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What the Fireflies Knew by Kai Harris
Literary fiction

What the Fireflies Knew


We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Kai Harris, on your first book!

by Kai Harris

Quick take

The confusion and self-discovery of growing up are illuminated in this story of sisters surviving a difficult summer.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Emotional


  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FamilyDrama

    Family drama

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Drug&AlcoholUse

    Drug & alcohol use

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_90s



After her father dies of an overdose and the debts incurred from his addiction cause the loss of the family home in Detroit, almost-eleven-year-old Kenyatta Bernice (KB) and her teenage sister, Nia, are sent by their overwhelmed mother to live with their estranged grandfather in Lansing.

Over the course of a single, sweltering summer, KB attempts to get her bearings in a world that has turned upside down—a father who is labeled a fiend; a mother whose smile no longer reaches her eyes; a sister, once her best friend, who has crossed the threshold of adolescence and suddenly wants nothing to do with her; a grandfather who is grumpy and silent; the white kids across the street who are friendly, but only sometimes. And all of them are keeping secrets. Pinballing between resentment, abandonment, and loneliness, KB is forced to carve out a different identity for herself and find her own voice. As she examines the jagged pieces of her recently shattered world, she learns that while some truths cut deep, a new life—and a new KB—can be built from the shards.

Capturing all the vulnerability, perceptiveness, and inquisitiveness of a young Black girl on the cusp of puberty, Harris’s prose perfectly inhabits that hazy space between childhood and adolescence, where everything that was once familiar develops a veneer of strangeness when seen through newer, older eyes. Through KB’s disillusionment and subsequent discovery of her own power, What the Fireflies Knew poignantly reveals that heartbreaking but necessary component of growing up—the realization that loved ones can be flawed, sometimes significantly so, and that the perfect family we all dream of looks different up close.

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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of What the Fireflies Knew.

Why I love it

Let’s face it: life can be hard. Not always, but sometimes, and it takes a special type of courage to face it head on. And Kai Harris’s remarkable debut, which fearlessly illuminates the many ways that we struggle to live life on our own terms, is full of courage.

After tragedy strikes, KB’s mother tells her and her older sister, Nia, to get into their beat-up Dodge Caravan for a “trip” away from their home of Detroit. Little do the girls know that this trip is to Lansing, Michigan, a far from exotic location where their mother drops them off with their strange and unfamiliar grandfather for the summer.

But the silence of Lansing—full of hairy caterpillars, fascinating rocks, and, you guessed it, fireflies—isn’t all that it seems. With nature as the unassuming background and their loving grandfather as the only parental unit, the sisters are forced to reckon with their painful pasts, and find a way to forge ahead.

Harris never shies away from the work true healing requires, but she also infuses What the Fireflies Knew with necessary flashes of levity, laughter, and light. By the end of reading, I found my heart had grown a little larger, and that I even had a burning desire to visit Lansing, Michigan. Okay, maybe not that last part, but you get it. This is a most compelling read that serves as a means of brightening the darkness—something I know we can all greatly appreciate.

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Member ratings (2,340)

  • Sara V.

    Scottsdale, AZ

    This was an amazing novel. The growth of the main character and how she came into her own was inspiring. Although there were some heartbreaking parts, it really shows how amazing children really are.

  • Lynette B.

    Sachse, TX

    It took me by surprise how much I loved What The Fireflies Knew. I expected to like it. It has all my faves-family drama and dysfunction, sisters, grandfathers. But this book caught my heartstrings.

  • Kimberly K.


    Enchanting story about a little girl who has to grow up too soon. KB’s character was so vivid and my heart ached for her as I followed her story. This is a wonderful book and I highly recommend!

  • Lindsey E.

    Stephens City , VA

    This was a difficult book to read with a lot of serious subject matter but the ride was amazing. The authors use of language is creative and real. I also loved how it took place in the mid 90s.

  • Ashley H.

    Lutz, FL

    KB and I had almost completely different childhoods, but I instantly connected with her as a character. Thoughtful, joyful, and tragic at times, KB felt like such an authentic child narrator.