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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Powerful, Gripping, Important, and Timely — but Is It Distinguished?

ghostboysGhost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes has 8 nominations from Heavy Medal readers and is described by reviewers as powerful, gripping, important, and timely.  It is definitely all that, and then some: disturbing, harsh, emotionally challenging, and improbable (?).

From the first page when readers see through Jerome’s eyes his small, dead, blood stained body, with all the details (eyes wide open, arms outstretched, cheeks pressed against snowy ground), we know that this is going to be a tough story to follow.

And it is.  Jerome does not even get a break before his tragic ending: bullied, isolated, fearful are some words that describe his circumstance.  Although there are loving family members, their care does little to improve Jerome’s quality of life.

Rhodes relies heavily on the supernatural device to tell this story, and explains away quickly why only Sarah, the daughter of the police responsible for Jerome’s death, could see him and how Jerome, as a “ghost boy” appears at just the right places and right times to capture the pivotal development of the story following his death and the trial of the cop.

I am still oscillating between admiring the author’s craft, utilizing a straightforward narrative tone that matches Jerome’s young age, and angry at the author of emotionally manipulating me with scenes like the marching of all the “ghost boys.”  The latter makes me ultra critical toward certain authorial choices — I find the entire set up of Jerome playing with a fake gun in the snow by himself on that fatal day utterly unconvincing and the way the story is linked to Emmett Till’s murder convenient for didactic purposes.  If it is contrived, didactic, and manipulating, then perhaps it is not distinguished?

What do you all think?

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Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at roxannefeldman@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. I am one of the people who nominated GHOST BOYS. I will be back later to make my case for it in detail, but right now I have a sincere question. How can the circumstances of Jerome’s death be unconvincing and improbable when they mirror almost exactly the way Tamir Rice was killed?

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      It’s a work of literature, an interpretation. It’s not a story about Tamir Rice, even if it informed by it. That said, I don’t think Roxanne (nor I) questioned the specific circumstances of Jerome’s death as far as the toy gun being perceived as a real gun goes. As she notes, the author depends “on the supernatural device to tell the story.” Does that device work as it co-mingles with more realistic events?

      • I was questioning the authorial choices that put Jerome in that specific circumstance — Jerome, who has been very careful about not playing in that spot, who has no prior transgression disobeying the directives form his loved ones, but who was given a toy gun and urged to play with it by himself in an abandoned lot by someone he’s only very recently met. (I do understand that there is a strong, instant bond, between the two boys…)

        I am, however, not questioning the fact that young black and brown kids are being gunned down by the police regularly for nothing more than what Jerome was doing in that empty lot.

        And, I am not quite questioning the supernatural device, either — I think that is a choice form the author, which I respect, but I wonder about the success of that particular device.

  2. Julie Corsaro says:

    I appreciated Jewell’s poetic writing style, which I think is “distinguished.” I also liked the concise chapters, which make the timely topic of police violence against unarmed black boys accessible to a younger audience than similarly themed books like All American Boys and The Hate U Give. I also appreciated that Parker Rhodes uses Tim Tyson’s recent work correcting past misrepresentations regarding the tragic and brutal death of Emmett Till to tell the teen’s story at the book’s conclusion. It’s fair to say that I liked the beginning and ending best. I found the story thought provoking, but like Roxanne, didactic. I didn’t buy the storyline with the new “best friend” Carlos and the kumbaya moment near the end when all is easily forgiven by Jerome’s family. I suppose Sarah exists for an object lesson, but I’m not sure that her everyday life as a cop’s kid would have been much better than Jerome’s, even in a city as segregated as Chicago (as a result, I didn’t find the the intersection of race and class successful). While I realize that the Newbery is NOT for kid appeal, I think this book has the potential to be popular with middle school students.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      That’s funny – I haven’t gone back to this book since my initial read, so my memory is fuzzy, but I noted to myself on Goodreads: “Most of the book is strong. . . but I was not quite sold on the beginning and end in particular.”

      • Julie Corsaro says:

        Also, Leonard: do your notes reveal what you saw as the book’s strengths besides how it reminds you of the “topical specificity” of a classic like A Christmas Carol?

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    Roxanne, your reservations about GHOST BOYS seem fairly high-level. You object to the choice of particular scenes and setups, while admiring craft and narrative tone. I’d be curious what you’d consider an exemplary “similar” book. (I know you didn’t love Hate U Give either. Another similar book might be Cooper’s Ghost Hawk.) GHOST BOYS reminded me a little of A Christmas Carol in its topical specificity and, of course, ghosts. Dickens’ immortal classic could also be considered “contrived, didactic, and manipulating.” Many books are intentionally so and don’t particularly try to hide it. What Christmas Carol-like books find your favor? Eric Carpenter often makes the argument that it doesn’t matter what the book does but how well it does it. I don’t always agree, but it might be relevant here. I am on the fence about this book, sharing some of your reservations, but thinking about those reservations, I think I could be talked out of them.

    • As I said — I am totally undecided on Ghost Boys. On the one hand, I think there is success in creating emotional reaction in the reader — and yet, I am not sure what reader would not react strongly and emotionally to the situation presented in the book. So, then, I went to the next tier of examination, namely, after the initial reaction of shock, dismay, and anger, what do I see in the book that makes or breaks it? To me, the setup of how Jerome is found by the cops as the lone black youth in a place where he’s never been alone before with a realistic looking toy gun given to him (insistently) by someone who is very new in his life stretches credibility by a lot. And since it is such an important part of the narrative, it definitely gives me pause.

      As for Dickens — I wonder if his narrative device of basing many turns of events on coincidences (there is even the term Dickensian Coincidence) would not be scrutinized and thought as unsophisticated storytelling ploy in today’s literary critique standard.

  4. Julie Corsaro says:

    That’s funny!

  5. I like the comparison of GHOST BOYS to A CHRISTMAS CAROL, a story in which the ghosts have more personality than the living characters. Yet, it makes me sad to think that Emmett Till, who had such a violent death, has not found peace 65 years later.
    Like Roxanne and Leonard, I also am undecided about the book. It frames the issue of hate and violence in our country as white vs black people. But recent events (Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks) demonstrate a broader issue. One of the things I find satisfying in LITTLE CHARLIE is the view that both whites and blacks are victimized by an inequitable system.

  6. I had a hard time getting past Jerome sounding much younger than 12 years old.

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      Around the time I read Ghost Boys last spring, I read a review of picture books by Linda Sue Park in the New York Times. She begins: “Many practitioners and pundits caution sternly against didacticism in books for children, a stance I find puzzling. Why write for young readers if you don’t feel you have something of value to convey to them? It’s true, however, that the stories children cherish most elevate story and character over preaching.” Based on Kat’s comment about Jerome “sounding much younger than 12 years old” and Roxanne’s initial depiction of Jerome as primarily a victim even before his tragic death, I’m not sure we have a fully-fleshed out character here. Perhaps, we get to know Jerome a little more after his death through his affectionate and grieving family. Or, perhaps, we get to know Jerome’s bereaved relatives a little bit through their reactions to Jerome’s death.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        “I’m not sure we have a fully-fleshed out character here”: yes, I think that might be it. Jerome is more interesting in the flashbacks that lead up to his death, and his environment is captured well in those narratives. As a ghost, though, he’s more of a helpless observer. Which all makes sense, since he can only be helpless and only observe as a ghost. But to the reader (well, to me at least), it’s a little off-putting to have two threads that feel so different. I became less engaged in Jerome’s pre-death narrative as the book shifted to the bigger historical themes. Eventually Jerome realized: “I understand now. Everything isn’t all about me.” (147) And clearly, it’s not meant to be all about Jerome, he’s just the vehicle. But somehow I feel like the interplay between Jerome’s story and that of the others was too deliberate. The themes come through for sure, but not as seamlessly as they might have.

      • Jerome’s character development was what kept me from loving this book. I agree, he’s made to feel like a victim before the story really even begins (which I suppose may have been a deliberate authorial choice) but because of his ghost-like state, he spends much of the story confused and angry. More flashbacks to Jerome alive would have allowed the reader to maybe connect with him a little bit more as a character but as it is, we empathize with him solely because of his death and not necessarily because of his character.

  7. I just read this excellent blog post by Zetta Elliott about Ghost Boys. It seems to be related to the question of whether or not it’s distinguished for a child audience. My Mock Newbery kids asked when they read it why it had to be a white girl who could see Jerome, and I think that’s an important question to ask.

    http://www.zettaelliott.com/heal-thyself/

  8. I have not been able to read this book yet (as it pubbed early in the year and so isn’t among the BG-HB books I do need to read), but for those who have — have any of you also read Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk and, if so, are there any commonalities?

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Monica, I referred to Ghost Hawk above as a “similar” book. I would say yes definitely the same things to think and talk about with both books. Though I remember Ghost Hawk as being told chronologically, and I wonder whether, had GHOST BOYS done the same, some of the concerns expressed above about characterization and interplay of threads might have been alleviated.

  9. I read the beginning of GHOST BOYS many months ago, found it concerning for many of the reasons stated here, and then set it aside unfinished as I’d read enough to do a decent job of reader recommendation in the bookshop. So I don’t want to comment on Ghost Boys specifically but rather the issue of didactic books.
    Does anyone know when didactic elements were first singled out as negative qualities in children’s books? I have always found the aversion to the didactic odd. Most books for readers of any age are didactic. It’s very hard write and not to have a world view on the page. And as the quote from Linda Sue Park suggests, why would you want a book to be morally neutral? And why do we assume kids don’t like them. Like any other plot element, some kids like it and some don’t. Some adults like a book to have a clear and persuasive moral center. Some don’t.
    I think it’s also important to remember that many oral and written traditions come from a place of strong didacticism. One of the most authentic-sounding books I’ve read in recent memory is IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CRAZY HORSE by Joseph Marshal III. It was authentic because it was didactic. Grandpa Nyles sounded exactly like all the grandparents at the reservation school where I used to teach–the overt instructional tone, the gentleness, the humor, the willingness to ask their grandkids to do hard things. All of it. The entire premise of the book is didactic.
    If we always characterize overt instruction as bad in a literary sense then we exclude many written traditions, American Indian, Pacific Islander and many others. If we are looking for why POC books have tended not to win awards this might be a reason.
    I don’t have a formed opinion about GHOST BOYS, so I’ll just listen and learn on that one, but let’s not be quick to dismiss a book with a didactic tone or structure, lest we exclude narratives we should be listening to.

    • Expressing a world view, having a moral leaning, or illustrating certain messages are not the same, to me, as being simply didactic. Yes, the dictionary definitions might lump these all together as synonyms with each other, but the word “didactic” has obtained an unflattering undertone. A work of literature becomes problematically didactic when the author’s skills/craftsmanship takes a backseat and the lessons become both prominent and overt. I’d say that one of the most “moral” or “humanistically deep” Newbery winners is Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and yet, it feels organic with a highly polished prose and many well-rounded and fully developed characters, sprinkled with abundance of humor, melancholy, magical elements, and emotional connections between characters and between the characters and the readers. Thus, it’s not merely didactic. There are so many lessons to be learned in The Graveyard Book — but the readers have to work at all the delicious take-aways. The author is not telling the readers outright what to think and how to feel and thus avoids being overtly didactic. Make sense?

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      The criteria states that the Newbery Medal “is not for didactic content or popularity.” I don’t know (someone might) if it has always been a part of the criteria or if it was added later. Together with the diversity statement in the Newbery manual, the topic of didacticism might make for a compelling opening essay in The Newbery and Caldecott Awards: A Guide to the Medal and Honor Books, which is updated annually.

      • Hannah Mermelstein says:

        That in and of itself does not say that didactic content or popularity is bad, just that the award shouldn’t be given just because all your students are reading it or because you like its didactic message. But are there other parts of the manual that actually make a negative argument about didactic content? I seem to remember people here arguing that in the past.

    • Julie Corsaro says:

      Regarding didactic elements as “negative qualities,” I think the notion that children’s books didn’t have to be primarily didactic or moralistic emerged in the 19th century and took off in the 20th.

    • Here’s the way I interpret the criteria…

      Being didactic isn’t a bad thing. We just can’t factor in what the book is being didactic about when we are talking about its Newbery worthiness. I have been guilty of this at times, making comments like “This book is too didactic” and it’s taken me awhile to fully understand the criteria. But that is the way I interpret it now.

      Furthermore, all books are didactic to some degree. Some have more of a timeless, social or moral theme. Some are more relevant and politically charged. But that isn’t a bad thing. When assessing a book’s merit and stacking it up against the criteria though, we can’t award a book for its message or what it’s being didactic about. We have to analyze it’s literary quality.

      The way that I feel that being overly didactic CAN impact a Newbery discussion is through character development and plot development. Or if the story and literary quality suffer in an effort at hammering home a message by the author. HARBOR ME is a good example. I believe this book was intentionally didactic and placed its message or theme over its characters and story. Since characters and plot are Newbery criteria, we discuss those things. We cannot discuss HARBOR ME’s message.

  10. Julie Corsaro says:

    In response to Hannah: the criteria are written in a way to be open to interpretation (after all, the committee is being asked to judge). As a result, the committee could certainly discuss the meaning of both “didactic content” and “popularity.” While I don’t think they are the same thing, it might be interesting to discuss popularity in relationship to the edict that the book “displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.”

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