Where the Heart Is
It’s the first day of summer and Rachel's thirteenth birthday. She can't wait to head to the lake with her best friend, Micah. But as summer unfolds, every day seems to get more complicated. Her “fun” new job taking care of the neighbors’ farm animals quickly becomes a challenge, whether she’s being pecked by chickens or having to dodge a charging pig at feeding time. At home, her parents are more worried about money than usual, and their arguments over bills intensify. Fortunately, Rachel can count on Micah to help her cope with all the stress. But Micah seems to want their relationship to go beyond friendship, and though Rachel almost wishes for that, too, she can’t force herself to feel “that way” about him. In fact, she isn’t sure she can feel that way about any boy — or what that means. With all the heart of her award-winning novel See You At Harry's, Jo Knowles brings us the story of a girl who must discover where her heart is and what that means for her future.
Praise For Where the Heart Is…
—The Horn Book (starred review)
Each story thread has its own significance and weight, and when woven in with the others and dotted with moments of joy and humor creates a fully realized portrait of a girl trying to figure out how to be a teenager when all she really wants is to stay a kid...This is bittersweet in its realism, but readers can leave with the knowledge that the lessons of the summer have equipped Rachel to do more than just manage and to flourish into a confident, self-assured young woman.
—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (starred review)
In this bittersweet coming-of-age novel rooted in some of the author’s own experiences, Knowles (Still a Work in Progress) paints a down-to-earth picture of an adolescent girl who is saddled with too many responsibilities. Rachel’s anger and frustration over not being able to control her situation is as vividly expressed as her growing maturity and courage.
A gently told story about tough transitions, family and sibling love and stress, and evolving friendships...Even as Jo Knowles tackles some tough issues, especially income insecurity and loss of home, she keeps the tone quiet, warm, detailed, and often funny, leaving the reader space to work out questions and problems along with Rachel and her loved ones. A good read for fans of Rebecca Stead and Jeanne Birdsall.
—School Library Journal
Knowles deals with specific yet relatable upheavals in a young teenager’s life with nuance and understanding. Rachel’s emotional turbulence, as well as her growth and change, are realistically presented. The story offers no easy answers, but plenty of hope, heart, and love. A sensitive, character- driven story about change.
This coming of age story doesn’t shy away from the tough topic of a family facing financial hardship, but it’s mainly a gentle and sensitive look at a young girl forced to deal with the stress of change and growing up that will resonate with many readers.
—B&N Kids Blog
Candlewick, 9781536200034, 304pp.
Publication Date: April 2, 2019
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Bittersweet Farm is the name that Rachel’s mother gave to the family home. How does the property live up to its name?
2. The title of this novel is drawn from the common expression “Home is where the heart is.” But what happens when you lose your home? How is Rachel’s heart changed when her family is forced to leave Bittersweet Farm?
3. In Rachel’s town, there is a wide range of income levels, with some very rich families living alongside some very poor ones. What are some of the obvious signs of wealth in Rachel’s community? What are the telltale indicators of financial strain?
4. Why is Rachel so ashamed of her family’s money troubles? Is Micah right when he calls her a snob (page 7)?
5. Examine Rachel’s evolving relationship with her parents. How well do they communicate with each other? How honest are they with each other? How do they look after each other’s needs?
6. “This is all my parents’ fault,” Rachel decides when she learns that her family is losing
Bittersweet Farm (page 239). “I don’t care if it’s unfair to say or think — it’s true.” Do you agree? Are the Gartners responsible for their family’s financial woes? What more could they have done to hold on to their home?
7. How would you rate Rachel as a big sister? When does she enjoy looking after Ivy? When does she resent it? What responsibility do you think older siblings should have for younger children in the family? What do younger children owe their older siblings?
8. “I just want to get used to feeling how I feel,” Rachel insists (page 270). “I don’t want a label on me.” Yet other kids in her class are happy to be labeled as gay or straight. What are the disadvantages of having a label? What are the advantages?
9. “Money is overrated,” says Ivy (page 267). Do you think her parents would agree? Do you? Why?
10. “Do you miss being a kid?” Ivy asks her older sister (page 125). “Yeah,” Rachel replies. “All the time.” How would you answer Ivy’s question?
11. As young children, Rachel and Micah vowed to marry each other, but now that Rachel is a teenager, she feels differently. “I’m filled with guilt,” she says (page 3). Why does she feel guilty? Should she?
12. There are no talking spiders on Rachel’s farm, but references to Charlotte’s Web are found throughout the book. If you’re familiar with E. B. White’s classic, compare it to Where the Heart Is. What similarities do these two novels share? What are their significant differences?
13. Every vote always matters, but small-town elections can have immediate and obvious consequences. What happens to Rachel’s family when their town votes down the school budget? Why is it so hard for the Gartner family to recover from the loss of Mrs. Gartner’s job?
14. “I love him, but I don’t love him” (pages 64–65). This is how Rachel describes her feelings for Micah. What do you think she means by that? Why is she jealous when she sees him with other girls?
15. Rachel feels nothing when Evan kisses her, but she feels very differently when seated beside Cybil at the beach. “I’m not going to spell it out for you,” Micah says to Rachel (page 120). “You’re the one who needs to accept it.” What is Micah not spelling out? What does he think she needs to accept? Do you agree with him?
16. The health class teacher assures her students that they can safely explore sexual identity in her class, but Rachel has her doubts: “I don’t know if in the real world people are all that open-minded” (page 136). Do you share Rachel’s concerns? How open-minded is your school community about sexual identity? How open-minded is your larger community?
17. “It’s gonna be OK,” Rachel’s father says about their new apartment (page 259). “It’s temporary.” Try to imagine what the future holds for Rachel’s family. Do you believe that their new home will be a temporary one? Are you as confident as Mr. Gartner that the family will be OK? Why?