Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Also Known as Harper

WOW! I just finished reading Also Known As Harper and couldn't wait to write about it! I've had more than one conversation with my blogging and teacher friends about having trouble recently finding "that" book that touches me and makes me say, "WOW!"

Also Known as Harper is THAT book for me. A first novel by teacher Ann Haywood Leal, this book is touching in a way that makes it a must read for all kids 5th grade and above. The topic is homelessness, and Ann Haywood Leal knows of what she writes from her volunteer experiences in a soup kitchen. Her bio in the back of the book states that "from the very first day, she was unable to get the clients out of her mind." She used her experience to create the very real characters that make the reader aware that a lot of us are not too far removed from being among them. What an example of character study.

Harper Lee Morgan is named for the famous author, her mother's favorite. She has inherited her mother's love for words and lives up to her namesake. Harper has one dream, to win the writing contest at her school and get the opportunity to read her poems in front of the whole school. Unfortunately for Harper, her father does everything he can to discourage her talent, constantly criticizing her for being lazy and having no ability to write at all. He has also done this to Harper's mother through the years to the extent that her mom no longer writes. After the death of a newborn, Harper's father begins to drink, and his rants get even angrier. The only family member spared is Harper's little brother, Hemingway. Eventually Harper's father leaves the family never to return.

Hemingway Morgan, Harper's little brother adores his big sister, and she is left in charge of him often as their mother is constantly working or looking for work to keep the family together. Hemingway spends every afternoon looking for his father to return. He panics if they are not home for him to "do his watching." While Harper knows Hemingway's watching is pointless, she does what she can to help him continue doing it.

Mrs. Morgan, Harper's mama who was forced to drop out of school to take care of her many younger brothers and sisters. She harbors dreams of writing and jots down ideas until her verbally abusive husband convinces her that she has no ability and isn't smart enough to spell or put sentences together that make sense. She continues to love her children, always doing what's in their best interest, or whatever it takes to survive her miserable circumstances. Her one saving grace is reading To Kill a Mocking Bird repeatedly and keeping track of the times with tally marks on a wall.

Mrs. Early the Morgan's landlord who lives next door and puts eviction notices on their door daily. She takes joy in the power she has over the Morgans and even though her situation isn't much better, she reminds them constantly that she has the power to throw them out on the street at any time. Eventually she does, moving all of their belongings from the house to the curb while the Morgans are away at school and work. After offering room to store their things, she sells them off to help pay the back rent without telling the Morgans. In the end, we find that she is not entirely heartless and provides the opportunity for homeless people to get a shower at least once a week at the hotel where she works as a house keeper.

Winnie Rae Early is the landlord's daughter and Harper's nemesis in school. Winnie holds it over Harper's head that they own the house where the Morgan's live. She also rubs it in every chance she gets that Harper probably won't be in school for the writing contest which will give Winnie the chance to win and read her poetry in front of the whole school even though she doesn't have near the talent that Harper does.

Lorraine and Randall Kelly, two homeless children that live in a tent city near the motel where the Morgan's end up after the eviction. The two are pictures of survival. Lorraine is the same age as Harper but she doesn't speak, and according to Randall who talks enough for both of them, she hasn't since a house fire burned all of their possessions and left them homeless. The Kellys are the Morgan's first true friends. Lorraine and Harper are able to communicate even though Lorraine doesn't speak. They are examples of strength and hope and confidence in the story.

Finally, Dorothy, and elderly lady that wanders the grounds of the motel pushing a wheel chair full of various items that might appear as other's trash. Harper is initially afraid of her but once she learns the tragic story of Dorothy's family her feelings change. Dorothy isn't homeless, but does what she can to help those that are, especially the Kelly's and eventually the Morgans.

Lorraine, Randall and Dorothy help Harper and Hemingway survive, and they show them that just because they don't have a permanent home, they are not without dignity.

In the end, Harper never gets to enter the writing contest which she would undoubtedly win, she never gets to read her beautiful poetry in front of her school mates, in fact, her mother keeps her from going to school so she can work more hours. For Harper this is a tragedy since school has always been her one safe refuge from the world. Something we educators really need to be reminded of from time to time. However, Harper learns that there are more important things in the world than winning writing contests, things that aren't temporary, things like friends, and family and the fact that no matter what anyone else says, she will always have her writing.

I like that the story doesn't end with Harper getting her wish, it's more realistic that way, but honestly, Harper gets much more. This is a must read! It has Grand Discussion written all over it!


  1. I just bought this last week at CTC. Looks like my Kindle is not going alone this week. I have to take a few others...

  2. I loved your review and am copying part of it on my SLJ blog for Monday. Thanks for expressing my feelings so well.

  3. Getting this for a girl at the school here. A young girl who unfortunately, can relate far too well to this story. I hope it helps her not feel so alone. Thanks for the review.