act of scrapbooking as a way to weave narrative through her memories, and as a way to share those memories/that narrative with others; and she similarly uses her library and the stories contained within it to connect with the people around her, including Harriet.
The story of Pearl and Harriet’s friendship is a story of Pearl changing Harriet’s mind about how storytelling works and what it is good for. This story — this friendship — is about empowering Harriet (and by extension the reader) to channel her creative energy into something that will really connect her with others, rather than into lies that mask her insecurities — lies that may feel like connection when in fact they’re just another barrier between herself and others.
Sincerely, Harriet is a lovely, thoughtful book, and it’s telling a new story that we could all benefit from hearing — I wish this book had been around when I was part of its middle-grade demographic, but I’m really just glad it’s around now. So, again: Sincerely, Harriet is a middle-grade graphic novel by Sarah Winifred Searle, and it comes out on Tuesday, May 7th, 2019. Buy it from a local bookseller.Buy it on Amazon. Buy it from Barnes and Noble. Just — really: go check it out. I cannot recommend it enough.