Middle Grade Review: Ghost Boys

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Genre: Middle Grade
Maturity Level: 4- (on the page violence against Black boys)
View on Goodreads

Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat. As a ghost, he observes the devastation that’s been unleashed on his family and community in the wake of what they see as an unjust and brutal killing.

Soon Jerome meets another ghost: Emmett Till, a boy from a very different time but similar circumstances. Emmett helps Jerome process what has happened, on a journey towards recognizing how historical racism may have led to the events that ended his life. Jerome also meets Sarah, the daughter of the police officer, who grapples with her father’s actions.

“People change, but not enough at the same time. Or, maybe, people change, then forget they’ve changed and keep hurting.”

If you’re looking for a Black Lives Matter book for upper-elementary or middle school students, this book is a must-have. It tackles the subject head-on with a middle grade main character, but gives the topic the complexity it deserves.

Wow, this is a powerful book. It did not pull any punches when it comes to racism. Rhodes addressed police brutality, the way white people may be subconsciously (or consciously!) scared of black people, the economic disparities, the still segregated school system, and she did so in a way that kids can understand and personally connect with.

However, the white characters in the book are not painted in a simple way. The police officer who shot Jerome lied in court to avoid charges, but is eaten up by guilt, knowing what he did was wrong. His daughter, Sarah, asks herself how a father she loves so much could shoot a boy and then not attempt medical aid. She alternates between loving him and hating him. She is confused that some people are protesting his cleared charges, while others are celebrating them. She alternates between celebrating and protesting. Eventually Jerome forgives the officer, but not the prejudice that led to his death.

The supernatural element was part of the power of this book. The ghost boys remain ghosts in order to influence change, one person at a time. But at the end it’s also tied powerfully to the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. This cross-cultural connection gives it an extra feeling of believably. I think it will also help my Latinx students relate to this book, which is important because there are traditionally a lot of tensions between Black and Latinx people in my state.

The book concludes that the best way to inspire change in the world is to change one person at a time. Kids should not be afraid to talk to their parents, call them out if necessary. Jerome ends with a poem:

It’s a call to action. Kids can and will change the world.

Before I finish this review, I need to address the writing and the format, because it’s very artistic/experimental. The writing style is sparse and staccato with lots of sentence fragments, which caused a lot of adults (including me) to not connect with it as well as with more lyrical writing. I would be interested to see if kids, who have less experience reading in one certain way or expectations for a certain writing style, feel the same disconnect. I look forward to talking to my students about it in the fall. The timeline of the book, though, I think will be difficult to follow. Primarily it follows the timeline chronologically after Jerome’s death. However, it is punctuated every few chapters by three different sets of flashbacks: to the day of Jerome’s death, to the hearing for the police officer, and to Emmett Till’s death. I worry that struggling readers or inexperienced readers may get confused or have trouble keeping it straight. Reading this book with a trusted adult will help.

Please, put this book in the hand of your children or students. The first step to changing is knowing, and kids deserve to know.

8 thoughts on “Middle Grade Review: Ghost Boys

      1. She actually liked the writing style and we talked about it. No issues connecting to the book, although at first I wasn’t sure about it.

        For her project she did a report on the content, made a poster, and also shared her views. It was a huge discussion last summer. I see now Barnes is promoting it and can’t understand why they weren’t before now (outside the obvious reasons of course). It’s such an awesome book.

        Liked by 1 person

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