If you have a list of important middle grade reads, Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, absolutely must be on that list. It isn’t a fun read, but like The Hate U Give, I think it is one that should be read by everyone. This is a book which at its heart wants the world to “bear witness” and feel empowered to “make the world better.” But at the same time, it is written for a younger audience (10-15) so the message is told in a slightly softer way. It is an important book that looks both at the side of the African American boy who was killed and, to a lesser degree, to the policeman and his family.
12 year old Jerome is killed by a policeman who mistakes his toy gun for a real one. Instead of just fading away, Jerome’s ghost remains and watches his family grieve. He watches the pain of the preliminary hearing to see if the police officer who shot him should be charged with murder. He meets another ghost who is there to help him make sense of what happened. He also finds himself at the police officer’s house, where the officer’s daughter is able to see and speak with him.
Ghost Boys does an impressive job of looking at the hatred and violence that continue to plague our world. But the book looks at much more than just the issue of racial bias. Jewell Parker Rhodes also takes a look at bullying, class differences, and gun violence in general. The only reason that Jerome had a toy gun the day he was killed, was because another student had brought it to school for fear of bullies.
The other ghost that Jerome meets is the ghost of Emmet Till. He helps Jerome process what has happened to him and that he is one of many other ghost boys who have perished due to historical racism. Till also gives a fictionalized version of his own death. Jewell couldn’t have known exactly what happened on that horrible day 1955, but we do know that Till was brutally murdered for a crime he didn’t commit. He was murdered because he wouldn’t bow down to white men. His story was a tipping point in the civil rights movement and being in this book might have more kids in the current generation learning about what happened in the 50s and 60s.
The officer’s daughter, Sarah, is the hope. She wants to believe that her father didn’t do anything wrong, but she knows that her father wasn’t completely innocent. She wants the truth and she wants to understand how Jerome felt. She believes that she can see him because, somehow, she is meant to help him. And she is meant to help him. She shows him that his family isn’t the only one hurting, but that we also need to make a change. She is the bridge. Sometimes we need a bridge in order to get to the other side.
Ghost Boys is a powerful reminder that there is still racism in this country. But it also tells us that we need to try and make things right. We have to try to understand both sides until we can finally meet in the middle. We have to have hope that future generations will make a difference and change what so many have come to take as “normal.”