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What the Fireflies Knew by Kai Harris

Literary fiction

What the Fireflies Knew

Debut

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

by Kai Harris

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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, Emotional

    Emotional

  • Illustrated icon, Family_Drama

    Family drama

  • Illustrated icon, Drugs_and_Alcohol

    Drug & alcohol use

  • Illustrated icon, 90s

    90s

Synopsis

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.

Free sample

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

What the Fireflies Knew

JANUARY 1995

I was the one who found Daddy dead, crammed in the little space where my old bike's training wheels turned rusted. I hadn't ever seen a dead body before, cept one funeral when all I really saw was one dead arm folded cross a still chest, cause Momma ain't let me get close; and sometimes, too, in the cop shows Momma loved to watch before bed and I snuck and watched, pretending to sleep, tucked between Momma's bony elbow and fast-beating chest. But Daddy was different. His skin, once deep brown, had turned dull gray like the sky when it rains and rains, and the sun hides behind full clouds til it's too late to go out and play.

I was s'posed to be sleep, but I couldn't sleep, so I crept down the creaky stairs looking for Daddy. He was always up late, too. I ain't scream at first, when I found him there, cold. I just walked back up the steps, quiet like Momma always taught me, and pushed open her heavy bedroom door. When I told her, she screamed, so finally I screamed. Momma screaming felt heavier, scarier, more real than Daddy laying limp in that little space beneath the stairs.

Momma called the police, and they came with loud, red sirens. One officer peeked into all our drawers and cabinets, while the other draped yellow tape around our whole house til I barely recognized anything. I sat wrapped in a thick carpet blanket on the hard kitchen floor, trying my best to listen, but only being able to hear once, just as one cop whispered, "another fiend," to the other. I ain't know that word, fiend. But I had heard Momma yell it at Daddy sometimes on the days the basement steps would rot with a sour stench.

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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.

Member ratings (2,402)

  • Shelah R.

    Warwick, RI

    Loved! Beautiful coming of age story about a black girl, family, loss, love. My eyes filled up a few times while reading. Granddaddy had a special place in my❤️right away. He reminded me of my father.

  • Danielle V.

    Rochester, NY

    The book does seem a little more on the YA side bc it’s told from the POV of a 10 year old but this book was beautifully written & I was sad when I finished it! I felt so many emotions reading this.

  • Sara V.

    Phoenix, 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.

  • Nicole C.

    Sacramento, CA

    A thoughtful tale of a young girl trying to understand the trials of growing up while also coping with loss. KB's character explores topics of racism, sexuality, and found family through innocent eyes

  • 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.

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View all
Real Americans
Wellness
Margo’s Got Money Troubles
Same As It Ever Was
Annie Bot
Mercury
True Biz
The Husbands
The Lady Waiting
The Other Valley
Hard by a Great Forest
Good Material
The Bullet Swallower
Alice Sadie Celine
Let Us Descend
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
Banyan Moon
Shark Heart
Transcendent Kingdom
Hello Beautiful
Dominicana
What's Mine and Yours
The Unsettled
Ask Again, Yes
Vladimir
Infinite Country
The Prophets
Normal People
The Verifiers
Salvage the Bones
The Many Daughters of Afong Moy
I Have Some Questions for You
Black Buck
The History of Love
Age of Vice
Paper Names
The Light Pirate
The Secret History
The Kite Runner
Memorial
The Half Moon
Happiness Falls
The Gifted School
The Death of Vivek Oji
The Knockout Queen
Little Monsters
Yerba Buena
Beautiful World, Where Are You
Free Food for Millionaires
A Burning
The Mothers
The Water Dancer
Small Country
The Sympathizer
Fleishman Is in Trouble
Lot
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The Animators
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Exit West
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White Fur
Woman No. 17
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
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Golden Child
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The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P
& Sons
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