Hardcover, 214 pages: includes Afterword, Discussion Questions, and Further Resources.
Juvenile & Middle-grade Fiction. 8-12.
Ma always says, “In this neighborhood, getting a child to adulthood is perilous.”
I looked up the word. Perilous. “Risky, dangerous.” (13)
On the rare occasion that twelve year old Jerome is allowed to play outside, a police officer murders him. The jacket copy will say he was “shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat,” but the novel will not equivocate. You may arrive at the end and understand that the officer is part of a systemic injustice, a consequence of white supremacy, but there will not be any doubt that the police officer murdered a child.
That said, I suppose the copy isn’t misleading for only the sake of non-spoilers. The officer does mistake the toy gun…and the boy’s size, and fails to announce himself. It’s that Jerome doesn’t die immediately, but draws his last painful terrified breaths as the officer stands over him, unmoved and unmoving.
Another uncomfortable aspect is that Jerome doesn’t move on to some happiness or blissful oblivion. He remains as one of thousands of ghost boys. One of these ghost boys is Emmett Till, who appears at Jerome’s side to help him cope. And like Emmett Till’s open casket, all will bear witness to what has and is being done.
Another source of hardship for Jerome is that while his Grandma at least senses him, his parents and younger sister can’t, nor can his only friend Carlos. Sarah can not only sense him, but see and converse with him. Sarah is the white twelve year old daughter of the white police officer who murders Jerome. Yeah, this is a painful realization for everyone. But the novel and Emmett Till will argue that there is a good reason for this. Not only will Sarah provide a different perspective, access to a different contextual facet, but once Sarah can be moved some distance beyond her white fragility and white girl tears, she can use her resources to participate in real, positive change. Jerome’s death exposes other people…and how they participate; she can help with that.
I was having difficulty articulating my thoughts about how Jerome is being asked to relate to Sarah (beyond implementing her as a device), and then I read Kirkus Reviews’ review:
“The novel weaves in how historical and sociopolitical realities come to bear on black families, suggesting what can be done to move the future toward a more just direction—albeit not without somewhat flattening the righteous rage of the African-American community in emphasizing the more palatable universal values of ‘friendship. Kindness. Understanding.’”
The length of the novel cannot accommodate the scope of its righteous rage. But then, it isn’t something the novel need worry about the reader experiencing?? As we move through alternating sections of ALIVE and DEAD, what happened and is happening is never far from our thoughts. The question of “what will happen” is the conflict never far from the novel’s thoughts. As Grandma says, when she learns about the source of the toy gun, “Can’t undo wrong. Can only do our best to make things right.” What heals, what carries us forward? “Friendship. Kindness. Understanding.” The difficulty is how this seems to be the task of both the dead and their surviving family members and community*; especially in light of a court’s decision.
But since this is a novel that all our youth should be reading, the task for carrying us forward can be requested of these young readers as well. And young readers should be reading narratives like Ghost Boys. I think about the librarian Ms. Penny that Sarah interacts with, whose first impulse is “You can research it when you’re older,” in academic settings, in cordoned off Heritage Months. But she “closes her eyes, shakes herself, then sighs. ‘Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’
‘What’s that mean?’
‘A Chinese proverb. It means I’m going to show you a picture of Emmett Till. I was the same ages as you when I saw it.” (117)
Jewell Parker Rhodes telling of Emmett Till’s death is breathtaking.
Jewell Parker Rhodes is a gift. She writes with wisdom, sensitivity, and serious skill. The novel is spare in prose, heavy in dialog. Ghost Boys moves in and out of harder sequences; a gentle offering, and yet determined to be honest with the horror of reality. She does not look away, and neither will you. She lifts the lid on that casket in that next to last chapter. We see the full humanity and horror.
Jerome’s is a beautiful soul. We’ll only know a small corner of its breadth. JPR won’t allow it to be unremembered or even misremembered. Ghost Boys is a novel that will leave a mark. It will inspire curiosity, a desire to learn more about the boys we’ve lost to similar violence— Tamir Rice. Laquan McDonald. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Jordan Edwards. to name very few. Ghost Boys will inspire a desire to join with those who wish for a world where these lives matter.
“At least until there aren’t any more murders,” answers Emmett. “Until skin color doesn’t matter. Only friendship. Kindess. Understanding.”
“Peace.” That’s my wish, too. (191)
“Rhodes captures the all-too-real pain of racial injustice and provides an important window for readers who are just beginning to explore the ideas of privilege and implicit bias.”—School Library Journal, starred review
“An excellent novel that delves into the timely topic of racism… with the question of whether or not we really have come far when dealing with race relations.”—School Library Connection, starred review
Recommended for all the libraries and book clubs (young and old). That it is short**, spare, straightforward and compassionate in multiple angles, makes Ghost Boys a good choice for readers (8+) engaging with this subject matter in novels. There are discussion questions in the back of the book, but you can sense entry points throughout the work itself. The characters are helpful in modeling conversation, questions, and consideration.
* Reading JPR’s explanation of what “Bearing Witness” means/does in the Afterword helps with this.
** ~47 of those 214 pages are blank or divider pages, the added material subtracts another 9, so the book is closer to 150 pages.
JPR’s inclusion of Peter Pan was a light bulb moment for me in thinking about books and culture; of white narrative privilege.
I flip to the first page. I read the first line: “All children, except one, grow up.”
I frown. “What happened? Did he die?
“No.” Sarah’s face reddens. “He doesn’t die. He stays a kid. He wants to stay a kid.” (91)
We know by this point that Jerome really wanted to grow up. He was looking forward to no longer being a kid. He reminds us of it again in this scene.
I blurt, “I always wanted to be grown. Being a kid sucks. Everybody telling you what to do. Trying to be good all the time. Escaping bullies, pushy crews. Cashiers who think you’re trying to steal.” (92)
Jerome couldn’t play outside for fucks sake. Thinking of my own childhood and the number of toy guns in all their variety that we would run around our neighborhood shooting each other with?! The pellet guns when we were Jerome’s age. The number of rifles in the gun racks in trucks my classmates drove to school…
“I wish I could cry. I wish there wasn’t a ghost kid in the room with me. I wouldn’t mind staying a kid if I could be alive. I wouldn’t care that I couldn’t grow up.
I trace Peter’s silhouette on the cover. He’s really flying.
I thought I could fly from a bullet.
Pityingly, ghost boy watches me. (93)
This Is the line though:
“Is Peter white? He’s white, isn’t he?” I ask, insistent, furious. (94)
Sarah is the only one in the room at that moment who is “the only one who’s going to grow up.”
Not wanting to grow up is a privilege. It’s a fantasy only children with idyllic childhoods would want to entertain. Childhoods that resemble those adventures in Neverland, where the blood-thirsty villain isn’t a real life concern; where the ghostly resemblance of you can be sewn back on.
Real is graduating high school
Real is maybe going to college.
Real is getting a job. Though I won’t be a sanitation worker like my dad. Maybe an electrician? Or a business manager? (Being president is a fantasy. So is being a basketball player.”
Real is making enough money to help my folks pay off their house. Buying Kim lots and lots of books. Not peter Pan.
Real is me having a girlfriend. (Maybe). (99)
Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of Ninth Ward, a Coretta Scott King honor book, Sugar, winner of the Jane Adams Peace Association book award, Bayou Magic, and Towers Falling. She has also written many award-winning books for adults.