Sunday, August 16, 2020

Review Bomb | Jewell Parker Rhodes


I discovered Jewell Parker Rhodes in the early days of putting together the #BlackLivesMatter Reading List that continues to grow thanks to so many sending me great recommendations. I was directed toward Ghost Boys, and from there sought out additional work by the author. There are still a couple I have yet to read, but I wanted to share the ones I have read so far.

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Jerome is murdered at age twelve by a police office who mistakes the toy gun in his hand for a real one. The gun belonged to Jerome's friend, who let him take it home to play with. The story is told in befores and afters, as the narration follows Jerome's life to its end, and beyond. As a ghost he can only watch as his family struggles to go on after his death, and what it means for their community that another young Black boy has died at the hands of the police.

The story take a further interesting twist when Jerome discovers that Sarah, the daughter of the officer, can see him. This leaves Jerome very conflicted as he interacts more and more with Sarah.

Jerome also meets the ghost of Emmett Till, and learns about this whole army of Ghost Boys, children who have been murdered. Tamir Rice is mentioned in the story as well, and it is clear that the story is based on that very murder. Emmett helps Jerome understand what happened to him, how and why. The lesson on historical systemic racism is made a bit more understandable for younger readers.

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Deja attends a new school as a 5th grader, keenly aware of how different she is from her classmates in terms of financial stability. Even so, Deja loves to learn and though at times she is ready to give up, she doesn't. Her teacher begins a unit on community, and references the Twin Towers many times. Deja knows nothing about this event, as the story is set fifteen years after September 11. With her new friends Sabeen and Ben, Deja sets out to find out why talk of the towers sets her father off, why he reacts as he does to the mention of that day, and why he struggles so much to just to be present.

The perspective of these children is captured perfectly - how do you explain such a horrific event to people who were not even alive at the time? Every year in September 11 (and the day after, usually, because there is so much to talk about) I have discussions with my students about it and what it means. It is difficult to explain and truly articulate how drastically life was altered, but it is critical, and this book does a wonderful job for younger readers.


Yet again Rhodes weaves a beautiful and heartbreaking story set against the backdrop of yet another dark time in the recent history of our nation.

Lanesha lives with Mama Ya-Ya in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. Mama Ya-Ya is her caretaker, though not related by blood - yet that makes no difference. Despite her age, Mama Ya-Ya does everything she can to make sure Lanesha knows she is loved and cared for. Mama Ya-Ya is able to see the future and she has a troubling vision of a hurricane bearing down quickly on their tight-knit community. Given the title of the book, one knows immediately that this is Katrina, even if it were not mentioned by name. Lanesha must use all the gifts Mama Ya-Ya has given her - strength, courage, hope, perseverance - in order to survive.


Truth be told, I was incredibly surprised that I did not quite care for this one nearly as much as I have all of Rhodes' others so far. Typically she is spot-on with her story-telling and attention to historical detail, but I found I had a hard time with Sugar. She is a ten year old orphan, living on the sugar plantation where her mom and dad met while enslaved. Her father was sold and never returned to River Road (the plantation) after the Civil War ended. Sugar's mother passed away a few years later, prior to the beginning of the book.

My main struggle was that Sugar's behavior would not have been remotely acceptable and despite adults both Black and white yelling at her for acting the way she did, there was no follow-through. This sounds weird, I am sure, and I'm glad there was no follow-through, but it was not realistic compared to what we know of life in the South during Reconstruction in 1870. This was surprising to be, given the fact that Rhodes is such a fantastic storyteller with an eye for accurate historical details.

The day comes when new workers are brought to the plantation from China by way of British Guiana. The former slaves are worried that the men from China will replace them in the planting and harvesting of the sugarcane that the Wills family depends on to maintain their wealth. Sugar, naturally, is enamored by the new arrivals and despite being repeatedly told to stay away from them, she finds she wants to learn all she can.

Sugar wants to see the world, to go somewhere, anywhere, to a new life. She manages to bring the vastly different cultures together, and the older residents of River Road are relieved to find they can work together. Even the plantation owner's son Billy, who Sugar was fond of as a playmate even though they were forbidden to see each other, decides to work in the field during the harvest, despite the fact that his mother and father stand there yelling at him to get in the house. The kids in this story just behaved so out-of-characters for what one would expect of nineteenth century children of both races.

This was a part of history I knew nothing of - that many men came from China to work on plantations after the Civil War ended and Reconstruction was on-going. Rhodes details this in her note at the end, and I will definitely be looking for more info on this subject in the future.


What I appreciate most is that Rhodes writes so beautifully about really terrible events and time periods, and does so in a way that will help young readers understand the importance of those very topics. Her books would be appropriate for middle grade, starting at 5th. In all I have read so far, real events serve as the basis for Rhodes' stories and she masterfully brings characters to life so realistically, it is sometimes hard to believe the stories are fiction.

Highly recommended.


  1. What a great find! These all sound very good.

  2. it's great that up-to-date material is available to kids... it's seems hardly possible that it's been almost 20 years since 9/11... it's really true that after 40 time accelerates...

    1. It really is mind-boggling. I was a freshman in college, and watched the second tower fall live on television. I will never forget that day as long as I live.

  3. YES!!! Thank you for sharing these books! It gives me such hope to see that this kind of representation is around for our kids to read and see. I know these stories would have greatly helped me have a wider perspective as a young person.

    On another note, I hope you and Ellie are staying safe as the school year begins. Most of my friends who are still in education have thankfully gone to a virtual only model to start the year, so I hope you guys have been able to do the same.

    1. I have found some really great Black, African-American, and BIPOC children's, MG, and YA authors who I am super excited to share about.

      We are doing okay. My school is fully virtual for the first quarter, E goes every other day to her school. It makes me nervous, and I feel like the risk is not worth it, but she loves her teacher so much and her class, and just being back in school.

  4. Ahahaha! I get it now! When you mentioned that you posted a "bomb" review, I thought you meant it in a negative way. I didn't realize that it was a bombardment of reviews.

    The first two books that you mentioned really sound interesting. Plus, I like the covers.

    1. Haha, yep! I do this especially with middle grade and elementary books. Sometimes YA, depending on the book/author. I really like this author a lot and Ghost Boys was so good, even though it was awful because the story is all too real. Towers Falling was also really great because it is easy to forget that there is this whole new generation that has never known the world any differently. I was a freshman in college on Sept 11 and my students today were not even born for another ten years after it happened.


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