Miss Susie's Pick for the 2019 Newbery Award
You're about to hear a lot of superlatives. And now you've been warned.
Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, is not only the best book I have read this year, it may be the best book I have read in my entire adult life--adult, children's, fiction, nonfiction. The BEST.
There are so many things I want to say about it that I don't even know where to begin, so let me just make some bulleted points, not in any particular order.
- Every single sentence in this story is vital to the storytelling.
- Every possible perspective is shown in a very messy and controversial situation.
- Every middle schooler and older should read this book.
- No character in this book is a hero--everyone is imperfect and totally human.
- This is a book for our time, and it is something everyone will be able to relate to.
Matthew Winner, creator and moderator of The Children's Book Podcast (and one of my personal heroes--how DOES he read so much???) has said that every one, 5th grade and above, should read this book--it should be a school-wide read in every middle school. Can I tell you that I completely, 100% agree. There aren't too many books I would say that about--would you?
So what is it that I have found so compelling about Ghost Boys? To be honest, I didn't think it was going to be "my kind of book." The basic plot is that a 12-yr-old African American boy is shot by a white police officer, and his ghost tells the story of the days after the shooting including the officer's hearing, with flashbacks from the days before the shooting. I was afraid it might be a political story with an agenda. I prefer books that are not didactic or preachy. Because I have read other Jewell Parker Rhodes books, I knew I might enjoy the art of the storytelling . . . but I had no idea how I would see myself in the story!
Through the eyes of Jerome's ghost, we get to meet Sarah, the daughter of the police officer and get to experience what, for me, is the mirror part of the story. A white girl, a middle-class family, another victim whose life is turned upside down by this tragedy. And we get to see that the cop who shot Jerome is not evil--he was afraid and dealing with a bias he probably didn't even know he had. We also get to meet Emmett Till, the 14-yr-old black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, and his ghost guides Jerome on a path of healing. Seeing the historical perspective gives hope to this painful story. We see that our society is making marked improvement in how we consider race and bias.
So many discussions about important topics can be started for students reading this book: What is racial bias? When is a toy not a toy? What do you do when you see bullying? How do you befriend the quiet kid in class? How does your life affect those around you? And, as asked by Jerome, "When truth's a feeling, can it be both? Both true and untrue?"
The Newbery Award is given each year to the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. This book is everything the Newbery should be--powerful storytelling, relatable characters, and a story for our time. Grief, loss, tragedy, bias, unfairness, and healing and hope are concepts every young person should reflect on, and will deal with in reading this life-changing book, and it is a way for them to learn there are many sides to complicated stories.