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Ghost Boys

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Ghost Boys Book Poster Image
Heavy look at long history of whites killing black kids.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Often in harrowing terms, Ghost Boys brings litany of names of black kids and teens killed by white adults over centuries, defining racial prejudice and institutionalized racism as root cause of each killing. Each incident and particulars, which range from human error to coldblooded murder, merit further study, discussion as to how it could have taken place, how it might have been avoided. Day of the Dead celebrations are part of story. Also includes a raft of study questions.

Positive Messages

Ghost Boys is "Dedicated to the belief that we can all do better, be better, live better. We owe our best to each and every child."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Characters are often more representations of viewpoints and circumstances than actual people -- a study question notes that Sarah is supposed to "symbolize" something, other than just being her own self. Jerome has a strong, loving bond with his parents, grandmother, sister, and watches their life unravel in the wake of his death -- then watches them find new love and strength in each other in the face of injustice. Sarah is overwhelmed by fact that her beloved father has killed a kid her age, also struggles to cope with her own family coming apart in wake of the killing. Jerome's friend Carlos is tortured by guilt for giving Jerome the gun, but steps up to protect Jerome's little sister against bullies, saying she is "mi familia."

Violence

The 12-year-old narrator has been shot dead in what may or may not have been an honest mistake. Horrific murder of Emmett Till, seen through eyes of the victim, comes as an awful revelation to Jerome and Sarah. Before he's killed, Jerome is in danger from bullies every day at his school, which directly leads to the tragedy of his death.

Sex
Language

Occasional "God" as exclamation, "damn," "sucks."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drug dealers are everywhere in Jerome's neighborhood, but he heeds his father's advice to avoid them.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Towers Falling, Ninth Ward), is told by Jerome, a 12-year-old bullied black kid in Chicago who's shot dead by a white policeman while playing with a toy gun. Both his own family and the cop's start to unravel in the wake of this horror as Jerome watches through grieving, anger, court appearances -- and his friend stepping up to defend his little sister from bullies. Along the way, he forms a shaky friendship with the cop's daughter, Sarah (the only living person who can see him), and learns from ghost boy Emmett Till of a long and brutal history of black kids being killed. In a story where there are no winners, the only thing to do is to try to do better.

"'It matters why my dad shot you.'

"'Why, so you can feel better?'

"Sarah starts crying and I feel like the bullies I hate."

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What's the story?

Twelve-year-old Jerome, the pride of a poor, hardworking black family in Chicago, is bullied at school. His new friend Carlos scares the bullies away with a toy gun and then gives the toy to Jerome, who's soon out in the street playing with his new toy --- which he knows very well his parents wouldn't allow, but he loves the newfound sense of power. Someone calls in a police report of a gun-brandishing man in the street, and Jerome gets shot dead by a white police officer. As his family and the officer's family fall apart in grief and guilt, Jerome finds himself among centuries' worth of GHOST BOYS, including Emmett Till (lynched in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of 14), who tell their stories of racist violence. And he forms an uneasy friendship with Sarah, the daughter of the man who shot him, as she's the only living person who can see him.

Is it any good?

Jewell Parker Rhodes and her newly killed 12-year-old narrator tell the ripped-from-the-headlines story of another black kid with a toy gun shot dead by a white cop. It's a harrowing, heavy, and sometimes heavy-handed tale with no winners. As the story unfolds and the Ghost Boys gather, we learn a lot about atrocities against other black kids, including Emmett Till, whose murder plays a role in the story. The book presents a lot of serious issues, a lot of complexity, a note of hope, but no quick solutions.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the racial prejudice shown in Ghost Boys. Where does it comes from? Where does it lead? And how can we get past it? How do other stories you know on this theme deal with the issue?

  • What do you think of having the story's narrator be a dead person who meets other kids in the afterlife and can be seen by one living kid? Why do you think the author made those choices? 

  • Do you think it is a school's responsibility to keep kids physically safe? If kids are not safe at school due to bullies, what should they and their parents do?

Book details

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