Remember the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder? You may have read it in high school or seen it performed by a local theater company. In Our Town, one of the main characters, Emily, dies, and her ghost spends Act III of the play getting used to the idea that she's dead and observing the aftermath of her death on the lives of those she loved. Once she understands how her family and friends can move on without her, she can move on without them. It's a lovely play, rooted in early 20th century American values and the idea that human life is ephemeral.
Jewell Parker Rhodes's Ghost Boys (Little Brown, 2018) is a 21st century version of Our Town. In Ghost Boys, Emily is replaced by 12-year-old Jerome, a boy from the Chicago projects killed by a policeman who mistakes Jerome's toy gun for a real one. After his death, Jerome watches as the repercussions of his senseless murder are played out among his family members and his friend Carlos, as well as those he didn't know at all, the family of the cop who killed him. Also like Emily in Our Town, Jerome is guided by other ghosts, in his case, the "ghost boys" who were all killed because of the color of their skin. The leader of the ghost boys is Emmett Till, the 15-year-old murdered in Mississippi in 1955 by white men who were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury. Emmett helps Jerome see how his death is rooted in the racism that has plagued our country since its inception, racism that robs families of their sons and brothers in a way that is also uniquely American.
There's an otherworldly quality to Jewell Parker Rhodes's writing in Ghost Boys , an unearthly atmosphere that she creates with her words. It makes for a mesmerizing reading experience. It's not a scary read; rather, it's a book that whispers. But it whispers fiercely. Jerome's grandmother tells Carlos and Jerome's sister Kim: "Can't undo wrong. Can only do our best to make things right." That means bearing witness, telling the stories of the ghost boys, and understanding that "(o)nly the living can make the world better."
Ghost Boys is an astounding book that should be required reading in middle school classrooms and homes. Rarely have I been so affected by a story that I run out and tell language arts teachers about it the day after I finish it. But that's what I did with Ghost Boys. It is the Our Town for our century: a century in which the problems of the past are still visited upon the youth of today; a century where the "American value" that leads to the deaths of our young, black boys must be made right by the living.
I used to watch the TV show House all the time, especially after it went into syndication. I remember vividly when "Thirteen," the doctor played by Olivia Wilde, was faced with the dilemma of whether or not she should take the genetic test and find out if Huntington's Disease was in her future. Thirteen, aka Dr. Remy Hadley, was a woman walking on the razor's edge; deciding whether or not to find out if she was going to succumb to that horrific disease had her, understandably, in knots. She was terrified to find out but just as terrified not to know.
So, imagine coping with that kind of decision and its aftermath as an 18-year-old. That's the dilemma facing Tovah and Adina, the twin high school seniors in Rachel Lynn Solomon's moving novel You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone (Simon Pulse, 2018). Adina, a viola prodigy, and Tovah, whose main goal in life is to go to Johns Hopkins and become a doctor, do take the test, do find out the results, do have to come to terms with the consequences. How can 18-year-olds possibly confront their futures once they know who will live and who will die?
The Siegel sisters tell their stories in alternating chapters. Both girls are protagonists here, despite Adina's best efforts to be the antagonist. She tries her darnedest to ruin her sister's life, but her attempts to do so are just as much about self-pity as they are about hurting Tovah. Turns out, the only antagonist here is Huntington's Disease, which has already struck the girls' mother and turned their beloved Ima (Hebrew for "mother") into someone they barely recognize. One of the twins sees her future before her in the everyday struggles and inevitable decline of their mother. The other must live with the guilt of knowing she will not be struck by the disease, but will instead have to watch as another immediate family member deteriorates.
The sisters do not turn to one another for support after receiving their test results. They've hurt one another badly in the recent past and those wounds are still raw. Instead, Tovah seeks solace in her Jewish faith and her new boyfriend, artist/kind-kid/ubiquitous space-between-his- front-teeth-that-just-makes-him-cuter Zack. Adina tries to force true love into her relationship with her older viola teacher and contemplates suicide. She deludes herself about a number of things, as an 18-year-old is apt to do, so her story has a lot more edge and pathos than Tovah's. As I read, I kept wanting the sisters to just get everything out in the open to clear the air between them, but Solomon continually pushes the girls together and pulls them apart in a way that I found both poignant and frustrating. Fellow young adults will admire, relate to, and scorn this dance all at once, as young adults are apt to do.
You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone contains sex, sexual references, foul language, and all of the other trappings of a very real teenage life today. There's also quite a bit of transliterated Hebrew, which may annoy people who do not speak the language (I'm glad I do, so I didn't have to constantly stop my reading to find out what the girls and their parents were saying to one another). In any case, Tovah and Adina end up teaching one another lots of life lessons as they struggle to come to terms with their future selves. And they are, in the end, the antidote for one another's ails, which they do figure out. But not until after they put one another, and the reader, on the emotional roller coaster ride of late adolescence. Highly recommended.
I'm pretty sure that Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang were thinking about me when they wrote This is Just a Test (Scholastic, 2017). Yeah, they definitely were. They know just how I felt in 1983, when we (meaning everyone I knew) believed that the Cold War was about to culminate in nuclear war. As a junior in high school, I stared slack-jawed at the television screen while watching a movie called The Day After. They were showing us on national TV what was going to happen when the Soviets dropped the bomb. For a kid with an anxiety disorder (then undiagnosed because, well, 1983), The Day After churned up every feeling of terror, panic, and twitchiness possible.
So, This is Just a Test had me hooked from page 1.
David Da-Wei Horowitz is your typical, 12-year-old, half-Chinese, half-Jewish kid in 1983. He's awkward. He can't utter a simple sentence around the girl he likes. His little sister is annoying. But David has bigger fish to fry than these hum-drum worries of adolescence. His bar mitzvah is coming up and his grandmothers are about to kill each other. Oh, and he's digging a fallout shelter in his friend's yard, scrambling to finish before the Soviets drop the big one. Now that he has watched The Day After, that possibility is always in the back of David's mind. It's hard to concentrate on your schoolwork and your Torah portion when you're faced with potential annihilation.
This is Just a Test follows David's trials and tribulations as he straddles two cultures and navigates the troubled waters of middle school life. He and his best friend Hector are Trivial Pursuit afficianados and become members of a trivia tournament team with BMOC (Big Man on Campus) Scott. For reasons that don't become apparent until later in the story, Scott doesn't want to include Hector in his and David's half-baked plan to dig a fallout shelter. So, David finds himself playing intermediary, a role he performs at home, too. Both his maternal and paternal grandmothers hover and fuss and generally try to make David embrace one ethnicity over another. David is remarkably poised when it comes to his grandmothers, a little less so when it comes to his friends. David's parents are part of the story, too, but it's his grandmothers and his pals who are the focus of most of his energies.
The "test" of the title takes on multiple meanings as David careens through seventh grade. His friends test his loyalty and judgment. His grandmothers test his patience and mediation skills. And, of course, the Emergency Broadcast System tests its reach as its warnings blare across everyone's TV screens. David does his best with all of these tests, and he comes off as a totally authentic 12-year-old: questioning his own decisions and those of his family and friends, building confidence, and making his voice heard. Of course, we know that the world is not coming to an end in 1983, but David dauntlessly faces all of his life-changing moments with aplomb, or at least, a brave face.
One of the things I love best about This is Just a Test is its sensitivity to both the Jewish and Chinese cultures represented in the story. No one is a stereotype (though I certainly recognized my own mother in David's Safta), and neither culture comes off as more appealing than the other. David embraces his heritage on both sides, and though they sometimes exhaust him, his grandmothers are kind-hearted, loving women, each of whom has a lasting influence on David's life.
This is Just a Test reminds me a lot of Gary Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars, a book that I adore for its humor and shrewdness. The book will appeal to middle grade boys and girls alike, though the looming threat of nuclear war may frighten some, considering the state of international relations today.