Jo Knowles has made a career writing powerful young adult novels for older teens. See You at Harry’s is her first book for middle grade readers. And judging from the standing-room-only crowd that came to meet her at Burnham Memorial Library, in Colchester, she’s also pulling at the heartstrings of this younger audience.
See You at Harry’s is a complex story about grief and acceptance. And one of the first things a lot of kids tell Knowles is that the book made them cry, including thirteen-year-old Myla Jacobs. She told Knowles, "This book was a page turner. It did make me cry. It was really, it was a really good book."
Talking about deep feelings like grief, shame and love can be hard. But Knowles knows she’s touched her young readers when they tell her that she’s brought them to tears.
"When the book first came out I started getting letters from kids saying what you just said: that this book made me cry; it made me so sad," Knowles explained. "...And at first I would write back and say, 'I’m so sorry that you cried.'... And then I realized that I really wasn’t sorry that I had made people cry. Because I think that when a book can make you cry, it’s a really special moment. .... It connects you with your heart and your feelings and it means that you connected to the book and the characters in a way that is something that the author aspires to do. So now when people tell me they cry I just say thank you. So, thank you. And I’m a little sorry, but not too much."
One of the things that makes See You at Harry’s so powerful, is that it’s a story close to Knowles’ own heart. It’s about a family that owns a restaurant – much like the restaurant her family ran when she was growing up in New Hampshire. And while it’s a work of fiction, Knowles tells 11-year-old Petra Bajuk the characters do resemble people in her life.
Petra Bajuk: How did you decide who the character of the books were and how are they, like, special?
Jo Knowles: Fern is a lot like me when I was growing up, I was the youngest of three and I was very quiet and shy and often overlooked and felt invisible most of the time. So, Fern is a lot like me. And...Holden is a lot like my brother. The character of Sarah, who’s a little bit bossy but has a kind heart, that’s a lot of my sister. But it’s also based on people that I worked with as a teenager and just really admired. ... They all have little bits and pieces of people I know but they definitely, as I wrote the book and developed their characters, they became their own people.
Fern is the main character in See You at Harry’s. In addition to her sister Sarah, she has a little brother named Charlie, who can be a bit of a pest, and an older brother named Holden, who has problems of his own. Ten-year-old Julia Correll said three-year-old Charlie was her favorite character. She commented, "I liked Charlie because he’s so annoying, and everybody loves annoying kids for some reason. I don’t know why, but it’s true. Everyone loves annoying kids."
Ten-year-old Cole Fenton wants to know more about Holden, who is Fern’s closest confidant.
Cole Fenton: How did you decide that Holden was going to be different?
Jo Knowles: I based him a lot on my brother, who was also gay. And I wanted to explore what it was like for the two of us to have this secret, really, for a long time before he was able to talk about it. I always wanted to tell that story because I think it’s more common than most people know. And I don’t think it should have to be a secret that kids keep. I feel like they should really be open about it. And by telling this story I hope maybe that more kids will feel comfortable about talking about it. I just don’t think that anyone should have to grow up feeling like who they are has to be a secret.
Jo Knowles writes about that secret in this scene from See You at Harry’s:
We’re quiet under the pine, smelling Christmas in summer and listening to the traffic on our street pick up as people start getting home from work. It’s my favorite thing about Holden, being able to sit quietly together and not talk. Just think together, and not have to say a single word. But today, for the first time, I feel something floating between us. A question I’m sure I know the answer to. I feel the weight of the answer separating us for some reason I don’t understand. If it doesn’t matter to me, why should it matter to him? “I don’t care if what Sarah said is true,” I tell him quietly, hoping my words will make the floating thing go away. He takes a deep breath that sounds like it hurts. I wait for him to say something, but he just sits there staring at the pine needles and it almost feels like the floating thing has swallowed him up, leaving me all alone.
The emotions and characters in See You At Harry’s feel very real to 11-year old Catherine Jones, prompting her to ask Knowles if all of See You At Harry's is based on a true story. Knowles answered that the emotions in the story are true. She said she based Fern and Holden’s relationship on the relationship she had with her older brother, who died from a sudden illness. She thought she would write a book in honor of him about their childhood. But, she says, See You at Harry’s is very different from the book she set out to write.
Jo Knowels: I thought I could write this book as like a love letter to my brother. And I could make it a happy book. And it would have a happy ending and I was going to reinvent our lives. It was going to be kind of like our family, but better, and funnier, and a happier ending. And so all of you know that that doesn’t really work out so well. So when the sad things happen in the book, I wasn’t expecting to write that. It just kind of came out of me. And I stopped writing for a while because I was in denial. I thought, I don’t want this to be a sad book. I want this to be the happy book – the alter life of my family. But then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I was going to write a book for my brother, then it was going to have to be a book about grief.
So See You at Harry’s ended up being much different than a comedic take on Knowles’ years growing up at Keller’s Restaurant. But there are some pieces of her childhood that did make it into the book, even unintentionally. Knowles brought a menu from her family’s restaurant to share with her fans. Across the top of the menu was a familiar slogan: "Meet You at Keller’s."
Knowles showed the menu to her young fans, commenting, " I didn’t see this menu, not since I was a little kid. My mom and dad brought it to the Harry’s launch party and I couldn’t believe how similar the title was to the book. It must have just been in my subconscious, and there it is."
And while See You at Harry’s is a work of fiction, Knowles says that doesn’t mean it’s not true. She said one of the themes in all of her books is "finding the truth of the story." She related a bit of advice she got from fellow author Jennifer Richard Jacobson early in her career. When asked, "How do you know when your book is really done?” Jacobson answered, “I ask myself, ‘is s true yet?’”
"And so, I’ve always followed that advice," said Knowles. "And it’s just been a theme of my life, my writing life especially."
Perhaps it’s that truth that conjures up so much emotion in Knowles’ young readers.
Next month Dorothy’s List will join fifth and sixth graders in Starksboro as they explore the novel Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. The book has earned devoted fans for tackling themes related to bullying through the eyes of a character who looks different from his peers. That segment will air Monday, January 6, on Vermont Edition.