Monday, February 14, 2022

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes


I honestly believe that middle grade is one of the hardest groups to write for successfully because your target audience consists of kids who are fresh out of elementary and/or just about to enter high school, and they want to feel grown up about the books they read, so you, as an author, have to deliver on serious subjects and solid characterization while also not traumatizing the kiddos. I think I'd have a lot of trouble doing that, so I really admire the middle grade authors who deliver on the serious factor for their child audiences.

GHOST BOYS is one of those books. It is an incredibly tragic, very dark book for a middle grade audience that deals with a young boy's death from a police shooting. Jerome was playing with a toy gun his friend gave him and a cop thought it was a real one and shot him. Now a ghost, Jerome ends up witnessing the aftermath of his death, watching his family grieve him, his killer stand trial, and his killer's daughter feel very conflicted about reconciling the father she loves with the man who has done something absolutely unforgivable.

Also in this afterlife is the ghost of Emmett Till, who was also the victim of racial discrimination (albeit of a different kind and flavor). Jerome doesn't know who he is at first, so his identity and history are something of a mystery to Jerome (and by proxy, the audience), until he tells his sad story. I knew about Emmett Till, and his story IS horrifying, but I felt like the author did a good job holding back on the details while still conveying the horror of his death. Violence in YA is always hard to read about but here, it has a purpose: to illustrate the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and to show that we are not the post-racial society some might like to imagine we are until we fix the racism that is embedded deeply into the social and infrastructural strands of the U.S.'s tapestry of discrimination.

I cried several times while reading this book. Jerome is a compelling narrator and so is Emmett. I felt so bad for his family. The only thing I really took issue with is the fact that part of Jerome's unfinished business is teaching the policeman's daughter How Not to Be Racist, which kind of makes me feel like this is more of a book about Black people for white people. The ending is not a happy one and might be hard for some kids to read, but I think the idea of the murdered Black people as ghosts also serves as a metaphor for all those silent spaces that should be filled with Black lives that were ended prematurely. It ends up kind of feeling like a cross between BEFORE I FALL and THE HATE U GIVE. I personally feel like both those books did what they did better, but this was still a pretty gut-wrenching novel.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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