'What the Fireflies Knew' Is a Heartfelt Coming-of-Age Story

"I think this novel will stay with me for a while. It has found a place in my soul that I didn't realize there was room for."

what the fireflies knew by kai harris
(Image credit: Design by Tova Diamond)

If you're looking for a beautiful coming-of-age story, the #ReadWithMC community suggests Kai Harris's debut novel, What the Fireflies Knew (opens in new tab). One of the first fiction titles from Phoebe Robinson's imprint, Tiny Reparations, the book is told from the perspective of almost-11-year-old KB, who finds herself living at her grandfather’s house in Lansing, Michigan, with her sister after her father dies from a drug overdose. 

As one reviewer (opens in new tab) noted, "I've never read anything that so perfectly captures the time between being a little girl and becoming a teenager. I don't have a sister of my own, but I suspect the depiction of sisterhood in this book is also as real as it gets. By the end, I fell in love with all the characters." 

Though there are certainly heavy themes depicted throughout the novel, readers felt Harris stayed true to KB's young voice. Find out what else the #ReadWithMC community loved about Marie Claire's February book club pick, below. 


"This novel was a tragically beautiful coming of age story about loss, forgiveness, and trying to heal while the pain still lingers.

We experience a summer in Lansing through the eyes of eleven-year-old KB. I loved her as a narrator; especially her quiet moments of observation and naive innocence. She experiences a lot over the course of three months, including feelings of abandonment and self-discovery. KB is forced to grow up over the summer and must learn to navigate a new reality, and new city.

I really admired KB's strength as those hot Lansing days tried to break her but she wouldn't let it.

There were a few spots in the book that really yanked on my heartstrings. While KB has lost her daddy, that hole leaves room for her granddaddy. My grandfather and I were incredibly close and watching that bond develop made me miss him a lot. While I won't spoil the ending, I thought that it was honest and raw, and also a bit unsure. But in that uncertainty, KB and her family find hope.

I think this novel will stay with me for a while. It has found a place in my soul that I didn't realize there was room for. And I cannot wait to see what Kai Harris does next.

TW: racism, sexual assault." —@lindsey.the.librarian (opens in new tab)

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"In What the Fireflies Knew, ten-year-old narrator Kenyatta (or KB as most call her), moves into her grandfather’s house in Lansing, Michigan, with her sister after her father dies of an overdose. Her mother, overwhelmed by the death of her husband and the loss of their house, seeks in-patient treatment for depression while KB is left to navigate her new living situation with her grandfather. KB’s sister is distant as she deals with her own anger and grief over their father’s death. KB reads books and attempts to make friends in the neighborhood while also trying to make sense of their situation.

That synopsis doesn't do justice to the magic in this book. I've never read anything that so perfectly captures the time between being a little girl and becoming a teenager. I don't have a sister of my own, but I suspect the depiction of sisterhood in this book is also as real as it gets. By the end, I fell in love with all the characters. A beautiful story of Black girlhood.

If you're looking for a coming of age book to complete a square in your @metrolibraryok #WinterReading #BookBingo, this is the one you should pick up." —@bookqueenkristine (opens in new tab)

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"This story was not what I expected. I mean this in a good way! The story is told from 10-year-old KB (Kenyatta Bernice)’s point of view. The story for me picks up once KB and her 14-year-old sister Nia are dropped off by their mother at their grandfather’s house in Lansing for the summer. Neither of the girls know when their mom will come back. The summer becomes life changing, as KB matures discovering the cruel and confusing world she lives in. In addition, she realizes the importance of family, love, and acceptance." —@mae.rox.wanders (opens in new tab)

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"🐛✨ 'God needed me to know happy just one time, so I could really feel it when He took it away.'

This was a beautifully written coming of age story from the point of view of 11-year-old KB. This book was powerful and moving. I wanted to hug KB on multiple occasions, as she is forced to navigate some horrible events on her own, shattering her childhood innocence and wonder. I loved following her journey through one eventful summer.

Kenyatta Bernice and her older sister Nia are sent to stay with their estranged grandfather in Lansing, MI after they lose the family home in Detroit and their mother enters a treatment program for depression following their father’s drug overdose. The story is told from KB’s perspective, as she tries to repair her broken family and survive the challenges life throws her way. KB finds solace in books, connecting with Anne of Green Gables, and builds a touching friendship with her grandfather, learning to catch fireflies and caterpillars in old mayonnaise jars.

The childhood narrator worked so well. And despite the tragic events, this was such a beautiful story. TW: This one addresses some tough topics like child abuse, rape, and drug abuse. The tough subjects were handled with honesty and care. This is one book that will stay with you well after you’ve finished turning the pages.
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✨(4.5/5)" —@kendallshelfmade (opens in new tab)

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"Every few books I try to read a novel by an author of color. I know that reading isn't action but the education that comes from reading is, I believe, the pre-requisite to right action. I know that I have much to learn, so I keep reading and deepening my understanding of human experiences other than my own.

This is a beautiful and heart-wrenching coming of age story. It's an adult novel but told from the point of view of an eleven-year-old narrator. Her voice is engaging, warm, and funny.

KB's father died from an overdose and her mother, unable to take care of her children, leaves her and her sister in the care of their grandfather. At first, the grandfather figure seems cold and distant but over the course of the novel, a beautiful and touching relationship grows between KB and the one person in her life who shows her love, kindness, understanding and who believes in her. It reminded me that even in the most broken of childhoods, all that is needed for a child to survive is for one kind person to take them under their wing.

It's a story of sisterhood too. KB longs for her sister, Nia, to see her, hear her, play with her, talk to her about the loss of their parents. But her older sister is broken and lost in her own way and it will take the course of the novel for them to find their way back to each other.

Harris explores Black girlhood at a time when the white neighbors across the road reprimand their children for playing with you because of the color of your skin. She also looks at what life is like for a young Black girl on the edge of puberty, when the world is new and confusing and lonely and dangerous. So much of KB's story and the style of the writing reminded me of Maya Angelou's memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. 

A moving and important read. Do pick up a copy from your local indie. I got mine from @gibsonsbookstorenh (opens in new tab)." —@virginiamacgregorauthor (opens in new tab) 


Missed out on our February book club pick? In March, we're reading The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley. Read an excerpt from the book here (opens in new tab).