Jewell Parker Rhodes mixes hard, cold reality with imagination in her middle-grade novel, Ghost Boys. It’s the story of a young African American boy, just 12 years old. And he dies by the gun of a police officer. So, going in I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy read.
It’s designed for 8-12 year olds, so the writing is simple. And that only adds to the stark nature of Rhodes’ story. She mixes the history of Emmett Till’s killing with the names of more recent dead black boys. And in her vision, they are all still here trying to reach out to those who can see them.
Our main character, Jerome, is a typical good kid. He likes to learn, but is bullied because of it. During lunch he hides out to avoid the kids who taunt him. His little sister is sweet, and Jerome wants to protect her. His mom and dad work hard, and rely on Jerome’s grandmother to help with the kids.
And then one day, a toy gun from a new friend becomes the beginning of the end for this comparatively innocent kid. Even with all the training from Ma and Pop, Jerome’s life is ended. No spoilers here, this is all in the blurb.
Rhodes tells the rest of the story with powerful emotion. You’ll have a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach for most of the book. And the story isn’t really over until innocent black men are no longer shot by white police officers.
This makes the topic of societal and institutionalized racism personal. Rhodes uses only Jerome’s perspective, both while living and dead. The first-person narrative is meaningful to both younger and older readers.
While I read Ghost Boys in my privileged white grandmother world, I wanted to cry. Three of my grandchildren are essentially the same age as Jerome and his sister. Like Jerome’s family, ours lost a young family member. Although our granddaughter died in a car accident, I know some part of the sorrow Jerome’s grandmother feels. Rhodes does a wonderful job of conveying these deeply upsetting feelings so a middle-grade reader can understand.
Rhodes also uses a young Mexican character to illustrate the reality of being “other” in this America. She offers kids the opportunity to think about why we learn about other cultures. And how it bridges divides that older generations create and reinforce. If the younger generations of Americans can grow up with this connection, maybe there’s hope for our world and for all the ghost boys.
I also thought about some excellent adult social justice books I’ve read, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching from Mychal Denzel Smith. Both would be valuable if you’d prefer a more adult book on the topic.