Ghost Boys: A Book Review from the Soul

It's been a while since I have blogged but now I am back. Sounds a bit cryptic but to be honest, taking a break is often necessary to clear the mind and rejuvenate the spirit and that is exactly what I have done over this holiday season. I travelled, spent quality time with my husband in the beautiful island of Malta, celebrated with my lovely boys and enjoyed being looked after by my mother who visited from Jamaica. But during this festive period, I always find time to read, wherever and whenever I can. Not just to read, but to observe. I learn a lot through simply taking in the world around me and really looking at human behaviour. During my time abroad, I looked at the dynamics of the island.

We were collected by an English expat taxi driver who raved about the safety and tranquillity of his new life in Malta as he drove us to our hotel. We were excited having booked ourselves into the Radisson Blu in Golden Sands and the sheer luxury of it all seemed a just reward on our 14th anniversary. We did it all and we saw as much as we could. While meandering through the limestone narrow lanes of Valletta, I began to notice the Maltese dynamics. The links to Roman and Sicilian history were strong and evidently celebrated but somehow the history of the Moors who occupied the island for over 60 years seemed less significant. The population looked Sicilian with a few migrant faces scattered throughout. I saw some Chinese in a restaurant where we had a buffet lunch and a few Indians on the buses who seemed to be working in hotels from their dress but every African inhabitant I saw seemed to be either roaming the streets (one was preaching about repentance on the top of his voice) or travelling with closed body language and haggard faces moving from one labouring job or place to the other. Those black faces like mine and my husband's, were not on holiday, not smiling, not observing but ferreting, moving silently, resting wearily on palms or hoping not to be seen.

I learned later that many were illegal immigrants who arrived there by boats. Those I saw in jobs were earning the minimum and looked at us with either relief or curiosity. I watched the Maltese interactions with migrants. It seemed distant (save one old man by the ferry to Mdina who shared a cigarette with an African man). In fact, the Maltese almost looked right through them no matter the race. I saw very few black women and the few I saw stared at me like I was a ghost. Very few interacted with us. We seemed too comfortable both in ourselves and amongst the local people to those on the island. It really made me appreciate that I resided in a country where opportunity for economical and social upliftment was possible even if not always equal. I realised one thing though - perhaps I was too much in my comfort zone - stuck in my own kind of privilege that removed me from the plight of others. My desire for empathy forced reflection and I recalled Rob Gray's essay 'Reading for displeasure: Why bother with social accounting at all?' I needed to widen my understanding, deepen my human connections and critique my own comprehension. In doing so I decided to go for texts this season that was not my typical go to material.

Thanks to Brent Gilson's Facebook recommendation - I went for the text Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. In an act of cowardice I wanted to read up on everyone else's thoughts before I read it myself. Everything I read told me I needed this experience for myself but I must admit the subject matter made me nervous. So, I settled myself down with a cup of tea and read the book aloud to my husband. I told him I wanted to see if it would make a good book for greater depth teaching in a book club for year 6 and would love his opinion while I explore. (Truth is I love reading aloud and I felt safe with him to be vulnerable).

The cover is bold and the stop lights across the head of a black boy with upturned eyes seemed to warn me that this was no easy read. The blurb on the back is no blurb at all but a call to action: 'Only the living can make the world better. Live and make it better'. What is Jewell trying to do here? Hidden face and silhouette drove my desire to open the book and let myself slip into a space that felt it was about to suffocate me. The story of Jerome (a black boy who is killed by a white police officer while playing with a toy gun) is told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. The reader is torn between time and characters all tied together by Jerome's pointless death.

The images that thread the novel of life and death are a mirror of the play of opposites and oppositions, a true paradoxical story line laced with conflicting thoughts, emotions and beliefs about racial bias, bullying, police brutality, black lives and human misunderstandings. By the first 60 pages I knew this was not a book I could teach in year 6 without creating quite a stir. The text speaks openly about a very American 'hood' type existence with several references to drugs, one reference to domestic abuse with later references to metal detectors, drive by shootings, dealers and gangs both in and out of school and is deeply racial from the get go. It starts hard and does not get any easier with how racial difference and prejudice is openly examined and honestly spoken about through the eyes of a child killed out of fear.

The comparatives to the true story of Tamir Rice's death is evident. The way Jewell Parker tells the story is exceptional as she draws clear links with the tragic story of Emmet Till. Jerome is Tamir and Emmett is the leader of the ghost boys who acts as a window to the mourning souls of countless other black boys executed purely because of their colour. Emmett is also a spirit guide to the main character who watches his family pummel between sadness, anger, a drive for justice, powerlessness, emptiness, acceptance and restoration while creating a unique friendship with the daughter of his killer. The reader sees and feels the injustice of it all, shudders at the naivety of a 12 year old black boy in the hood playing with a toy gun, questions the meritless actions of unconscionable brutal policing and the American justice system that seems to justify such actions while leaving communities in turmoil. You are forced to reckon with the impact of racism on black, white and Mexican communities addressed in the book and the raw untreated emotions of children on all racial sides drew my tears. I say untreated because even by the end their experiences ring true as being simply - unfair.

By the end, I see my boys, my husband, my cousins, my uncles, my grandfathers all Jeromes and that broke my heart into many pieces. I see my mother, grandmothers... me wailing at lives lost, never to be restored all because the world may not understand, a policeman has a gun or someone with more social power got scared.

So was it all pain? No - the text carries hope throughout. Bullies become carers, cultures merge in harmony, friendships are formed in this life and the next, regret creates deeper bond, difference leads to understanding and those who see the injustice question and challenge the status quo. Jewell achieves her call to action beautifully. Ghost Boys serves as a memoir to the living to serve the wrongly dead justly, to do right by the memories of Tamir Rice, Emmett Till and several others executed because of racism and to close the gap of indifference and ignorance of the advantages and disadvantages between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' . The book does successfully 'bear witness' and is worth every read. It is worth reading for children by year 7 in the UK as a must teach in Literacy.

My question to schools - will you ever let us 'tell this tale' so the future can be made better for the good of us all? I am glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and I am happy to have walked with the Ghost Boys. Their story shall remain with me as I continue to give my best 'to each and every child.' Breaking barriers in text types breaks barriers in understanding. Literacy will always be the gateway to empathy.

Kala Williams is a Primary based Education Consultant specialising in the teaching of reading for able children who works across schools in Coventry, UK developing a rigorous approach for the teaching of group reading developed uniquely from years of successful practice while training professionals to deliver group reading using enriched teaching practices geared to move children to achieve Greater Depth in comprehension. Her company Bright I's is a fast growing consultancy born out of passion, research based approach and what actually works! Follow her on twitter @rogue_reading or reach out via email