Sincerely, Harriet original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Sarah Winifred Searle
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group/Graphic Universe imprint
Price: $11.99 US
Sincerely, Harriet is an unusual book, one that’s difficult to pin down. It’s something of a mystery story, but also a ghost story of sorts. It subtly explores psychological and physical challenges, while also espousing the wonder of reading. Ultimately, it’s a quiet coming-of-age story that’s unlike those you may have read before. Honestly, I was a bit confused by Searle’s writing and art at first, but the more I read, the more vested and interested I became in Harriet’s story. This reads something like a Raina Telgemeier graphic novel filtered through the lens of film director David Fincher, instilling it with a little more tension but maintaining the grounded, relatable qualities that makes it such a pleasure to experience.
Harriet’s having a rough go of things. Her family has moved from Indiana to Chicago, mainly for the young girl’s best interest, but ironically, the move has made her miserable. Her parents have had to take on new jobs, limiting the time they have for Harriet, and since they moved in the summer, Harriet doesn’t have any way to meet new kids. To make matters worse, she’s missed out on summer camp, her favorite experience, and the friendships she forged there. As Harriet writes misleading postcards to those friends, she speculates about the potentially nefarious activities of the people in her new neighborhood, all while struggling with her own physiology, which is turning against her.
Searle’s cartooning style is a softer one, which suits the reflective and relatable tone of the story and characters. The softness is further reflected in the color palette she employs here as well. I found the backgrounds to be rather sparse, but it works here, as the approach reinforces the sense of isolation that the title character experiences. My only real qualm with the art is Searle’s depiction of Harriet’s dad. He seems significantly older, making me think he might be a grandparent at first, and his gender wasn’t immediately clear to me early on in the book. There’s a clear Asian influence in Searle’s style that’s bound to appeal to a wide variety of readers, but especially younger ones.
Illness is at the heart of what drives the plot and the development of the unusual connection Harriet forms with a former resident of her new home, but Searle reveals the nature of those issues slowly and methodically. But even if one hasn’t faced the sort of health challenges that Harriet has, it’s remarkably easy to relate to her. Everyone has gone through periods in life in which they feel isolated from those around them, lost in their own lives. And I’m not just referring to childhood woes. Personally, my greatest periods of loneliness were times I experiences in my 20s and 30s. As such, Sincerely, Harriet resonates beyond just younger readers.
Searle also taps into what I believe to be a universal experience: a challenge in finding passion for reading and writing. Literacy is a fundamental component of this book, and I appreciated how the writer didn’t just present Harriet as a voracious reader from the start. She had to find her niche, and it made her much more believable as a character. It’s also noteworthy that this story is set in the 1990s, which is vital to its success. Harriet’s isolation might not have been as convincing if the conveniences of email or texting were a reality in her world.
As a parent, I found it incredibly satisfying when the reserved and private Harriet finally opens up to her parents about what’s been bothering her. Searle builds up to that moment organically, so it felt convincing and heartfelt. It’s a lovely and cathartic moment that sends the right message to kids and adults.
The ultimate message of this book is one of empathy. Harriet’s isolation and boredom leads her imagination to run wild, and it takes the form of her thinking the worst of people around her. She’s frustrated she’s not getting mail from those she perceives as friends, so she demonizes the mailman. The old lady living downstairs from whom her family rents makes her feel uncomfortable, so she imagines her as a secret serial killer. Harriet is understandably troubled, so she never comes off as a distasteful figure, and her journey is about learning lessons, both hard and gentle, about other people. It’s interesting to juxtapose the harsh light in which Harriet views others with the letter she receives from a former friend from her summer-camp days. It’s a pivotal turning point in the quiet plot.
The publisher’s website suggests the recommended reading level for this book is Grade 4, to be of interest to kids in grades 4-8. I think the book will resonate with kids, but it struck me as a much more mature and thoughtful read. Sincerely, Harriet is something of a mystery, and it slowly reveals itself over the course of the book. Harriet’s feelings are nuanced and confusing and unusual, but more importantly, they’re incredibly relevant and telling. As I made my way through the earlier pages of this graphic novel, I was intrigued but also off-balance, not entirely sure where Searle was going. As I got deeper and deeper into the story, I become more engrossed, more surprised and more impressed. 9/10