“Her smile is like a gigantic, dripping ice cream cone, after I stuff my belly full with dinner. Even with a stomachache, I want that smile.” (7)
Kai Harris’s debut novel What the Fireflies Knew (Tiny Reparations Books) is a classic Bildungsroman, with a loss, journey, conflict, and growth. What makes this novel unique is that it is a black Bildungsroman, and while Harris is not directly tackling the stolen and lost stories that left a literary canon brimming with coming-of-age novels written by white folks about white folks but woefully lacking in diversity, she intentionally puts four books in her main character’s hands that showcase the disparity and lack of diversity in literature.
The novel opens with almost-eleven Kenyatta Bernice (KB) finding her father dead. KB doesn’t fully understand what killed her father or what a “fiend” is, she just knows he’s never coming back. The novel quickly jumps forward several months. They’ve been living in hotels and depression is wrapping its arms around KB’s momma, only KB doesn’t know its name. KB’s momma takes KB and her older sister, Nia, to their grandfather’s home for the summer. KB doesn’t understand where her mother is or why Nia has become so distant and mean. With secret and open hurts, the novel lights up with family, forgiveness, and hope – shining in the darkness like the fireflies KB’s granddaddy teaches her how to catch.
KB is an avid reader, and her favorite novel is Anne of Green Gables. While at her grandfather’s, she reads Their Eyes Were Watching God. She recognizes the book is far too old for her, but it’s the first time she’s seen a character “with skin like mine and hair like Nia’s, who’s gotta figure stuff out just like us.” She astutely recognizes that her father was her mother’s Tea Cake. For her birthday, she selects The Secret Garden, another canonical Bildungsroman, but then Nia gives her the fourth book, Amazing Grace. Nia readily tells her that the book is below KB’s reading level, but she “thought it would be nice for you to read a book about a girl who’s just like you, for once.”
And I hope this novel can do that. While not marketed as such, this novel reads like a middle grade novel with a clear and unique voice that is limited on shelves. While parts are indeed heavy, drug use and assault, it’s life and KB should sit next to Anne and Mary.
Read this book.