What the Fireflies Knew

by Kai Harris

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Last Updated on September 14, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651

In the acknowledgments of her debut novel, What the Fireflies Knew, Kai Harris writes: “This book was born from a desire to show Black girlhood at its best, at its worst, at its most dull and most exciting.” With that aim, Harris masterfully captures the voice of eleven-year-old KB, short for Kenyatta Bernice, as she navigates the difficult terrain of loss, family, trauma, and self-discovery.

Taking place over just a few summer months, KB and her older sister, Nia, find themselves uprooted, having lost both their father and home. When their overwhelmed mother drops the two girls off with their estranged grandfather in Lansing, MI without explanation, KB sets off on a mission to fix her shattered family.

KB also attempts to understand Nia's volatile mood and why she is so distant all the time. Her sister’s adolescent changes are a mystery that KB struggles to comprehend. Meanwhile, KB works to excavate family secrets to better understand her present situation. To KB, it often feels like adults are constantly keeping her in the dark, something that clashes with the innate curiosity of any child, one certain that “all grownups do is lie to me and treat me like a kid.”

KB does not know why her father died, why Momma left her in Lansing, and why Momma and Granddaddy’s relationship is strained. Yet, she is determined to find out—if only to help repair her broken family. But things worsen, as KB’s relationship with Nia is frequently tested throughout the summer. 

As a teenager, Nia must navigate the difficulties of adolescence in addition to the trauma of her family’s disintegration. KB is often baffled by her sister’s behavior, which shifts regularly between the warm sisterly love she remembers and the chaotic nature of pubescence. Understandably, KB is afraid she will lose her sister after having already lost so much. Worse, she worries that Nia’s adolescent struggles will ultimately lead to her becoming grown up and, therefore, just like the adults who hurt them both:

Do I hate Nia? Or am I mad at her for tryna act like a grownup, when all grownups do is hurt me? 

In between all this, KB shares sweet moments with her tough grandpa, who tries his best to teach her important lessons about growing and, in doing so, make up for his shortcomings as a parent.

With one foot at the threshold of adolescence, KB is a mix of characteristics, many of which are contradictory. She is perceptive yet naive, resilient but fragile. Her perspective takes readers through the turbulence that is childhood but also reveals its capacity for awe and astonishment. Although the novel tells the story of one particular child, most readers will be able to identify with the beauty, wonder, confusion, and hurt that are all a part of growing up.

There are difficult themes in this novel, ranging from sexual assault to drug addiction to racism. During her summer in Lansing, KB experiences their impacts first-hand. Because of her naivete and youth, these themes are presented through the lens of someone who is only beginning to grapple with life’s complexity. In this way, Harris captures what it is like to encounter difficulties that seem beyond comprehension to a child, but which many people must grapple with as they grow and mature. As adults, readers are reminded of what it is like to encounter such heartbreaks for the first time.

While these dark themes are an integral part of the story, they are not the crux of it. At its heart, this is a story about family and growing up. Over the course of the novel, KB learns that all people—even those she loves—have flaws and there is no such thing as a perfect family. The realization is a difficult one but ultimately brings her closer to her family than she ever was.

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