Saturday, November 26, 2022

What the Fireflies Knew – Book Review

 by Kai Harris

Girl in a field looking at fireflies in the night sky

My usual reading genre is mystery/suspense books. But I recently came across this 'coming-of-age' story that I found totally compelling. 

What the Fireflies Knew is well worth reading. It is an ode to Black girlhood.


The story is told by almost-eleven-year-old Kenyata Bernice (KB).  In the wake of her father's death from an overdose and the loss of their Detroit home due to the debts incurred by his addiction, her mother takes KB and her 14-year-old sister, Nia, to the home of their estranged grandfather in Lansing, Michigan. Then the mother disappears without a word of explanation.

Grandfather is grumpy and silent. With her father dead, her mother gone, and her sister, once her best friend, now ignoring her and acting like a stranger, KB is lonely, sad, resentful and feeling abandoned. The white kids across the street at first act friendly; and then not. It seems as though everyone is keeping secrets.

KB finds herself forced to carve out a different identity for herself and find her own voice. As the summer weeks go by, she finds the almost country setting of her grandfather's street quiet and peaceful compared to the nearly constant noise and strife of her old Detroit neighborhood. She enjoys sitting in the old tree in the backyard, reading her beloved books and listening to the quiet. 

One evening while grandfather, KB and Nia are sitting on the back porch reading, granddaddy suddenly whispers “Look”. When KB asks “What is it” Granddaddy says “Fireflies – I ain't never seen so many all at once.”

KB runs and runs, trying to catch them, but the light goes out and it disappears, and then appears somewhere else. She wonders what the trick is to catch one and learn the secret of their light. Granddaddy comes and tells her to slow down and teaches her how to catch a firefly.  

“Sometimes, when you wanna speed up, you gotta slow down first.”

Eventually, granddaddy and KB begin to talk and learn about each other. Nia is still ignoring her most of the time, busy with a Detroit friend who is visiting an Aunt in Lansing this summer and with an interest in teenage things and boys beyond KB's understanding. KB also learns that 'momma' is in a treatment center for acute depression. 


This is a very moving novel about family, identity, and race. What the Fireflies Knew teaches KB a valuable lesson of 'growing up'  - the realization that loved ones can be flawed and that the perfect family we all dream about looks different close up. 

I highly recommend this dazzling and fascinating first novel by a gifted storyteller (author Kai Harris). It is a well crafted tale of life, loss and survival told through the voice of an unforgettable 10-year-old narrator. 

What the Fireflies Knew novel

*This coming-of-age novel is available on Amazon

*What the Fireflies Knew book review by Wednesday Elf.

Note: The author may receive a commission from purchases made using links found in this article. “As an Amazon Associate, Ebay (EPN) and/or Esty (Awin) Affiliate, I (we) earn from qualifying purchases.”


  1. I absolutely love that lesson: “Sometimes, when you wanna speed up, you gotta slow down first.” It is applicable to all lives, not just the young. This sounds like a book that would make you stop and think, perhaps try to consider why someone else is behaving a certain way, and make us all grateful for the blessings of loved ones and shared wisdom. Excellent review Elf! You make me want to start reading now and forget any other responsibilities of the day.

    1. Thanks, Mouse. I found this story so compelling and filled with such a special wisdom from the grandfather and the learning of life lessons ~ both good and bad ~ from young KB.

  2. First of all, I also love those wise words from the grandfather “Sometimes, when you wanna speed up, you gotta slow down first.” The young girl learning that she needs to carve out her own path and find her own voice and learning the lessons of growing up is powerful. This sounds a captivating and fascinating book that might just be hard to put down! Thank you for your interesting review and recommendation.

    1. Thank you. The book WAS hard to put down. Very thought-provoking.

  3. Elf, this sounds like wonderful, thoughtfully written and thought-provoking novel that my husband and I would both enjoy. I love your description of how the story unfolds and how KB and her grandfather gradually open up to each other and end each other’s painful feelings of isolation. Grandpa’s words of wisdom are also a commonly used strategic leadership aphorism (“Slow down to speed up”) that applies as much to our personal lives as to business strategy. Thanks so much for introducing me to this compelling debut novel by a gifted author.

    1. Thanks, Margaret. Glad you enjoyed my book review of this very special book.

  4. This sounds like a wonderful novel. Like you , different than my normal genre, but compelling.

    1. Sometimes you can find a real 'gem' when breaking out of your comfort zone - reading-wise! Thanks for your visit.

  5. This book sounds wonderful. I was so intrigued from beginning to end with your review. The title to this book is excellent as well; it's enticing. I would read this one.

  6. Oh I like the premise of this book and I really have enjoyed many coming of age type stories. This one is going on my to read soon list! Thanks, and I love the title too!

    1. The title is what first intrigued me, Olivia. And I am very glad I chose this book to read.

  7. I know I will enjoy this book. It is not unusual for me to find great meaning and beauty in coming-of-age or young adult novels. Thank you for the recommendation. Appreciated!

    1. I definitely found 'great meaning' in this particular story, Diana. Hope you enjoy it.


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