AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Jewell Parker Rhodes

    Jewell Parker Rhodes

    GHOST BOYS

    ORION CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    MAY 2018


    GHOST BOYS is a powerful and emotional novel from US writer JEWELL PARKER RHODES that explores the devastating impact that a 12-year-old boy's death has on his family, and on the family of the police officer who shot him. The story is narrated by the child himself, Jerome, but it is not just his death that the reader comes to mourn but all the black children who have been killed over the past decades.

    GHOST BOYS is a thoughtful and hugely rewarding novel that could be shared and discussed as a class read for year 6 upwards.

    Author JEWELL PARKER RHODES told us more about why she wrote the book, and what she hopes the reader will take away from it:


    Q: Can you explain why you wanted to write the story of Ghost Boys, about a black child being killed by a white police officer?

    A: Every child everywhere deserves to have a childhood. It is a betrayal of innocence and trust when adults who have a responsibility to protect and nurture children instead harm or murder them. This is tragic. Yet, as a writer I believe words have the power to shape the world. I believe today's youth are going to make the world better. These two beliefs inspire me to write about resilience and to mirror children's unlimited capacity for compassion, empathy, and love.


    Q: How did you decide to tackle such a difficult subject for child readers?

    A: It seemed like almost monthly a young black child was being killed but the murder of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin really impacted me. I have a black son and I had to give him the "talk" - namely, police and others may see him as a threatening stereotype. Even though he is the sweetest, kindest young man in the world. He's studying to be a nurse.


    Q: Why does the story begin with 12-year-old Jerome's death, and with the focus of the story on what happens afterwards alongside the flashbacks to the run-up to Jerome's death?

    A: By having the death first, I ask people to focus on the narrative of Jerome "bearing witness", searching for someone to hear his story. As an author I "bear witness," my characters "bear witness," and I know my readers will "bear witness" to the belief that everyone's story needs to be told and in the telling, we can cauterise grief and pain and transform it into a force for good.


    Q: You also provide flashbacks of the events leading up to Jerome's death, why was it important to have this?

    A: The flashbacks show the full, generous life Jerome led at school and with his loving family. The courtroom flashbacks demonstrate how the police officer really was unconsciously racially biased. He insists that a 5 foot kid was a big, hulking, scary man. He says: "I feared for my life". Jerome believes he's lying but then wonders if you believe something is a truth so much - does it become an actual truth for the officer?


    Q: How difficult was it to develop Jerome and Emmett Till, a black child killed in the 1950s, in the story as 'ghosts boys'.

    A: Emmett Till was especially difficult because books and web-based media always insinuated that Emmett as a 14 old, was somehow responsible for his murder. They said he may have whistled at Ms. Carolyn Bryant, the storekeeper. He may have assaulted, pushed her against a wall., whistled
    at her, and said, "Heh, baby". I always suspected this was untrue.

    Ghost Boys was in copy-editing, when Mrs. Bryant admitted that she lied about Emmett physically and verbally assaulting her. Ghost Boys "bears witness" to the truth of Emmett's undoubtable innocence.


    Q: The ghost boys' intention is to try to prevent what happened to them from happening to others, to ask the living to 'bear witness' - as does the police officer's child, Sarah. Is this also how you see your role as the author of Ghost Boys?

    A: Absolutely! Storytelling is the human discourse that unites and inspires us all. Young readers will "live and make the world better". They will tell their own powerful stories. And because of the example of booksellers, teachers, and parents, they will hand a book to their future children. And another generation, future books may indeed fulfill Jerome's admonition -
    "Don't let me/(Or anyone else)/Tell this tale again/Peace out/Ghost Boy".


    Q: The characters celebrate those who have died in the Day of the Dead. Why was it important for you to have this celebration in the novel?

    A: I wanted to show the kinship between Hispanic and African tradition regarding ancestors and a belief in the dead. Because of his cultural beliefs in ancestors and Day of the Dead rituals, Carlos already has a friendship with Jerome that extends beyond life. It was exciting to me that Carlos's
    Hispanic traditions mirrored Jerome's Grandmother's African diasporic belief that "Every goodbye ain't gone". Throughout the world honouring the dead is a cultural theme. Over a million African slaves were in colonial Mexico and their afterlife beliefs may have influenced Day of the Dead and
    vice versa.


    Q: How did the writing of this book compare with others you have written?

    A: Writing Ghost Boys was challenging and emotional. Emmett Till was murdered when I was one, as a woman and a mother of a black son, I've had my own challenges with discrimination, and as a grandmother, I still live in a time when black boys and men can be murdered due to racism or racial
    biases. Before I could "bear witness" to tragedy, I had to experience my own catharsis.

    I first wrote twenty-seven pages and said, "That's it. I'm done with the novel". Then after several weeks, I'd dive back into the novel and write another ten pages. Then, I'd repeat, "That's it. I'm done!" Over a two year period, the novel grew in increments with long breaks in between in which
    I read volumes on discrimination and felt sorrow. I had to experience my own painful journey in order to experience and reaffirm transformative love for our common humanity. I felt such a special obligation because I was writing for youth. My novel makes a space for strong emotions but doesn't
    slay hope, optimism, and celebrates the inherent power in each child "to be and make the change".


    Q: You have included notes and discussion ideas in the final pages of Ghost Boys, do you feel it is important that children share and discuss what they have read in these pages?

    A: My hope is always to create "safe places" for children to talk about difficult subjects with their parents and teachers.


    Q: What would you like your readers - child and adult - to take away from Ghost Boys?

    A: I hope young readers will feel inspired and know that their thoughts and feelings matter. By their presence and their actions, young readers can make (and are making) the world a better place.


    Q: How much hope do you have that things will change for African American children in the next generation?

    A: I am an optimistic. Though I write about tough subjects, kids know that my stories are also infused with kindness, hope and, ultimately, empowers them. As the ghost boy Jerome says: "Only the living can make the world better. Live and make it better". That is the clarion call I believe all
    children want to hear: "Live...Make the world better".


    Q: Are there other subjects that you plan to bear witness to, as an author? What are you writing now?

    A: I'm writing about mixed race communities and biracial children and fencing! Ah, ha! Alexander Dumas, an African French man, is an inspiration.


    Q: Where do you write and how does your writing day go?

    A: I write at a tall desk with my two toy sheepdogs sleeping beneath me. I stare out the window a lot and some of my best ideas come from dreams/nightmares. Also, walking the dogs my mind creates. I spend more hours thinking/dreaming than writing. Some days I don't write at all.

    Q: What are your favourite recent reads?

    A: Mary's Monster by Lita Judge. It is an illustrated novel in verse about Mary Shelley.