Book Review – Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

books, reviews

36682763._sx318_ 5_star_rating_system_4_stars1 One important thing to think about at times of civil unrest is how to explain the situation to young people. Parents need to find a way to make sure their children understand why people are angry and how we have reached this point. It’s all very well and good doing anti-racist reading for myself but what about anti-racist reading lists for children? How can you possibly help a child come to terms with the idea of systemic racism and how it explains the death of innocent people? You don’t want to traumatise them or make them too fearful of society. However, you need to understand that people are protesting for good reasons. That the violence of the Black Lives Matter movement is different from the violence performed by police officers. So, I decided to check out some fiction intended for a younger audience. Just to see what’s out there.

Jerome was 12-years-old when a police officer mistook his toy gun for a real one. The officer in question supposedly mistook the boy for a fully grown man who was ready to kill him. So, he shot first. Without shouting a warning. Now Jerome’s ghost is stuck on Earth where he observes his family and community dealing with his death. And he’s not alone. He keeps seeing Emmett Till, a boy with a similar story despite living decades earlier. But what does the other ghost want with Jerome? When he’s not avoiding fellow spirits, the murdered boy stands watch in the courtroom as a judge tries to decide if the police officer was at fault or not. It is there that he meets the daughter of his killer. Sarah is confused by the situation. She loves her father but knows that he did something wrong. But what has the young girl got to do with Jerome’s continued presence in the mortal realm?

Ghost Boys is a novel full of complex ideal and emotions. It weaves history with the current socio-political climate in a way that is intended to get children thinking about race. Jerome’s story is so familiar to plenty of other stories with many of them being referenced in the narrative. Then there’s Emmett Till. August 2020 marks 65 years since 14-year-old Emmett was kidnapped, tortured and killed by two white guys. It all came about when Emmett was accused of being inappropriate with a white woman. The two men, one of them being her husband, admitted to the killing but were not charged with murder. In recent years, the testimony of the white woman was revealed to be false but there has been no hint of justice for Emmett. His story serves as evidence for just how long white people have been making Black people into dangerous predators.

The novel doesn’t exactly go into great details about how Emmett and Jerome die but there is enough detail to make the book impactful. It will definitely bring home the violence but without scaring its young readers. At its heart, Ghost Boys is a sincere and honest attempt to explain a difficult concept to young people. It shows the senselessness of racial stereotypes and shows children why people are wary of the police. I think the way the violent scenes are handled is appropriate for the audience and, though the book is sad, I don’t think it will be too sad. Plus, this is a book that shows there is still hope. The major premise here is learning. It asks why these things happen, which will get readers to start thinking about it too. It is a book that shows how important it is to learn from the past and not to ignore the bad stuff.

Sarah, the officer’s young daughter, is a stand-in for the reader. She is young and can’t understand why her father, someone who is meant to protect people, would shoot a young boy. She can’t understand how he mistook a child for an adult when he was a similar height to herself. She can’t understand why half the people in the community hate her dad and the other half support him. She is sad for Jerome, sad for her father, and confused. As a white child, she hasn’t experienced racism or fear of the police. Her father’s court case has thrust her into a world of prejudice and violence. In the same way that children reading might be. Following Sarah’s journey will help them come to terms with the world around them.

Yes, the book doesn’t spend much time getting to know these characters. We learn bits and pieces about them to help drive the story forward. However, it doesn’t necessarily too deep. But that’s the point. It shouldn’t matter who Jerome was and what his life was like. It made no difference to the actions that the police officer makes. Nobody should have their life taken away for no reason. No child should be killed for playing with a toy. Learning too much about Jerome, either way could sway the reader into a biased view of the situation. You are meant to view it as it is. A boy, no different to any other child his age, is shot because a grown-man saw him as a threat. Why? The book isn’t about Jerome himself but what it is about society that the police officer made the choice to shoot.

Ghost Boys isn’t a particularly nice story but it’s an important one. It’s like The Lovely Bones meets Black Lives Matter and is exactly the kind of thing that young readers should be encouraged to read. It’s the kind of book that families can read together and then work through the questions at the end. It doesn’t leave out some of the harsh aspects of life but I think that’s necessary. This is a book that wants to show kids the truth instead of what they want to hear. And that’s a great quality in a book like this.


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