In this luminous middle grade novel, Michael L. Printz Honor author Helen Frost mines family history to explore the little-known experiences of children in state-run psychiatric institutions in mid-20th-century America. Artistic and bright, Henry was born hearing but became deaf after an illness in early childhood. At first, Henry continues to speak to his loving older sister, Molly, as well as to his parents, but the teasing and bullying of others soon silence him.
When his parents seek professional help, a school for the deaf deems Henry “unteachable,” and he is sent instead to Riverview, a deplorable institution. There, Henry develops close friendships with two other boys; despite mistreatment, he manages to maintain his compassionate nature and his humanity. Henry’s life changes for the better when, after the U.S. enters World War II, a conscientious objector named Victor is assigned to Riverview.
Henry’s story unfolds in plainspoken yet evocative third-person free verse that brings the story’s setting to life. For instance, when he arrives at Riverview, Henry reacts most strongly to its awful smell, a combination that includes “something like potatoes / forgotten in a corner of the kitchen.” Victor’s portion of the narrative includes epistolary poems in sonnet form that add context to Henry’s experiences as well as to the time period. The relationship that develops between Molly and Victor—also told through letters—is especially lovely as the two young people work together to improve Henry’s life.
Although Frost’s subject is weighty, she handles it with skilled sensitivity. All He Knew is a significant and poignant exploration of a difficult moment in American history and serves as a loving tribute to the young people whose experiences it brings to light.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Helen Frost shares her personal connection to the story of All He Knew.