Friday, April 27, 2018

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

For Jerome Rogers, living in his low-income Chicago neighborhood can be dangerous, but so can going to middle school. There, Jerome is the target of three bullies, Eddie, Snap, and Mike, who enjoy doing things to him like dumping out his backpack, hitting him in the head, or pulling down his pants. Jerome has no friends, and eats his lunch in a bathroom, locker room or supply closet - hiding out alone.

That is, until Carlos arrives. Carlos, a Mexican American boy, is the new kid in school, originally from Texas and Jerome unwillingly ends up showing him the ropes to avoid the bullies. But when they are discovered in a boy's bathroom eating lunch, Carlos pulls a gun on Eddie, Snap, and Mike. Not realizing it's a toy gun, the bullies back down.

Carlos gives the toy gun to Jerome, who doesn't want it, but takes it anyway. One day, allowed to go out and play, Jerome is playing an imaginary game of good guy/bad guy in a rundown park with the toy gun when police arrive and one shoots him in the back when he tries to run away.

Later, at a preliminary hearing, the white officer claims he had no choice but to shoot, that he thought Jerome was bigger, older and had a real gun, and despite shooting him from his patrol car, he said he feared for his life.

The chapters switch between Jerome's real life (Alive), in which he recounts his life and the actual events leading up to the shooting and his death, to his afterlife (Dead), in which, as a ghost, he is privy to seeing things he never would have seen when he was alive. Jerome goes to his home and observes what life is now like for his - family, mother, father, younger sister Kim, and grandmother. He also finds himself in the bedroom of Sarah Moore, also 12, and the middle class daughter of the police officer who shot him. Jerome is frequently accompanied by the ghost of Emmett Till, a name Jerome recognizes from conversations at home, but doesn't really know the details of Emmett's death in 1955. 

Emmett is there to help Jerome understand what happened to him. Slowly, as Jerome sees other ghost boys just like Emmett and himself, he begins to understand just how deep and far-reading the roots of historical racism run in this country, so much so that a snap decision based on those roots and the often unconscious acceptance of racism can end the life of a 12 year old black boy playing in a park.

On the whole, I thought this was a well-done, very accessible book for middle grade readers (I don't think there are any others about young black kids being killed by white police officers, but if you know of one, please share the title). By connecting Emmett Till's lynching and murder by white racists in Mississippi in 1955 with Jerome's murder by a Chicago police officer Rhodes shows the reader that their deaths really are one and the same - death by racism.

And although this sounds horribly depressing, Rhodes leaves the reader with reason to hope that change is possible. Remembering, making these killings real for people and working towards change and social justice are the important points of Ghost Boys.  As Emmett tells Jerome "Bear witness...Everyone needs their story heard. Felt. We honor each other. Connect across time." But this is where I found one flaw in the the novel.

In 1955, Emmett Till's death sparks the Civil Rights Movement. Being an agent of change here is the work that Rhodes gives to Sarah Moore to do in this novel. Why? Why perpetuate the idea that only white people (here a girl) can be the helpers or agents of change and that black people (here a boy) can only be the victims, thus supporting ideas of gender and race stereotypes. Jerome's younger sister, Kim is a pretty smart girl and, if she had been only a few years older, could have been just as if not more effective than Sarah at working towards change and social justice. 

Despite this, Ghost Boys isn't perfect, but it is definitely a book that most middle graders need to read.

And if Jerome's story sounds familiar to you, perhaps it's because of the close parallel to another murder, that of Tamir Rice, also a 12 year old black boy killed by a white Cleveland, Ohio cop on November 22, 2014 and mentioned in the book.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from Net Galley

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