Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels
- Age: 12 to 15
- Grade: 7 to 10
- Reading age: 12 to 15
2021 Red Maple Award — Shortlisted
As far-fetched as her father’s plan sounds, sticking to it is easy for Harbour — until it isn’t.
Fourteen-year-old Harbour is living in a tent in a Toronto ravine with her dog, a two-month supply of canned tuna, and an unconventional reading list. She’s not homeless, she tells herself. She’s merely waiting for her home — a thirty-six-foot sailboat — to arrive with her father at the helm. Why should she worry when the clouds give her signs that assure her that she’s safe and protected?
When her credit card gets declined, phone contact from her father stops, and summer slips into a frosty fall, Harbour is forced to face reality and accept the help of a homeless teen named Lise to survive on the streets. Lise shows Harbour how to panhandle and navigate the shelter system while trying to unravel Harbour's mysterious past. But if Harbour tells her anything, the consequences could be catastrophic.
About the author
Christina Kilbourne was born in Southwestern, Ontario, then moved and spent her elementary and high school years in Muskoka, a resort area two hours north of Toronto. She graduated with an Honours BA in English Literature from the University of Western Ontario in 1990 and completed her Masters degree in Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Windsor, Ontario. Upon graduating Christina travelled across Africa, Mexico, Central and South America and has lived two years in New Zealand, her husband’s home country. Christina has worked in various jobs writing for newsletters, brochures, handbooks reports and websites for such organizations as CIBC Bank, the Auckland University of Technology, the Regional Municipality of York, and most recently, Conservation Ontario. Christina currently lives with her husband and two children near Mt. Albert, Ontario.
- Short-listed, SYRCA Snow Willow Award
- Short-listed, Red Maple Award
- Short-listed, Foreword INDIES Award for Young Adult Fiction
Excerpt: Safe Harbour (by (author) Christina Kilbourne)
Most people think cumulus nimbus are the best cloud-watching clouds, but Dad and I prefer cirrus spissatus. If you ask me, the whole cumulus family of clouds is too obvious. It’s like they shout danger when anyone can tell they mean trouble at first glance.
But cirrus spissatus clouds are hypnotic. They promise mystery and hope: a thin veil between earth and heaven that might dissolve at any moment. We most often see Mom in the long, thin cover of the cirrus spissatus clouds. We seek her out every day, unless it’s cloudless, of course, which means she’s giving us the all clear. It’s like a contest to see who can find her first. Maybe her face is our good luck charm or the act of looking is our prayer for the coming day.
When I was little Dad used to beat me to her, but now I find her first. When I do, when I point her out in some distant cloud formation, he sighs and, with a dreamy distant look in his eyes, says: “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”
And not until then, not until one of us sees her face in the clouds, do we start our day.
I lie back in the sun with my hands behind my head and scan the sky above me while Tuff dozes in a patch of dappled sunlight farther up the slope. The leaves overhead sift the sunlight across his body in a trembling pattern. His legs jerk slightly and I wonder if he’s chasing a dream squirrel or a rabbit or maybe a raccoon. There’re so many critters to chase and new places to explore in the ravine, I don’t think he misses the boat at all. But I do. I miss the slap of the waves on the hull and rocking in a half-doze on the glinting sea. I miss Dad, too. But never mind.
I slip the last soda cracker into my mouth and chase it with a mouthful of water from the Tropicana jug. Then I empty crumbs from the plastic sleeve into the palm of my hand and eat those, too. I expect the rustling to wake up Tuff, but he’s oblivious to me, whining in his sleep.
When I finish scouring the northern horizon, my eyes drift east. I split the sky into quadrants and search for her that way. North, east, west, and last of all, south. Dad prefers to let his eyes wander across the sky randomly, following her clues from thought to thought. But my way’s faster.
“There she is, Tuff.” I point out her face near the edge of the eastern horizon, beyond the overpass. “She’s smiling today and her hair is streaming in the wind. She sure looks beautiful.” I say it for Dad and then stand up.
Finally Tuff raises his head and assesses me from his patch of sunshine and green grass.
“Well, c’mon. Up you get. We can’t lie around here all day. We’ve got stuff to do.”
Tuff devours a bowl of kibble while I pack the tent and zip it closed. Then I pull the branches over the front door until it’s completely hidden. It would take a psychic, or maybe a U.S. Marine, to find our campsite.
I pat my front pocket for my phone and charger. Then check for the lump in my back pocket, which is a small fold of twenty-dollar bills and the credit card.
“Everything’s in order. Let’s go!”
Tuff follows me out to the trail and up the side of the ravine, sniffing at every stalk of grass and tree trunk like he’s met them all before and has to say hello to a long-lost friend.
“Don’t get too used to living on land.”
He tilts his head and barks once.
“Of course, I’ll always take you for walks so you can chase squirrels.”
As if to demonstrate his joy, Tuff races up the side of the ravine and stops at the base of a stately maple tree. He stares into the branches and dances around the trunk, trying to get a sightline on whatever he chased up there. When I get too far ahead, he abandons the tree and runs to catch up.
It’s a glorious summer day. The sun is warm and bright without making the day oppressively hot. It’s the air quality in Toronto that surprises me most. Even though it’s July, the clarity of the air makes me feel optimistic and it’s easy to breathe. It’s never like that in the Keys, or even farther north in Tampa. No, the air in Florida is thick and heavy, and you can’t ever forget that you need your lungs to survive. The summer air in Miami could sear your throat if you inhaled too deep.
When we get to the cemetery, I clip the leash onto Tuff ’s collar and head toward Bloor Street. I haven’t been in Toronto long, but I already know the major intersections and basic landmarks downtown. I know the names of some of the neighbourhoods and can find my way to a few places.
There are even a couple of people I see day after day. Like the girl who sits on a square of cardboard near the intersection of Yonge and Bloor, her legs folded like a pretzel and her back as straight as the wall she melts into. She sits on the same block, though not always in the exact same place. Today she’s on the northeast corner. As I turn onto Yonge Street, I look at her and nod. Tuff sniffs at her cup of change and I tug lightly on his leash.
“It’s okay. He’s cute,” she says and reaches out to ruffle the fur behind his ears. I let Tuff introduce himself.
“Sorry. I don’t have any change,” I say apologetically.
“No worries. I’m happy meeting your dog. What’s his name?”
She wrinkles up her nose. “What sort of name is that?”
“My mom named him when he was a puppy because he was always trying to show the bigger dogs that he was boss.”
“Is he?” She leans close and wraps her arms around Tuff ’s neck. He sits down, happy to be adored by a pretty girl. And she is pretty, despite the layers of dark clothing hiding her petite frame and the rings of black eyeliner that make her look like she’s scowling. It’s obvious she wants people to think she’s badass, even though I can tell she isn’t. Not even her black dreads or eyebrow rings can camouflage her perfect smile.
“Is he what? Tough?”
“Yeah, and the boss?”
“Not really. He’s a pushover.”
The girl unknots her legs and stands up. She reaches out her hand. “Lise Roberts,” she says.
I hesitate and Lise chuckles.
“It’s okay. I don’t bite and I wash every day. With soap.”
A hot blush washes over my cheeks and I take her hand.
“Harbour Mandrayke. Nice to meet you.”
“You should stop and talk sometime, when you have a few minutes,” Lise suggests. “I think Tuff would like it.”
Tuff leans against her leg with a hopeful expression and points his muzzle up at her like a wolf getting ready to howl at the moon.
“I will,” I say and pull Tuff down the street after me.
A unique and educational read that presents a new look at homelessness and mental illness.
School Library Journal
Kilbourne draws a careful and convincing picture of the shelters and squats occupied by the city’s homeless youth
Globe and Mail
[A] gritty, highly engaging, realistic mystery that captures the harsh realities of homeless teens in crisis. This plot-driven novel with well-drawn characters will pull readers into a devastating tale of intrigue and redemption.
Safe Harbour is a page-turner...The upbeat neat ending to the plot makes Safe Harbour an accessible, life-affirming read while still drawing attention to homelessness and mental illness. The people are well-drawn by Kilbourne who uses engaging passages to illustrate the characters’ behaviours and actions. Kilbourne excels at describing the shelters and hangouts of the homeless. Kilbourne’s realistic drama will be a welcome addition to public and school libraries alike. Highly Recommended.
CM: Canadian Review of Materials
Safe Harbour is one of those must-reads, a story that promises not to be forgotten, even after the novel has been put down.
Safe Harbour is beautifully constructed and written…All told it’s a dramatic coming of age story about reconciling the dark secrets of the past and facing an uncertain future.
Quill & Quire