Ghost Boys is a too-familiar story.
In alternating sections of “Alive” and “Dead” it tells the story of Jerome, a 12 year old boy from Chicago who is shot and killed by a police officer while playing with a toy gun.
Jerome is a quiet boy with no friends who gets bullied daily at his school. Still, he does his best to keep his sister safe and his grandmother happy. When a new boy, Carlos, arrives from Texas, Jerome reaches out, even though he knows he’ll be a bigger target to the bullies, and makes a new friend. Carlos reciprocates by loaning Jerome his toy gun, because he knows that he doesn’t get outside much to play. He takes it and goes to play, by himself, in the empty lot down the street.
One anonymous 911 call later, Jerome is dead, which is where the story begins:
“How small I look.” (p. 3)
Both sections, Alive and Dead, are told in first person point of view. Jerome’s point of view, because he’s a ghost. He follows the story of his death as a spectator, from the immediate aftermath all the way through the hearing that will determine whether or not the officer who shot him should be charged. *Spoiler alert, he isn’t, but we all saw that coming.*
Jerome is joined on his journey directly by two other characters; Sarah, the 12 year old daughter of the officer who killed Jerome. She’s the only one alive who can see him and communicate with him. The other character is another ghost boy, named Emmett Till, and he is both guide and mentor for Jerome and Sarah as they learn his story, and the stories of so many other boys.
Jewell Parker Rhodes is a legend of middle grade fiction. She doesn’t shy away from hard truths or ugly realities. She has a knack for striking with painfully relevant stories at exactly the right time, and she has mastered the balance of illustrating the themes that she wants to discuss while still telling a great, engaging story. Jerome obviously gets the most screen time, but all of the characters are fully developed human beings. The reader cares what happens to all of them. The relationships that are forged in the aftermath of Jerome’s death are just as important as the connections made while he was alive, which is a really nice touch. And even though you always sort of know where the story is going to go (as an adult who reads the news) it’s never boring or skimmable on the way there.
Ghost Boys is not an easy book to read. It made me cry, it made me smile, and it made me think. It’s a great companion to books like The Hate U Give, aimed at a younger reading audience.
I hope every middle school library has it on their shelves, because it’s books like this that change the way people think.
Jerome sums it up with his last words:
“Bear witness…Only the living can make the world better.” (p. 203)