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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Jason Reynolds Revisited

Jason Reynolds has published five books in three years, bursting onto the scene in a big way.  It’s no overstatement to say that he may be the most significant new voice to debut during that time span.  His first book, WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST, won the CSK John Steptoe Award for New Talent.  Both of his books last year were CSK Honor books, THE BOY IN THE BLACK SUIT (which was also shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize–which I had the privilege and honor to help judge) and ALL AMERICAN BOYS, co-written with Brendan Kiely–which also won the Walden Award (ALAN) and Walter Award (WNDB).  Those books are all YA.

as-brave-as-you-9781481415903_hrThis year saw the publication of two middle grade novels, AS BRAVE AS YOU, winner of the Kirkus Prize, and GHOST, winner of the Charlotte Huck Award (NCTE) and shortlisted for the National Book Award.  Both AS BRAVE AS YOU and GHOST have to be considered strong contenders for the Newbery Medal (and, it goes without saying, the Coretta Scott King Awards) despite the fact that we only included the latter on our Heavy Medal shortlist.

The sentence level writing in AS BRAVE AS YOU seems more distinguished to me, the voice of Genie is so strong, a bit of a pleasant surprise with third person.  The characters are also among some of the most rich and complex of the year, and the nuanced dynamics of the intergenerational relationships in this book recall for me the work of Rita Williams-Garcia in her recent award-winning trilogy.  The book runs a bit long for my personal tastes, and I’m having a hard time nailing down the book’s themes (not quite sure what to make of the whole dead bird subplot).  I’d love to have had the time to do a second read of this book because I think that alone could have dispelled some of my minor reservations, and I could easily be talked out of whatever remains, especially if consensus lies in this direction.

ghostcover
Ironically, GHOST has the economy of plot that AS BRAVE AS YOU lacks, but it also seems much clearer from a thematic standpoint.  This book doesn’t seem as accomplished to me as the writing of AS BRAVE AS YOU, but that wonderful mentoring relationship between Ghost and Coach speaks powerfully and beautifully to our ability to lift others up, to help them see their intrinsic worth and realize their vast potential.  Normally, I would quote passages from the book to support this–believe me, they are there–but since the book is in my office and I am still on vacation, I’m going to take the unusual step of quoting from a completely unrelated book I just finished reading that is on hand and since it has an apt metaphor . . . THE INEXPLICABLE LOGIC OF MY LIFE by Benjamin Alire Saenz, which is to published in March of this year.  (Take note, 2018 Printz committee!)

You know, Fito, some people are born believing that things belong to them.  My father used to say, ‘Some people are born on third base, and they go through life thinking they hit a triple.'”

Fito laughed.  “I like that.”

My dad nodded.  “Yeah.  Fito, you’re not one of those people.  A guy like you was born in the locker room, no one ever pointed you in the direction of the baseball diamond, and somehow you managed to get yourself into the dugout.  And something in you just doesn’t believe he belongs in the game.  But you do, you do being in the game.  Anyway, that’s what I think.  I’m gonna go outside and have a cigarette.”

Some of you have mentioned being underwhelmed with GHOST, and that’s a reaction that I can understand to some degree, but I think those of us who are getting substantially more mileage out of this book are doing so because Ghost is essentially in the same place as Fito, a kid who was born in the locker room, so to speak, and manages to get himself in the dugout, but needs some help to get in the game–and that’s where his track coach comes into the picture.  There is something ennobling about this book, something that celebrates and affirms the worth and dignity of the human spirit.  Something that potentially distinguishes this book as greatest contribution to American literature for children this past year.

 

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. I liked them both! I agree about As Brave as You being a little bit long and that it lost the plot in some ways. I thought Ghost was stronger for how spare it was.

  2. “Underwhelmed by GHOST” is an understatement… I’m totally dumbfounded by the response to this book. I liked it. It was a nice little book with an authentic voice and narrator but… THE most distinguished contribution to children’s literature? I’m clueless apparently.

    I’m beginning to wonder if the kidlit critical response to this book has more to do with Reynolds than the actual book…

    • Mr. H, I’m in full agreement with you. To me GHOST read like an ABC Afterschool Special, with all the tropes, including the Coach who won an Olympic medal and coincidentally grew up only two buildings down from Ghost. Ghost, as a character, at least had a bit of substance, but everyone else was no more than a one-line description: Black girl adopted by white mother; albino who resents being albino; nice old white grocery store owner.

      For me the sudden ending was a lazy cop out. I hate when a writer builds to a climax and halts the story there, leaving the reader to try to decide, in this case, whether Ghost wins the race. It’s a simple, enjoyable read, but certainly not anywhere near a “distinguished contribution to children’s literature.”

      I second your wondering if this isn’t more about the author than the story.

      • Just to say my appreciation for GHOST has nothing to do with the author. Of Reynolds’ other works, I’d only read ALL AMERICAN BOYS which did not wow me although I certainly respected it for its themes and timely importance. I read GHOST back in July when it showed up in a box of S & S ARCs. I had not heard a thing about it (when I googled it back then I found nada) and so I went into my reading cold, with zero expectations that my response would be any different than it had been for ALL AMERICAN BOYS, and, if anything, somewhat skeptical, being someone who tends to be wary when there is rabid excitement for any one author. And then I was blown away by it.

        And it does not feel at all like a superficial Afterschool special for me at all. I grant you that there are many kid books of that ilk, I agree, and I’m not a fan of them, but this was not one of them. As I wrote before there is a fairy tale aspect to the plot — the motif of the mistreated hero, of a fairy godfather in the form of the coach, and working its way up to a big event — in Cinderella’s case, the ball, here it is the race. Given that this is the first in a series, it made sense that the secondary characters were lightly presented — I’m presuming that we will get more about them in future titles in the series. As for Coach, I’m often bothered by stories where there is savior adult, but in this case the adult has his own flaws and helps Castle rather than do it all for him. To me it is Reynolds’ fabulous writing that elevates what could in other hands be a simplistic story to something much richer and deeper.

      • Just realized that it has another fairy tale/Cinderella reference — the shoes!

  3. Thank you for revisiting Jason Reynolds. I thoroughly enjoyed reading both books this year. I encourage everyone to read Monica’s post on Educating Alice regarding the publisher of Ghost. I believe Jason Reynolds is a talented writer who deserves to be supported by our community.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    I am another reader who thought GHOST was fine but doesn’t see the argument for it being the most distinguished book of the year. I went back and looked at what people have written in support of it here. I agree with Sharon that BOOKED makes a good point of reference. I don’t know whether anyone will compare them in detail, but it’s not clear to me that characterization and voice, two aspects people are citing as strengths of GHOST, are any better here than in BOOKED, let alone something like MS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY where I wrote at length about the strength of characterization and voice (and for multiple characters, not just one) in a way that I personally couldn’t for GHOST. I respectfully disagree with Monica that touches like the sunflower seeds are a sign of excellence. In general, things like that feel tacked on to me, not organic, not developed, and I think it’s a weakness of AS BRAVE AS YOU as well–I saw no strong motivation for Genie’s question notebooks: it felt to me like a convenient idiosyncrasy the author slapped on.

    With regard to theme and plot, I want to hearken back to an argument Eric sometimes makes (not regarding GHOST specifically.) If GHOST makes a powerful impact, how much of it is because of Reynold’s authorial excellence, and how much of it is because of tried-and-true sports clichés: the overly gifted (but undertrained), overly independent (but family-oriented) protagonist that we root for, the tough-exterior (but soft-hearted) coach, the learned lessons on the value of teammates and discipline and hard work, the conveniently explanatory backstory revelations, the threat (never serious) of being thrown off the team and not being able to compete. This is a successful formula to be sure, but I’ve seen this movie before. In contrast to Monica, nothing about the plot was unexpected to me. I think this is a point in Kwame Alexander’s favor. If I remember correctly, doesn’t the main character end up not being able to compete in BOOKED (and also The Crossover?) Heck, even in a movie like Drumline, the repentant main character is only allowed to compete in an exhibition. I would argue that there’s nothing GHOST does clearly better than BOOKED, but because it’s more safely conventional, GHOST is more inspirational. But because it’s more conventional, I am hesitant to give Reynolds full Newbery credit for writing something that feels inspirational. For literary excellence, I’d prefer something that leaves behind genre conventions a bit more, more “individually distinct.”

    People cite Reynold’s writing, but is there a good argument that he is technically a better writer than Lauren Wolk (let alone Julie Fogliano)? Is Reynold’s overarching running-as-metaphor executed any better than Wolk’s Betty-as-wolf? Is Reynold’s economy more striking than Holm’s in FULL OF BEANS (let alone Jacobson’s awesomely pared ARE YOU AN ECHO?)

    I liked both GHOST and AS BRAVE AS YOU. I don’t think either is a masterpiece in the historical sense. My understanding of the Newbery discussion is that in the end we must directly compare the nominees to each other. When I do this, I don’t see that GHOST fares particularly well head-to-head. To me, it’s not even a case of, “GHOST does some things better and some things worse compared to [….], but it should win the Newbery because of what it does holistically.” I think there are books out there that arguably exceed (or at least match) GHOST in every criteria. But many readers I respect have this at the top, or near the top, and I’d be grateful for a better understanding why.

    • Leonard,

      Funny you bring up the whole sunflower seed thing, because being a baseball fan, when I first read that character detail, I found it interesting that this “sports” book would have a character obsessed with sunflower seeds when baseball isn’t even mentioned once. Sunflowers are a baseball food to me. I’ve never known of basketball players or football players or track stars to eat sunflower seeds by the garbage truck full like baseball players do. Being a baseball fan, this is where I was coming from when I read that. For that reason, I agree with you, that the detail seemed a bit tacked on in my opinion. I don’t know though. Lots of people eat sunflower seeds. Probably not a big deal, just an opinion, but like you, I didn’t see how that detail pushed his characterization over the top.

      The other thing that bothered me just a bit while reading, was that at times, I felt that Reynolds was trying too hard at Castle’s voice. There were times the adolescent rambling felt authentic and there were times it felt very forced, which is usually the case when writing from a character like Castle. It’s a fine line to walk as an author. You want the character to feel authentic. At times, I read Castle and at times, I read Reynolds (the adult author) trying to write like Castle, filling narrative. I don’t have any exact passages to pinpoint or back this feeling up (at the moment), just a general feeling right now.

      And I think your comparisons to FULL OF BEANS and BOOKED are spot on. Great points.

  5. I gave several books that have been discussed on HM to a boy who loves to read; he liked them all but he especially liked Ghost. He says it’s the best book he’s read this year. I agree that there is something ennobling that does distinguish this book. I’d be happy to see either of Reynolds’ 2016 titles with a silver or gold Newbery sticker, and I agree with those who think Ghost is the stronger of the two.

  6. On the surface, I can agree that aspects of GHOST seem formulaic, but then again how many books available to a younger middle-grade audience feature such a diverse cast of characters, a spot on use of contemporary vernacular, a look at the struggles of living in poverty (not historical), a look into domestic violence and imprisonment, and feature a sport outside of basketball or baseball. Sure, we’ve seen parts of this story in the movies – even in other books – but have we seen the story done at all for 10-year-olds? Let alone done this well?

    In terms of respecting and presenting to a child audience, I can’t think of a stronger title this year. If I had to offer a head-to-head comparison to a title written this year, I would gravitate towards Raymie Nightingale. Much like DiCamillo, Reynolds packs a thematic punch by incorporating tough subject matter like domestic violence and poverty in a way that is not only relatable to a young audience, but also appealing – something DiCamillo can do in her sleep. But this year, I think Reynolds does it better.

    Ghost’s voice is authentic, distinct, and raw. For me, the line – “I got a lot of scream inside” is just one example of Reynolds powerful and distinguished writing. The line says so much about Ghost’s explosive nature – his feelings of anger – his determination – his longing to be better and do better – his need to run.

    As a librarian, I couldn’t help but hug this book when I finished, because it’s such a rarity to find a book that does so much for an audience that has had so little available to them in children’s lit.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Erin, thanks, these are excellent points. I agree that if having to choose between GHOST and RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE, I might be persuaded to vote for GHOST, though the two are hard to compare for me. I still think that GHOST isn’t clearly better than books that are more comparable: FULL OF BEANS, BOOKED, and since you mentioned, “a look at the struggles of living in poverty (not historical), a look into domestic violence and imprisonment,” I would also offer up THE SECRET LIFE OF LINCOLN JONES as another comparable that GHOST doesn’t clearly surpass.

      I guess the larger point is, if a book fills an essential niche, as you seem to suggest it does, how much should that count in the Newbery discussion? I think Jonathan had a good post about this last year, about the book George, and unlike George, GHOST seems to be a serious contender. I myself think that it is a legitimate consideration, but in this particular case, not enough to push GHOST past some others. But since you raise the point, I think I could now understand a committee leaning that way.

      I’ve read multiple people saying the track aspect of GHOST is novel. Perhaps yes, but the natural runner protagonist is pretty embedded in the children’s lit DNA (two examples: Bridge to Terabithia, Maniac Magee) so Reynold’s treatment of that character didn’t feel that fresh to me.

      Here’s a very mushy opinion: for all that people are saying GHOST felt true and authentic to them, GHOST didn’t feel that heartfelt to me; I didn’t get the feeling Reynolds *had* to write this book. Perhaps it is his reliance on convention and certain authorial conveniences that gives me this impression. Maybe to me, GHOST is more like Castle himself, full of raw talent, but not yet the masterful, medal-winning coach.

      • Something else that’s nagging at me…

        While effectively achieving high marks for style and characterization, could Castle’s rambling narrative lose Reynolds points on “excellence of presentation for a child audience?” What I mean by that is, to make Castle’s voice authentic, Reynolds has made the choice to be very loose with the rules of grammar. Castle’s narrative is filled with slang terms and run on sentences. Is this off limits to discuss being as it’s part of Castle’s voice, intentionally done by Reynolds?

        I love the FULL OF BEANS comparison more and more (another reason that book is rising fast on my own personal list). Holm accomplishes creating a similar character and voice, without filling Beans’ narrative with pop culture slang and run on sentences. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of Key West slang in Beans vernacular, but the historical context makes its inclusion different to me than Castle’s regular use of words like ‘cupcake’ and other more current terms. Beans and Castle are very similar characters to me. Holm’s approach with Beans reads a little more “distinguished” while Reynolds’ approach with Castle reads a little more purposely sloppy. Is that fair? Does this make Beans’ voice more “excellent” when being presented to a child audience?

  7. I love sunflower seeds and had no idea of the baseball connection so it was fun for this reader. Ate them just like Ghost when I was a kid:) But seriously, I really appreciate Leonard’s comments. Now it has been almost a year since I read BOOKED and months since I read GHOST, but I remember feeling the former was solid, but not striking. The Committee can’t compare it to THE CROSSOVER, but I will — I felt that Alexander managed to celebrate and bring basketball into the look and feel and sound of the poetry in a way that is not as successful in the newer book. Now I haven’t looked a the book again and might feel differently if I reread it but there you are.

    Regarding the formulaic criticism, there certainly is a Cinderella aspect to the story, but is that such a problem? Rags to riches is a theme in tons of many narratives, not just sports ones. (I’m currently doing a lengthy Cinderella unit with my class and a lot of what we discuss is the thematic aspect and how you can see it all over the place. One year a student made a very convincing argument for CHARLOTTE’S WEB being a Cinderella story — but I digress:) The stock nature of certain characters (notably fairy godfather Coach) seems in keeping with the interesting hyper reality mixed with fairy tale structure.

    And I felt the running theme was beautifully done. I was a runner for decades and really enjoyed this aspect of the book. It could have helped me to like the book more, but also less if I’d found it inauthentic. I didn’t at all.

    I am a fan of spare prose and that certainly was a strong part of what made this book work so well for me. As for as that goes it stands head to head with that other spare book FULL OF BEANS for me.

  8. Eric Carpenter says:

    I’m a bit shocked that there would be any disagreement about GHOST. To me it is the first MG novel since When You Reach Me that is clearly above and beyond everything else published in its year.

    GHOST is distinguished in its style, delineation of setting, delineation of characters, development of plot, and interpretation of theme.
    It’s spare prose creates the most authentic voice I’ve ever encountered in a contemporary piece of middle grade fiction. I can’t remember the last time a realistic, modern character sounded and acted so much like the students at my school. When I read the lunch room altercation in chapter 3, I feel like I’m on lunch duty in the cafeteria with our fifth graders.
    What I love about GHOST is that this character exists in the present, readers aren’t having to imagine the character existing in the Detroit of 1963 or San Francisco of 1968 (both examples of authentic voices but harder to relate to because of the historical distance).

    The sunflower seeds were brought up in conversation above as a point of trouble for some readers. For me this detail is an example of what Reynolds does so brilliantly with the interpretation of theme and delineation of characters.
    Let’s think about Castle. What he wants more than anything else is an identity that is anything but a victim. He seems himself as a basketball player but won’t try playing. He is obsessed with world records because to him the record holders gain new identities by accomplishing crazy feats.
    Eating sunflower seeds everyday is part of Castle’s identity (as is the nickname Ghost which he’s given himself and no one else calls him). Castle tells us his dad was also a sunflower eater so we understand how Castle is trying to hold onto any good memories he has of his father. The sunflower seeds are also a connection to Mr. Charles. By purchasing the seeds everyday Castle has found a way to thank Mr. Charles for saving his (and his mother’s) life.
    Because GHOST is told in first person, we the readers know more about Castle than he knows about himself. We make inferences and connections that in the moment elude Castle himself. On page four Castle describes how he eats the seeds after which he states: “I’m not even sure they’re really worth all the hassle. But I like the process anyway”. On the surface the process Castle is referring to is the process of getting the seeds from the shells, but later we can infer that the process Castle enjoys is, in fact, the daily interaction with Mr. Charles. If this isn’t distinguished delineation of character (Castle) and interpretation of theme (search for identity), I’m not sure what is.

    • I absolutely agree with Eric. Students in our Mock Newbery book clubs in Berkeley are talking about how Ghost is a complex, relatable character. The pacing is expertly crafted, and the depth of themes important for today’s young readers.
      “The ending was hard. It was so good that I hurt because it was over.”–Sakura, 5th grade
      “I liked how he eventually figured it out and solved (his problems), and helped himself even if he’s the one who hurt himself. I liked how he kept working from nothing.”–Rosa Parks 5th grader
      I also appreciate how the secondary characters have layers and backstories that make them unique individuals. Just like the setting is developed enough that we can imagine being right there.

      I have been particularly impressed by how 4th and 5th graders responded to the difficult topics of domestic violence and poverty. Reynolds helps kids think about these issues, and he creates space for acknowledging what it takes to keep going through these difficulties. He crafts a story that is full of hope and warmth, humor and relationships, even though it is also a story of struggles and bad decisions.

      See more here: http://greatkidbooks.blogspot.com/2017/01/ghost-by-jason-reynolds-ages-9-14.html

  9. Thanks Erin, Monica, and Eric. This is the kind of discussion I felt was missing when I’ve read up about GHOST previously. Prior to this, it’s greatness has just been somewhat assumed by certain people. Eric, the points about the sunflower seeds are well stated.

    Personally, I’m still not over the moon about it, but I can at least now see why others are having the reaction to it that they are. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book. I enjoyed it a lot. I’m just surprised that it’s having a WHEN YOU REACH ME type response…

    Monica, maybe my sunflower seed reaction can be chalked up to nothing more than surprise that people outside the world of baseball enjoy sunflower seeds! :)

    • I’m intrigued so I’m sitting here during my lunch break with my copy of GHOST flipping through, waiting for light bulbs to turn on. Landed on this nice example of characterization…

      “‘So what about you Coach?’ I asked through my chewing of the best food I had ever had. Ever. Duck. Who knew? Charlotte Lee could collect all the rubber ones she wanted. I was gonna set the record for eating the most real ones. I mean, it’s basically like the world’s greatest chicken or something.”

      I liked the thread of the world records better than the sunflower seeds personally. I thought this passage goes along with what Eric was saying nicely.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        It’s a nice passage, but I felt the world record thing, like the sunflower seeds, and Genie’s notebooks of questions, don’t make a character. My own feeling is that these kinds of idiosyncrasies are too easy to apply and appear more than I’d like in books in general. Everybody has their quirks and enthusiasms and frames of reference, but it doesn’t feel real to me to have them so much in one’s internal narrative the way they seem to in Reynolds’ characters. I’m not convinced even a world record nut would reach for that frame of reference when confronted with a delicious new food. I’m not saying a person can’t enjoy and place significance on sunflower seeds and world records, but these two things seem like two splashes of paint on a marble statue rather than facets of a living, breathing human. Castle and Genie rarely gave me the illusion of living “off the page” the way, say, Brand, Topher, and Steve did.

  10. Leonard Kim says:

    Mr. H, now that you bring it up, I remember having the same difficulty with consistency of voice (i.e., Reynolds slips between an author’s voice and the characters’ in a way that doesn’t seem controlled to me.) I felt this more in AS BRAVE AS YOU, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened in GHOST as well. I’ll use AS BRAVE AS YOU in what follows, since I sense people feel more strongly about GHOST, and I want to be a bit dispassionate here.

    AS BRAVE AS YOU is in 3rd person, but the first couple pages suggests the 3rd person narration is still very much Genie’s voice. The first sentence has the phrase, “scribbling a mess of words.” The second sentence has the phrase, “a big pot of . . . whatever else was for doggy breakfast.” The second page (still 3rd person) includes the words: butt, poop, crud, refers to Genie’s mother as “Ma”, and makes up verbs in phrases like “chin-pointing to the other shovel.” The first thing Genie actually says is, “What I wanna know is what you ’bout to do with that mess.” And I think everything Reynolds establishes from the outset can be nicely represented by this passage on page 3, “No way was Genie going to miss out on slinging poop. On poopidity? No. Way. How often does anybody get to catapult doo-doo into a forest?”

    So I found passages like this, a few page later, inconsistent:

    “He wondered if they were going to do all the things they always did in the summer, like play in the hydrant and buy rocket pops from the ice cream man, without him. If they were going to miss his rants and all his knowledge about random animals and insects, and if Shelly would be able to spot a bedbug like he had taught her. He wondered if Aaron would try to impress Shelly with his backflips”

    This feels like a different voice to me, that of “middle grade author” and the change bothered me as well as what immediately follows, jarringly going back to 3rd-person Genie voice:
    “(girls love dudes who can do backflips) and if she’d eventually fold to his flippin’ charm and kiss him.”

    (And why in this one case, in the 3rd person, do we lose the “g” in flipping? Plenty of “-ing” words previously don’t get this treatment in the narration though they do get dropped in the dialogue.)

    Or take Genie’s one line in this section, “Sloths? Well, I know they’re lazy, and they sleep all the time.”

    Does this sound like the same character as established in the first five pages? Sure it *could* be the same character, and I certainly think there are ways an author can make all this work out – shifting focus and voice in a 3rd person narration – but what’s actually on the page doesn’t strike me as a masterful handling of this.

  11. So there is this great conversation on NPR: “Wisdom from YA Authors on Leaving Home: Jason Reynolds.” It’s a short piece about his previously published young adult novels. In that conversation, Reynolds’ sheds some insight on how he got his start writing – the influence of poetry and hip-hop.

    “So how it all started for me was me reading rap lyrics. I would go to the store, I would buy cassette tapes, and I would read the liner notes and sort of subconsciously creating the connections between the rappers that I was reading and the poets that they were teaching us in school. Saying that, like, Queen Latifah and Maya Angelou were more alike than they were different, and Tupac and Langston Hughes were more alike than they were different. And so poetry was my entryway.” – Reynolds

    When I listened to Reynolds read from Ghost at the National Book Awards, I could really hear that influence. I didn’t notice it as much when I first read the book, but picking it up a second time, the musicality, the staccato, the nuanced emphasis on particular words, the flow of his phrasing – really is poetic and reminiscent of classic hip-hop. His writing is brilliant (in my opinion), but I think hearing Reynolds read the text as it is in his head, really highlights the artistry behind his words.

    http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2016finalist_ypl_reynolds_ghost.html#.WG1z-PIzV9A

    • Thank you so much for pointing us to Reynolds’ reading of the sunflower section. It helped to cement for me why I thought it was such masterful writing. It also reinforces Eric’s points above about the many thematic connections within it. I had forgotten the mention of the father as the sunflower seed initiator, but did remember the comforting relationship with the store owner, how it was predictable unlike that of Castle’s father. He’s another fairy godfather for Castle along with Coach, I think. So again, I love the sunflower seeds in this book in all the ways they come up.

      • Oh, and unlike Roseanne below, the reason I fell hard for the book when I first read it last summer is that the words did sing on the page for me — the driving sensibility, Castle’s voice, the poetic feel — I found it in the text as a private reader. Hearing it now read by the author only confirmed something I already felt about the book. So I don’t think you need to hear Reynolds’ read it to appreciate the book. While that may be the case for some, I hope and think many are enjoying it when reading in on their own — or, for that matter, if read aloud. I’d considered doing so at the beginning of the year, but didn’t know my 4th graders well yet and it felt like a cusp book for them — it is recommended I think for ages 10 and up. Now, months later, the seem ready for it — clamoring to read it.

  12. Two thoughts on the Reynold’s books.

    I had the pleasure of moderating a panel with him at Wordstock in Portland this fall and I agree with Erin, hearing him read his work in his own cadence and tone of voice really made the words sing for me in a way they had not on the page. Is that a fault in the writer or the reader? That is worth a conversation beyond this particular book.

    About the sunflowers. I saw that as an immediate indication that Castle was in a food-insecure family. Seeds are cheep, highly in calories, easy to hide in a pocket, and more readily available than fresh protein in a low income neighborhood. To me they were an eloquent way to show that this kid isn’t sure where his next meal is coming from and lives in a food desert.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Hi Rosanne,

      That’s interesting and not something I myself took away. My feeling was that Castle’s mom has had her job since Castle was in fourth grade, and he has been buying a $1 bag of seeds, out of pocket, every weekday, meaning he spends at least $20 a month just on seeds. So I didn’t come away feeling he had to do it for sustenance and that he was so desperately impoverished as he came across to you. Sure the nice shoes seemed out of reach to him, but I am wondering whether it would have been truly out of question for him to just ask his mom, and maybe she’d reply, give up the seeds for 3 months and I’ll also save and put up $60 if Coach thinks it’s important to have a decent pair of running shoes.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        from the text we know that Castle only buys french fries in the cafeteria so that he can use the rest of his lunch money on sunflower seeds.
        from page 36:
        “I didn’t have to explain that I always got just fries so I could save a dollar to get sunflower seeds later.”

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Thank you Eric, I didn’t remember that, though I’m not sure that proves Rosanne’s point.

        Like Monica, I admit it’s been months since I’ve read the book, so if I’ve written anything that seems unsupported, please assume I’m wrong.

      • But Eric, he HAS lunch money. He’s choosing to buy sunflower seeds because he likes them. As you said earlier, it’s part of his identity. Just like Skittles are for me. :) Like Leonard, I’m not sure that line of text supports exactly what Rosanne is saying.

        To be honest, I actually don’t buy the idea that Castle is living in poverty at all and I think there’s an important distinction to be made about that when discussing this book.

        He is “running” from the horrible situation that happened with his father. He is not “running” from an impoverished life. He has a very stable unit in his mother. She has a job. She’s working hard toward an even better job. They get together on weekends and have fun with family. I’ve taught many students who are scared to death to go home on the weekends because they don’t know what kind of situation awaits them at home, or how much food will be available to them. That’s not the case with Castle. He loves weekends!

        They even eat well on the weekends. (“Me and Mom always get shrimp fried rice, Aunt Sophie gets crab sticks, which I always thought was a weird choice, and King nine times out of ten orders a cheeseburger with two egg rolls.”) His mother feeds him hospital food too. (Early in the story – “Her bag, which I knew was full of Styrofoam containers of chicken and gravy, or whatever gross but free meal we were going to be having for dinner” and later in the story – “At home, me and Ma had my favorite for dinner. Salisbury steak. Every time she brought it home, all I could think about was how lucky the people in the hospital were that they could get that for dinner. Salisbury steak is amazing.”) These passages do not read to me like a boy who is worried about where his next meal will come from. Again, I’ve taught many students in impoverished situations who did not eat even close to this well.

        Maybe the fact that they rely on hospital food for meals could be used to support the idea of Castle living in a situation of poverty but I read the bringing home of hospital food as more of a thing of convenience. His mom will have no time to shop or prepare for any kind of meal. Not necessarily that she can’t.

        Don’t get me wrong. Castle doesn’t come from a lot. But the idea that he’s living in poverty didn’t totally come across to me. If that was supposed to be a theme, I’m not sure if it’s consistently developed throughout the text.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I’m not sure if I agree with Rosanne that he’s eating sunflower seeds because he can’t afford food–but I definitely get the idea that he’s living in poverty, based on where he lives and what he wears and his mother’s job as the sole source of income–I think it’s a pretty easy inference to make.

      • I understand that he’s in an impossible situation with his shoes after he cuts them up (needed to cut them to run better, made fun of because of cutting them, now heading to practice with them) but Leonard’s point with the shoes is spot on. In fact, as Castle is stealing them, he himself references this: “I knew that I could just ask my mother to get them for me, and she would because she felt like this track thing was gonna keep me out of trouble.”

        I think it’s actually out of character a bit that Castle steal the shoes at all, considering that just a few pages prior, he has decided on an “altercation-free” lifestyle. I know we are supposed to believe he is impulsive, but this is a stretch to me so soon after his run-in with Brandon at school as he seems pretty sincere about cleaning up his act this time. (It’s even hinted that the stealing of the shoes is somewhat premeditated…) He also seems to know how serious the stealing of the shoes is and how this would impact his relationship with Coach.

        Having coached before, I found it very strange that the concept of proper gear is not ever brought up by Coach earlier in the text. The first instance with Castle, I can buy. He’s gauging his raw talent. But the second time, when Coach rescues him from school and takes him to the track and runs him before the actual practice, that was just the two of them. I can’t, for the life of me, understand why Coach would not have outfitted him properly at that moment. Castle was wearing old high top tennis shoes and jeans! When a 6 year old shows up to your first t-ball practice in jeans and cowboy boots, you laugh. When a middle school kid that you recruited to play on your team shows up in jeans and old tennis shoes, the stakes are a bit higher than they were in t-ball and your first order of business is to set them up for success and make sure they have access to the proper gear. Coach NEVER even mentions it!

        This seems a bit contrived to me.

      • Brenda Martin says:

        Thanks, Mr. H, for pointing that out about the shoes and jeans. The first time I read that passage I thought it seemed like a bit of a plot contrivance but I moved on. But even as I continued to read I remembered there was something about that part of the book that seemed a little off to me. I, too, was skeptical that any coach wouldn’t at least investigate at that point you mentioned, if not gear him up properly immediately.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        You know, sometimes adolescents do stupid stuff that makes no sense. An adolescent boy steal something? *mock surprise*

    • Kristie Nelsen says:

      My copy of Ghost is checked out right now, so I can’t cite exact passages, but I worked in a children’s residential psychiatric treatment facility for 15 years, and I have to say that Reynolds’ portrayal of a child who has experienced complex trauma was spot on. The inability to sleep in his bedroom, wanting but being unable to control his outbursts, stealing instead of asking for the shoes– those details were completely believable to me, but still presented in a way that was sensitive and age appropriate. Re: the sunflower seeds, didn’t Castle state that his father used to eat sunflower seeds? I saw the whole sunflower seed thing as Castle’s way to safely maintain some connection to his father.

  13. Leonard Kim says:

    Thank you everyone for your thoughts on this book. I am much more on-board with the idea that from a “quality of presentation for children” standpoint, this is a strong contender. I still need some pushing from y’all on the “literary quality” front.

    I didn’t intend for sunflower seeds to dominate the discussion. I agree with everyone’s cogent assessments of the purpose of the sunflower seeds in the book. My difficulty, as I think I have implied earlier, is that devices like this feel too convenient to me. I’ve admitted it’s been months since I’ve read the book, but the first chapter is available on-line. Sunflower seeds dominate the first five pages, being used as a device to introduce Castle, Mr. Charles, Castle’s mom, Castle’s dad, and the crucial shooting backstory. I agree with everybody with the function of the sunflower seeds in all this. And clearly this can be read as evidence of tight, structured, unified, masterful writing. To me it’s just too convenient to be able to put all this on sunflower seeds. My favorite paragraph in those first pages is the one that doesn’t mention records or sunflower seeds (except the last sentence), the one where Castle makes observations about the bus stop and the gym. Reading this, I think Castle is observant about the details of life, and we’re seeing it with him. If the book continues mostly like this, I am very happy. But then we go back to those darn seeds. And as I mentioned, that feels to me like something broadly painted on rather than an inherently colorful and complex world.

  14. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m enjoying the conversation, and am sorry to jump in so late. First day back at work and playing catch up.

    1. Thanks to Erin for the NBA reading clip. Is there an audiobook for either of these books yet? If so, I wonder if they are any good . . . [If the answer is yes, and you have listened to either, this is your time to step up]

    2. To my mind, GHOST is distinguished in all aspects pertinent to it, but it’s really most distinguished in regard to theme. Others have also made a case for style. Personally, I’m not seeing that as clearly as others, but I can be convinced. Nevertheless, those criteria are not necessarily created equal and I find that books with style and theme tend to get better on rereading, while books with only plot, character, and setting start to fade after multiple readings.

    3. For me, GHOST is not necessarily head and shoulders above the other middle grade fiction, more like first among equals, at this point. FULL OF BEANS is another one that leads the pack for me, as it has a strong voice, economy of prose, vivid setting, memorable characters, and good themes. I’d probably list GHOST, AS BRAVE AS YOU, and FULL OF BEANS as my middle grade frontrunners along with SAMURAI RISING and WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. That’s the pool that I’m probably looking to vote form on my initial ballot . . .

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I listened to AS BRAVE AS YOU on audiobook. I’d be curious how much of the reader’s strong emphases on certain words are borne out in the text (through italics or whatever) and how much is his own interpretation. I flipped through the book in the library, trying to get a sense, but don’t have a good answer.

    • Both GHOST and AS BRAVE AS YOU are available on audiobook, both narrated by Guy Lockard. I think Lockard does an excellent job, although, his voice is so distinct, and I’m not sure that he successfully differentiates between Genie and Castle.

      I listened to AS BRAVE AS YOU and read GHOST, then listened to GHOST. In this sequence, I found that Lockard’s voice more aptly matches Genie’s humor, fear, and weirdness—the tone of AS BRAVE AS YOU was a little more lighthearted. But that could just be a matter of me having formed my own impression of Castle’s voice…

      Regarding style, I think that’s one of the things that kids, like the one Susan mentions above, are responding to. I loved this scene from GHOST:

      “Okay, so first things first. Where’s your practice clothes?” Coach asked.
      “These them,” I said.
      “You have on jeans and high-tops,” he stated the obvious.
      I looked at myself. These was a stain on my sneakers. A new one. Maybe ketchup. Or chocolate milk. “So?” I said. “What’s wrong with that?” (48).

      Reynolds just nails this. I absolutely know this kid. He’s not one who has often enough been depicted in children’s lit, and the writing style perfectly captures him while engaging readers like him.

      To the theme of the resilience of the human spirit: I think the ambiguity that Mr. H mentions is actually part of what Reynolds gets right. He provides the markers of poverty—the neighborhood and the single, cafeteria-worker-income household, but he also portrays Ghost’s relationship to money as realistically complex (such that someone who is less familiar with it may miss it or mistake it for something else). Ghost recognizes that they don’t have a lot of money, but he also recognizes that his mother would be willing to make sacrifices if he wanted or needed something. Ghost’s continual and often misguided (in the eyes of responsible adults) attempts to solve his problems on his own are, to me, entirely convincing and support the book’s theme.

      Between Reynolds’ two candidates, I’m not sure if I could choose a favorite. The books do very different things for me, and I think they both represent important contributions to children’s literature.

      Jonathan, that’s a lot of strong male protagonists in your pool, with the exception of WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. Interesting, as only one of the authors is male…

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Hanna, I appreciate your comments on both books. Everything you say about them is resonating with me. As for my personal tastes, I’d like to think that gender considerations don’t matter, but I’m sure they do, but I think this year is probably a bit of an anomaly. Last year’s favorites included THE HIRED GIRL, MY SENECA VILLAGE, and ECHO, among others.

        Here’s a related question, though: Do you think Jennifer Holm wrote for a boy protagonist in FULL OF BEANS, differently than she did for a girl protagonist in TURTLE IN PARADISE. The book is much shorter, and possibly full of more stuff that would appeal to boys? I think perhaps the same thing happened with Louise Erdrich’s books? Her last two books have been much shorter than the first three. I’m thinking aloud here. It’s kind of a half-baked theory. Feel free to poke holes in it, anyone . . .

  15. We held our adult Mock today, and GHOST blew past the other eleven contenders without breaking a sweat. In fact we ended up with only one honor, WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. I’ve showed up late to read this thread and especially appreciated Eric’s comments. I too find excellence in Reynolds writing of GHOST, particularly when I read it aloud. Perhaps I have too much HAMILTON running non stop in my head but I do hear music in Castle voice. Reynolds’ choices to put particular words and phrases together nudge even BOOKED aside.(Like everyone else my copy is at school so I can’t quote) WGBT is in good company. Johnathan, thank you for the quote at the top of the post.

    For me, AS BRAVE AS YOU fell short in pacing and had the thing that often annoys me in kids books: the tension of the story centered on the adult and not the child characters.

    • Turns out, when I went out to brave the ice in my driveway this morning, I did have my copy of GHOST in the car,waiting to prove my point about the rhythm of Reynolds writing. This snippet just happens to be from where I was in my reread:

      “Shamika leaned over to pick it up, noticing my new improved sneakers. And then came the thunder. It just came out of nowhere and once she starts laughing, Shamika can’t stop. And the worst part is that she can sort of pass her laugh around the room to everybody, just because the sound is so outrageous. So if she laughs, everybody laughs. Imagine the sound a car makes when it’s trying to start, but can’t. Now speed that sound up, and crank the volume high enough to blow out the windows in heaven. That’s Samika’s laugh.” (80-81)

      In this bit of fun, Reynolds uses description not only to give roundness to a peripheral character and advance the plot, but also manages hit the reader’s ear with so much pleasure, it’s like being in the room with Aaron Sorkin or Lin-Manuel Miranda. Normally it is clunky to place the same words so close to each other but his use of the word laugh here sounds like music.

  16. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I see that another person has chimed in above and said that the buzz has more to do with the author than it does the book. As I’ve said previously, since this is a relatively new author (unlike, say, Kate DiCamillo) we really wouldn’t expect to see a big fan base mobilize in support of the books. So, when I hear this argument presented as vaguely as it is, what I actually hear is an implicit inference that Jason Reynolds is benefiting in these discussions because of his race, whether or not that is the intended message the writer meant to deliver.

    While I do think many people would welcome an ongoing celebration of diversity at the YMAs, the awards must be handed out on their own merits, and the discussion here has largely focused on those merits. Just because a book doesn’t resonate with you doesn’t make it unworthy of Newbery recognition. If we went by that standard, we’d have the expunge the canon of dozens and dozens of overrated white authors.

    • Mr. Hunt, I assume, perhaps incorrectly, you’re referring to my previous comment. I’m a Black and Hawaiian, and no, my speculating if the hype is about the author and not Ghost has nothing to do with the author’s race. I think his characters lack depth and complexity. It’s a good read for middle-graders, but nothing more. I stick by description of it as an ABC Afternoon Special. I found As Brave As You underwhelming, too.

      I judge the quality of Newbery contenders by winners of the past, such as Dear Mr. Henshaw, Bud, Not Buddy, A Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, and Holes. I expect “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Do I like all past winners? Not at all, nor do I expect to. Tastes vary widely (I will never understand what people see in When You Reach Me). But I at the very least measure a Newbery contender’s level of characterization, world building, scene setting, pace, atmosphere, story arc, etc, against the winning books I do love. Ghost is no Bud, Not Buddy or Holes.

      Since you mention Kate DiCamillo, I don’t give her a pass, either. Raymie Nightingale is more overrated than Ghost. I enjoyed Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, and the Mercy Watson books (I adore those). But DiCamillo has become a Brand, and apparently editors have stopped editing her. In her latest book The Cat Who’s Dead Really She Is But Look She Isn’t After All Surprise Happy Ending Now made me throw the book across the room.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I actually don’t have a problem with any of the criticisms of GHOST that have been argued by others or by you. Bring them on! What I do take exception to is when you (and others before you) simply dismiss the arguments of people who have been arguing for the book. When you say that people must simply be infatuated with the author you discount the many arguments that have been made in the discussion that are just as grounded in their reading of the text as yours is. Moreover, nobody has actually said that their preference for the book is because they are Jason Reynolds fans, so I still find it a very perplexing comment. I don’t know why your criticisms can’t simply end where they should, rather than trying to tell others that despite the fact that they think they’re in love with the book(s) they’re really just in love with the author.

      • Sir, I simply said “I second your wondering if this isn’t more about the author than the story..” I dismissed nothing. I wondered. I still do. I never said “people must simply be infatuated with the author.”

        ” I don’t know why your criticisms can’t simply end where they should” Who determines where they should end their criticism? I, like others here, am expressing my opinion. Is there a limit?

        “rather than trying to tell others that despite the fact that they think they’re in love with the book(s) they’re really just in love with the author.” I haven’t told anyone anything. I expressed my personal opinion. I’m not telling anyone in the world what they should or should not think of the books. Nor have I said they’re “in love” with the author. I’ve seen people speak highly of a book simply because they enjoy other work by an author, even if that particular book may have large flaws. (i.e. Kate DiCamillo)

        I’m not contesting you or anyone else’s right to love Ghosts or As Brave As You. I’m merely saying what I feel about them. I thought that was the point of this space.

      • A couple things…

        1) I really wasn’t thinking race at all, when I originally said on here that I wondered if Reynolds’ appeal was part of the reason people love this book. I have seen people express adoration for Reynolds on social media and in many of the online comments I have read about GHOST. I addressed this in this thread or another… you don’t have to have a large fanbase like DiCamillo. It’s possible to become trendy at the right time. It just felt like with two books under consideration this year, Reynolds was a trendy name. Now that you mention it though, with all the push for “own voices” and diversity in children’s literature, maybe Reynolds’ race does have some appeal. I don’t know. But that’s not at all why I made the comment at all.

        2) Jonathan, I find it kind of humorous and ironic that you claim to take exception to my (I am assuming), and a few others, dismissal of arguments from supporters of GHOST. Every single critique that has been lobbed at the book has been shot down on this thread, if not, outright dismissed. You say “bring them on” but in most cases, they were ignored! Let me give you a few examples…

        I posted a few paragraphs worth of text examples that led me as a reader to believe that Castle’s stealing of the shoes was a bit out of character at the moment (run in with Brandon at school, seeking of Coach’s approval, already messing up once, could’ve just asked Mom, etc). Your response to my three paragraph post: “Sometimes kids to stupid stuff.”

        I posted evidence from the text that made me question Castle’s voice and how well it jives with his home situation. There were times he sounded like a kid living in poverty and times he didn’t. My post was roughly 5 paragraphs long and your response: “Eh, it was pretty clear he’s living in poverty.”

        My critique of Coach’s lack of setting Castle up for success by letting him run multiple practices in jeans and a sweatshirt and how very unrealistic this is (especially considering Coach’s insistence in the end that Castle just ask him to pay for the shoes) just went unaddressed or explored. Which is interesting because Castle’s stealing of the shoes is a major event in this story. It was rather unnecessary and contrived when you consider that Coach should have given him proper equipment from the onset. But no one wanted to touch this. Why?

        I asked questions of grammar and voice in compared to FULL OF BEANS and they weren’t addressed.

        I don’t really care. It’s fine. At the end of the day, I liked the book but not as much as others apparently. That’s fine. We all have different tastes. I just find it funny that you are acting like anyone with criticisms of the book are merely tossing the arguments of Team Ghost members out the window. Because in reality, I actually see and feel the exact opposite. In fact, myself and Anon aren’t really hanging on Reynolds’ appeal as much as you are implying as a reason people love this book. In fact, you implying it that, kind of cheapens the complaints we’ve tossed out there.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Thanks for your responses, Anon and Mr. H. It may seem like I am accusing you of something, and perhaps my tone was off, but I was really asking for clarification on the single issue of support being about the author rather than the book. WHEN YOU REACH ME, which Anon cited above, is a good comparison. It was her second book, her first being published a couple years previously. I never heard that it was about the author rather than the book. Never. As I said, with a relatively new author it makes no sense, and absent more information I leaped to the race conclusion. I believe I clearly state this is the way that I perceived it, and not necessarily the way that either or you intended it.

        I wouldn’t know about Jason Reynolds being abnormally popular on social media since I don’t frequent it very much. I do recall he gave a good speech at the CSK last year, so perhaps that is what you are referring to. Seems like a weird reason to like a book if you ask me.

        Since SAMURAI RISING and WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES are firmly ensconced on my ballot ahead of either Jason Reynolds title, I don’t think I have as much of a stake in this discussion. I’m happy to listen to arguments for against them.

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