Wednesday, January 11, 2017


It's been Jason Reynolds' year. I'm not sure there is a more popular name right now in children's literature. Reynolds came onto the scene a few years ago with a few killer YA titles (WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST, THE BOY IN THE BLACK SUIT, ALL AMERICAN BOYS) and garnered a lot of attention winning numerous literary awards. This year he released two middle grade fiction titles, AS BRAVE AS YOU and GHOST, and you will find both of them on most "Best of 2016" lists. AS BRAVE AS YOU is drawing comparisons to Christopher Paul Curtis's work (WATSON'S GO TO BIRMINGHAM primarily) and Reynolds' voice in GHOST is certainly similar, if not more edgy, electric, and raw. GHOST is the first title in a series Reynolds has planned, about a cast of characters on a middle school track team.

Castle Cranshaw cannot quite seem to get out of his own way. Ever since he and his mom left his father three years ago, it has been altercation after altercation in school. But after stumbling upon a group of kids his age practicing track, and impressing their coach, he is offered a spot on the team. Can Castle make the most of this opportunity and stay altercation-free in and out of school? 

There was a lot about GHOST that I liked. I liked that Reynolds has chosen to shine a spotlight on track. So often writers of children's sports literature choose to write stories about baseball, basketball, or football, to appeal to a wide range of kids. It was refreshing to see this sport featured in such a popular book. It should definitely fill a particular niche on library and classroom shelves.

I also enjoyed Castle's relationships with the various adults in the story. Castle loves his mother and understands her so well. He's realistically sympathetic to the hard work she puts into managing their life. He wants to protect her from his bad choices at school but is too impulsive to stop making bad choices. I liked his relationship with Mr. Charles, a grocery store owner too. Mr. Charles provided Castle and his mother with a place to hide from his father three years prior and Castle's obsession with sunflower seeds brings him back to Mr. Charles each day. But it's not really the sunflower seeds he's after. It's Mr. Charles's grandfatherly wisdom and friendship. Castle's relationship with Coach is the most powerful one in the story. For the first time in his life, someone besides his mother has taken an interest in making Castle's life meaningful. This resonates with Castle and he strives to impress Coach at every turn. 

Finally, I liked that Reynolds kept his story under 200 pages. That seems to be a rarity anymore in children's literature. Heck, Reynolds' other middle grade novel this year, AS BRAVE AS YOU is a whopper, coming in at 432 pages (hardcover edition). The plotting of GHOST is tightly structured and Castle narrates at a quick pace. Like the track topic, this was refreshing.

There are some things that frustrated me, however. Castle became a character I had a difficult time rooting for. There are moments where Castle is too smug and arrogant for his own good. I believe this was intentional on Reynolds' part, to show his insecurities, but I held back my empathy for him because of the voice. I also was a bit frustrated that things work out perfectly for Castle by the end of the story, given the mistakes he's made. I don't like the message this sends child readers. There is a moment near the story's climax where I applauded Coach's tough love. But a few flips of the page and it was all for nothing. All is forgiven, and even paid for! 

I was also bothered that Coach doesn't outfit Castle with the proper track gear after recruiting him. Having coached before, this seemed highly unlikely to me. After a few practices of Castle wearing jeans and worn out tennis shoes, it felt contrived (especially given Castle's horrendous decision later on) that Coach not offer Castle some proper practice gear. A man like Coach should be able to scrounge up a few t-shirts, or pairs of shorts, or old shoes. 

While Reynolds' talent is undeniable, personally, for me, GHOST didn't quite live up to the hype it has generated. It's still a good book and it should appeal to kids though. It's short and readable. It has a hopeful plot. Castle sounds like a real, contemporary kid and his first person narrative is definitely something fresh. And it's about track, a sport they don't read about every day. 

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