Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

There are two ways to read this book:


  1. Read at regular pace and break out into sobs on every page.
  2. Read quickly so you don’t sob on every page and miss the elegant terseness of this story.


Either way, this book is a complete punch to the gut, a game changer, and sets a new standard for story.


I’ve been following Jewell’s books for a few years now, and while I’ve always admired her works from an aesthetic and adult standpoint, I’ve been somewhat hesitant in recommending them to all readers.  I enjoyed Towers Falling, for example, but I find the characters, friendships, and themes a little too young for middle school. I enjoyed the slow and atmospheric elements of Ninth Ward, but I felt the absence of a moving storyline made the book a little stiff for readers.


In Ghost Boys I see a story that’s lyrical, complex, and moving (both in story and emotional heft.)  Jerome, age 12, is shot by police while playing with a toy gun. The book flips back and forth between Jerome as a ghost and the events that led up to Jerome’s death.  Readers get a sense of the tragedy and the emotional weight of the grief in Jerome’s family after his murder as well as the complex and developed person he was in his lifetime.  


Jewell does readers a favor by rounding out characters beyond their early ends and by giving readers some optimism: while some young black boys may no longer be with us, their memories live on and can inspire us to action.  She also gives us insights into the life and relationships of a ghost in a way that’s neither a deus ex machina plot device nor frustrating to readers. Her choices around how some characters can see the ghost, others can’t, and others have a distinct sense his presence is near gives us some compelling and complex emotional relationships.  It also resembles how I’ve come to think of those who have departed.


Some readers may get frustrated at the book’s brief passages, transitionless shifts in place, and characters appearing, disappearing, and reappearing without introduction.   This book reads a little bit like a series of short, interconnected prose poems, with not much connective tissue between sections. I imagine this style is meant to resemble the life and motion of a ghost.  Part of me thinks that readers will enjoy the generous use of white space and won’t mind the abrupt transitions and character mentions. Some readers may prefer a book that tends to stay in one time and one location with few characters.



It’s Quiet Uptown…

It’s been a slower period than usual for reading and reviewing children’s and teen books here on this blog.  Things have been good, busy but good, and as a result my recent work is showing up in places other than here.  Some recent highlights….

  1. I reviewed Beyond Literary Analysis over at the NCJTE Blog. I remain in such awe of Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell in their relentless quests to make writing education meaningful, mentor-driven, and effective.
  2. As a member of YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels Committee, I am reviewing and nominating graphic novels on a regular basis and will be compiling a year-end list.  Serving on the YALSA committee has been a valuable way to stay on top of graphic novels.  Follow YALSA’S HUB for up-to-date nominations across materials selection committees.
  3. I am hosting a panel at NerdCampNJ with Kat Yeh, Sarah Darer Littman, Tony Abbott, and Barbara Dee.  We’ll be talking mostly about — my favorite!! — books that hit that grades 6-10 sweet spot.